By Dubravka Ugrešić
209 pp. Open Letter Books. $16.
The America that Croatian writer Dubravka Ugrešić writes about in the collection of essays entitled “American Fictionary” is New York. There’s not a word about the West Coast, the Mountain West, the Midwest, the Southwest, the South, or even upstate New York, it’s all about the City.
Ask a New Yorker (that is, a resident of the City) or a non-New Yorker (a resident of anywhere else) whether New York City is representative of America and you’ll receive in return slight hesitation followed inevitably by the word, “No.”
I say this only to point out that Ugrešić’s “America” is a myth, or at least, greatly outdated. New York City is a country unto itself, it’s the epitome of the western city — some version of which can be found elsewhere both in North America as well as outside of it.
For my part, I have never understood the foreign obsession with the City. The only people who love New York as much as foreigners, it seems, are New Yorkers themselves. In a country riven with tribal lines, New York is a tribe all its own. I’ve known enough New Yorkers to know that in their minds the world consists of “The City” and “Outside.”
I’ve lived in a variety of different countries, but I visited the City for the first time last November. I already knew New York because I’ve watched TV before, a vast majority of which takes place in the City.
Unlike Paris, which famously has a syndrome named after it for people disappointed that The City of Lights fails to live up to the expectations built up over a lifetime of watching romantic French films, or whatever they’ve been watching, New York is exactly what the movies depict, which is to say, a big city.
If you’re a city mouse, one who goes slack-jawed at the sight of skyscrapers, it’s safe to presume that you’re going to love the City. With New York, you know exactly what you’re getting. Unlike Paris, there are no expectations of fairy tale magic, no certainty of instantaneous love and romance. There are skyscrapers and street peddlers, the hustle and bustle of pedestrians and the eternal cacophony of traffic.
Which is why I thought New York was just fine. Nothing great, but nothing unexpected either.
And yet there are people who absolutely love New York, who go weak at the knees at the mere mention of it. Ugrešić is one of these people, my wife happens to be another. Since she is sitting nearby, I turn to her in an attempt to better understand this mysterious passion.
“What is it you like so much about New York?”
She looks up from the screen of her laptop.
“It’s my love.”
I try to keep from rolling my eyes.
“OK, but why?”
“You’re just born with that love for it,” she says. “You can’t explain it.”
She goes quiet for a few seconds before continuing.
“It has everything, everything you could ever want.”
“What if I want tranquility? Peace and quiet?”
“No,” she says. “New York is dynamic.”
OK, yes, the City has “everything” in the sense of man-made entertainments. We’re both culture vultures, and during our 10-day trip there, we went maybe one or two days without stepping foot inside a museum. We made up for never having seen a Broadway play by catching four.
And yes, it is “dynamic,” or, as I’d call it, stressful. Everywhere you turn, it seems you’re in a crowd of highly anxious people, eager to get somewhere. People pushing past you, tense faces barking out monosyllabic replies to any question, because who’s got the time?
I understand that appeal of living in a big city. When we lived in Rome we often spent the weekend touring one of the city’s fantastic museums or historical sites, there certainly were enough of them. So it was that we saw cultural sites “obscure” enough that they almost never made it onto the list of tourists passing through.
Living in New York would be the same, I am sure. You live there, you visit places that would never fit on a tourist’s itinerary.
But given the choice between living in Rome again or living in New York (leaving aside the latter’s far higher price tag) I would choose Rome every time.
“That’s ok,” a New Yorker replied when I told them that I wouldn’t want to live there. “The City’s not for everyone.”
I understand this too. If I were a New Yorker the last thing I’d want is another person coming in and driving up the price of rent even higher.
America, for me, has always been about the landscapes. No country in the world, to my mind, has the diversity of scenery that the U.S. offers. From the Grand Canyon in the Southwest, to the ancient rainforests of the Northwest. From the golden sand beaches of Hawaii to the rocky headlands of Maine. With all that natural beauty, why choose to live in the City?
And yet tote bags and t-shirts, baseball caps and keychains with those three little trademarked words (or actually, one word that consists of a single letter, plus a symbol, and two more letters) are ubiquitous across the transit stations of the world.
I (heart) NY.
Love? The meaning of both the word and the symbol have been abused enough, and are all but stripped entirely of their dignity.
Love NY? I like it just fine, much like this collection. It has its high points (Ugrešić’s takedown of the muffin is particularly memorable) and its low points (all the references to the then war in the Balkans — and there are many — blend together, and the near-constant praise of New York — particularly Manhattan — are uninspired and makes one feel like Ugrešić is getting a commission from the NYC tourism board).
Maybe that is the point of the title. Ugrešić’s “America” is a fiction, it’s not even America. A far better title would have been “I (heart) NY. And couldn’t wait to get out of Yugoslavia.”
I certainly can’t blame her for the latter.