Notes from a small island
Gopnik's essays capture the essence of New York life
Adam Gopnik arrived in New York City from Montreal in 1980 "with a satchel full of ambitions." First among them was the dream of becoming a songwriter. A close second was the desire to write for The New Yorker. He pursued both while officially being in New York to do graduate work in art history at the Institute of Fine Arts.
The songwriting career, alas, remains an elusive brass ring for Gopnik. But after six years of sitting in a 9-by-11 basement apartment on East 87th Street that he shared with his then-girlfriend-now-wife, Martha, hammering out weekly pieces that he would submit to the Talk of the Town section, Gopnik "finally, finally" broke in at The New Yorker in 1986. He soon became one of the magazine's pre-eminent essayists.
"For me what makes the essay such a miraculous form," Gopnik says during a call to his family's newer, larger, non-basement Upper East side apartment, "is that it's the only form where ideas and emotions walk hand-in-hand. The novel or short story can be a highly intellectual form, but . . . when a work of fiction turns toward argument, we feel it's a distraction from the drama. Similarly if a straight review takes too sharp a turn into the personal narrative, it feels extraneous. But with the essay, that's exactly what you're trying to do - find a subject that simultaneously sets off a chain of thought and sets off an association of feeling. When an essay works successfully, it is because it manages to fire on both sets of neurons at once."
In 1995 Gopnik went with Martha and their son, Luke, to be the magazine's correspondent in Paris. Upon his return to New York in 2000, he published Paris to the Moon, a series of linked essays interweaving previously published and recently written work, a collection that most definitely hit both sets of neurons and is, quite simply, one of the most insightful and amusing books about France available today. Now, six years later, Gopnik returns with Through the Children's Gate: A Home in New York, a book quite different in subject and tonal shadings from Paris but which is likely to rival it in readers' estimations.
"I wanted very much for the book to have a particular kind of arc," Gopnik says. "An arc of excitement at homecoming, then loss, and then recovery." The five years he writes about include the devastating September 11 terrorist attacks and the return of the cancer which would prove fatal to Gopnik's close friend Kirk Varnedoe, art historian and curator of painting and art at the Museum of Modern Art. "I hope that the me in this book, the narrator, goes from being happy to sad to a little bit wiser," Gopnik says.
Gopnik's subjects here range from a hilarious remembrance of his former therapist, to observations on the strange effects of feral parakeets in Flatbush and telecom switch hotels in Manhattan on the power grid, to what is almost a hymn for 9/11, to the diminishment of the New York department store, once "the cathedral of material aspiration." But the bulk of the essays are given over to very funny and profoundly moving meditations on family life, and particularly on the lives of his son Luke and daughter Olivia as they grow up in New York over these five years.
"As the book makes plain, I like family life," Gopnik says. " I like living amongst kids and I've never found that hubbub an impediment to working." In fact, Gopnik admits to "an excess of nervous energy and unless I've got some source of noise that can siphon off that nervous energy so that whatever intellectual energy I have can go to work, I get very restless." So while working on this book, he set up behind a screen outside the door of his daughter Olivia's bedroom, where he was "sort of the forgotten man in the house, listening to the children chatting in the kitchen nearby."
Gopnik says the biggest surprise in returning to New York was to find "how well-suited to children it is. I think it's probably always been reasonably well-suited but it seems particularly so now. And I'm aware, as I say in the book, that many people find that appalling because they feel the city has become suburban and no longer has the kind of louche creative energy that it did when we arrived a quarter century ago. There's some truth in that. Like everything else in life, New York is a series of gains and losses and question marks, not simple exclamation points."
The public and private losses are almost overwhelming during this period in New York. But so are the adaptations to loss. Led by son Luke, for example, the family - including the skeptical author himself - responds to the 9/11 attacks by becoming loyal Yankee fans. And in a brilliant arrangement of essays that pairs a seriocomic piece about the death of Olivia's fish Bluie ("Death of a Fish") and a marvelous paean to Kirk Varnedoe ("Last of the Metrozoids") Gopnik actually moves both himself and his readers toward wisdom.
"My friend Kirk Varnedoe is in some sense the hero of this book," Gopnik says. "By brutal coincidence he had a recurrence of cancer just before 9/11 and in effect knew he was dying from that Fall on. On the day that 9/11 happened, he said, here is something that we can experience either as an injury or as an imagery. If we experience it as an injury, we will experience it as tragedy and grief. And tragedy and grief are things we can recover from. But if we experience it as an imagery, it will simply run on a recurring loop and never end.
"I am as haunted by what happened as anybody else is, but mortality is the circumstance in which we live, whether it's the horrible murderous mortality of 9/11 or the comic mortality of poor Bluie or the slow death of a dear friend. In each case we cannot help but mourn, and we cannot help but begin again. If there's a life lesson in the book - and my children always accuse me of offering far too many life lessons - I hope that's it."
Alden Mudge fled New York City in 1989 for the left coast, and arrived just in time for the Loma Prieta earthquake.