Introduction to Manhatten by Jay Thomas, delivered at Small Press Traffic reading November 16, 2007.
Sarah Rosenthal constructs Manhatten from solid blocks of dense, terse, rhythmic prose interrupted sparse, almost silent poems. The prose sections, which echo an O’Hara-esque New York School sensibility, but in an inverted social sense -- full of places and names and social situations, but none of them familiar or famous, and the social situations consistently keep the narrator in the margins -- follow a female character and her relationship to Manhatten through awkward adolescence toward adult self-acceptance. Though the narrative appears straightforward at first, the narrative, like the main character, makes one “mistake” after another – “real” events slip without warning into dreams, sound unexpectedly takes precedence over semantic meaning, art and book reviews are seamlessly woven-in to the story, and memories get tangled up with the present; in a sense, this is a narrative constructed from everything that proper narrative is supposed to smooth over, leave out.
This one tunes out strategic details.
So what happens when one makes a mistake, particularly a social misstep? For example, I say something awkward, laughable, foolish – the misstep alters the social situation, derails the linear trajectory of our conversation -- we’re not quite in the same room anymore, we don’t know exactly who we are or how to carry ourselves in the presence of this error. In other words the moment reshapes itself around the error, and the possibilities extending from the moment are now different and less familiar.
And speaking of errors, I actually didn’t notice that Sarah misspells Manhatten until I was several chapters in. I did notice the e was italicized, and I wondered about this quite a lot – in fact, I almost wrote Sarah with a question about it --, but somehow it didn’t occur to me that one of the reasons the e might have been italicized is that it’s usually an ‘a’.
But when I discovered my mistake, I started to wonder who had misspelled the ‘e’. Was it Sarah Rosenthal the author, or Sarah Rosenthal the narrator? Because at one point in the novel, the narrator claims Sarah’s name as her own, even though she remarks that it’s “borrowed.”
In her chapbook, How I Wrote This Story, Sarah offers what strikes me as a kind of manifesto for this overlap of author and character. The chapbook ostensibly concerns a woman, “M,” but “M” is sometimes in conversation with and sometimes replaced by an “I”.
I am writing this now because in the wake of my extreme experience of shame, triggered by rejection, I experience complete lack of shame. Let life collage itself at will. Let “M” and “I” and “author” replace one another at a moment’s notice, as if they had never learned to square-dance properly but couldn’t keep off the dance floor. Remember: the back of every page is a blank one.
In an early chapter of Manhatten, Sarah remarks that “Often in New York, I stumbled.” And so I, too, had stumbled -- which meant that I could no longer hold myself aloof above the narrative. I felt as lost among Sarah’s words as Sarah herself seems to feel in Mannhatten’s social and geographical labyrinths.
So there was nothing let to do but stumble along with her, which was kind of a frightening thing, because once you’re swept up in the current of her words, the banks of the river get further apart, there’s no turning around and swimming upstream, and you can tell that, despite the density of the prose itself, you’re heading somewhere vast and disarmingly open.
Realizing that I know longer knew my way around, I kept thinking of Paul Celan’s famous statement that “Whoever walks on his head has heaven as an abyss beneath him.” In Sarah’s Manhatten, vertigo accompanies every step, as if our bodies know that only thin strips of pavement separate us from infinite sky beneath.
The river water will resemble river water.
So what about that that problematic ‘e’? I’ll offer my theory, but hopefully you’ll have one of your own. Whether the last vowel is an ‘e’ or an ‘a’, you still pronounce Manhatten the same way. And so Manhatten – with the e – is the Manhatten which is written; it’s Sarah’s Manhatten, and it exists solely in and as the writing itself.
And Sarah the narrator -- she’s the living consciousness that inhabits these words that are Manhatten, the person these words give birth to on the page – and just as the written Manhatten is distinct yet not entirely separable from the city of Manhattan, so is Sarah the narrator distinct yet not entirely separable from Sarah the author. City and author encounter one another on the page, digest one another, reshape one another in their own respective images.
That point of mutual creation is precisely where the blank side of the page shows through, where the sidewalk dissolves into sky.
mind says tender. bend.
Finally, I haven’t talked about the poems, and this is only partly because I don’t want to disturb their near-silence. It’s also because they feel tender to me, tender in the sense of a wound which hasn’t quite yet formed a scar. Again, I’ll offer a theory – it seems to me that Manhatten never gives Sarah the narrator a chance to mourn or even cry out in pain – it drives her relentlessly forward, and cracks open up her psyche a little wider at every turn. So her cries get stuffed into the fissures and cracks that result from all the elements of day-to-day living not quite adding up or fitting together like they should. The silence within these fissures in turn fractures, and leaves traces of its fracturing in language.