Monday, August 23, 2010

#34: The Thieves of Manhattan

It is tempting to those of us lucky enough to live in New York to regard all other terrestrial locations with a healthy measure of disdain, concrete-jungle style. Whether these streets make you feel brand new or merely terrified of the ubiquitous tourists, one is virtually forced to concede, via self-admission or the coercion of one's provincial fellow dwellers, that there is something special in the Manhattan air.

It was thus endlessly satisfying to read Adam Langer's incurably readable The Thieves of Manhattan, a brilliant send-up of the publishing industry that eviscerates its corporate villains in the same spirit (and methodology, somewhat) with which Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation once scorned Hollywood. As has been noted elsewhere, Langer's prose is so hip as to require a glossary (provided in the back): franzens are "the sort of stylish eyeglasses favored by the author Jonathan Franzen;" a hemingway refers to "a particularly well-constructed and honest sentence;" to woolf is "to move as rapidly as the speed of thought." (No word yet on danbrowning; that is, concocting a novel out of random amalgamations of nouns, verbs, and a mountain of italics so voluminous that one suspects the author has been monetarily incentivized.)

Most of the novel takes place on Manhattan's Upper West Side. As a resident of this neighborhood, I found myself nodding with delight over casual mentions of the Hungarian Pastry Shop or 106 Bar (although I have yet to visit the latter). Clearly Langer is a man familiar with his territory.

That territory is only partially geographical. Of greater interest is the author's irreverent poking and prodding of the esteemed literati. He labels sections with titles such as "A Million Little Pieces" and "Naked Came the Stranger," allusions to works of literature later exposed as frauds. To Langer, the line separating fact from fiction is prime comedic material, and he clearly relishes the zigzagging trail he weaves endlessly to and fro across it.

What, then, is The Thieves of Manhattan all about? Facially, it involves a failing writer, Ian, whose Romanian girlfriend, Anya Petrescu, begins to garner the attention of publishers with her short-story collection We Never Talked About Ceauşescu. (One can almost picture Langer's maniacal laughter as he penned that title.) Not only does Anya show literary promise, not only is her compilation "heartbreaking and beautiful and self-effacing and charming and hilarious," but "most of all, [it was] true." And so begins Anya's ascent into the upper echelons of the increasingly pretentious and self-absorbed world of commercial authors, whilst Ian's career fades ever faster.

It is at this point, near the book's beginning, that Ian meets Jed Roth, a mysterious stranger whose intimate knowledge of the publishing industry is matched only by his hatred for all aspects of it. Roth begins to regale Ian with tales from his days as a big dog in the world of books. The longer the story continues, the more hilarity ensues as Langer embraces the genres of the cheap and gaudy in his own writing. The end of one section reads: "'You can't leave when I'm talking to you, Jed,' Merrill said. 'Of course I can,' Roth responded. 'Because I don't work for you anymore.'" This is beautiful, and almost makes me want to reread some of my favorite dime-store fare. (Almost.)

I hesitate to say more, because reading this book is an experience unto itself, replete with ironic winks and over-the-top melodrama. The final section, as others have noted, goes on perhaps a few moments too long, but this hardly spoils the journey. Adam Langer has managed to wring true literature out of a terrible story, or perhaps it is vice versa. Either way, if The Thieves of Manhattan is to follow the path of all commercially successful books, it most assuredly demands a sequel.

1 comment:

  1. As for me: all I know is that these streets have inspired me.