Hell’s Kitchen. Hell Gate. Richard Hell. The signs (and wonders) are everywhere. Abandon all hope: New York City is a living Hell of renegade capital, exploited labor, racial hatred, institutional misogyny, and bodega cats. You must say goodbye.
Or is it a neoliberal paradise, imperfect yet lovable, where capital and culture and rats roam free?
In recent times, the battle lines for this Cold War have been drawn by dueling essay collections, like Goodbye to All That vs. Never Can Say Goodbye. (Thankfully John Freeman’s beautifully careworn Tales of Two Cities avoids the question altogether.) Both collections have their merits and faults, and yet I can’t shake the notion that they’re actually the same book. You are saying goodbye; you can never say goodbye.
If New York City is truly a Dantean Inferno — and I’m inclined to think it is — what makes any of us believe that we can ever truly leave? The entire point of Hell is its inescapability, and New York is no different. You can leave it in body, sure; I’ve left several times. But you’ll come back. Or at least your mind will remain here, and you’ll still be writing essays about that time you told it to fuck off.
Even strong essays, with easy-to-locate opinions on the matter, like Rebecca Wolff’s “So Long, Suckers,” cave into an impossible dialectic of leaving/returning that suggests you are forever trapped in the insidiously gridded mindscape of New York City:
How can you help New York City to return to some of its former coolness? Leave it before you yourself are a chump, and perhaps by attrition it will rise again.
But what if you take this advice? What if you leave New York City so as to save it? What stops you from returning — in Mind, Body, or Spirit — when its coolness is regained? Even in martyrdom you’re still stuck in Hell.
Elsewhere, in poetry and the novel, the debate is one-sided. Even the titles of several major works of NYC fiction and poetry make it clear that the city is a living Hell of Dantean proportions, one that implies No Exit, now or ever. DeLillo’s Underworld points straight to Hell. Lethem’s Chronic City suggests an illness that may never leave your body. Eileen Myles’ Inferno: (A Poet’s Novel) just comes out and says it. With this in mind, I’ve assembled a range of quotations from major literary works that demonstrate, without fear of infamy, New York’s Hellish inescapability.
From Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho:
ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches forward in the traffic leaving Wall Street and just as Timothy Price notices the words a bus pulls up, the advertisement for Les Miserables on its side blocking his view…
From Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote, which was a dream:
“Why have you come back here?” daddy barked to me.
“New York is hell. You don’t know how hellish capitalism really is. Daddy I was wrong to leave here. I ran away to the city because I didn’t feel normal in a normal household and, wanting to be me, I wanted to express me. In the city, in order to stay alive, I sucked cocks while their owners held guns to my head. At the same time, I was scared. All the time I was so frightened of men, I kept running after men who might protect me, especially, cause I was so frightened of men I didn’t want anything to do with them, after men who didn’t want me. Love was rape and rejection. If I wasn’t loved, I couldn’t fit into this marketplace or world of total devaluation.”
From Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater
Now, Sabbath did not swallow these stories he continually heard characterizing New York as Hell, first, because every great city is Hell; second because if you weren’t interested in the gaudier abominations of mankind, what were you doing there in the first place?; and third, because the people he heard telling these stories—the wealthy of Madamaska Falls, the tiny professional elite and the elderly who’d retired to their summer homes there—were the last people on earth you’d believe about anything.
From Frederick Seidel’s The Cosmos Trilogy:
Note: The luxury poet Frederick Seidel — whose work mixes Robert Lowell, Frank O’Hara, and Satan in a witches brew — wrote his Cosmos Poems as a inverted Divine Comedy that opens in the Heavens (hence Cosmos) and ends in Hell, or New York City. Seidel’s immense personal wealth allows him to live in Hell, but it also lends him the rich, Mephistophelian knowledge of the finer things that make NYC so desirable.
Down here in hell we do don’t.
I can’t think of anything I won’t.
(If you don’t believe me that Seidel is the devil, listen to this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9jnnf0Mb8M)
A bolt of lightning drinking
A demon not afraid of happiness,
Asks me about my love life here in hell.
I lunge at what I understand I belong to.
I flee, too.
It’s her fate. It’s too late.
From Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland:
A man smoking a joint predicted that the city would go to hell. “I think you’re completely underestimating the situation,” he told me, even though I hadn’t voiced an estimate of any kind. “Basically we’re going back to a time before artificial light. Every nut out there is going to be acting under cover of darkness. You know what cover of darkness means? Do you have any idea at all?”
From Eileen Myles’ Inferno: (a Poet’s Novel)
I hated how the early fall weather could get in New York. You just didn’t have a chance. The buildings were really close and the sun was hot and it was humid in a way that simply made you feel filthy, no matter how clean you were. Years later I learned to love it. Cause you’d go down into the subway and you’d think you were in hell. For some reason I liked that. Though it took years. I think you just need more experience to understand hell as something possibly good.
From Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s War and War:
Note: All of Krasznahorkai’s novels feature angels, devils, idiots, and holy fools, so it only makes sense that, in War and War, his only NYC novel, he would send Korin, an angelic idiot-savant, to the Babel that is New York. Korin is a Cassandra figure who predicts endless Hell and the collapse of civil society in the city. Here NYC is shown to be a deadly loop beyond hopelessness.
Korin was slowing again—but actually that was not the right word, hopeless was somehow wrong, there was no way out of this deadly loop, since it was ready and fully functioning in its own way, and calling it hopeless was not going to foul up the works, quite the contrary, in fact, it would simply oil them, bring a constant shine to them, help them to function.