Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma
|Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Rebecca Foster|
|Summary: Five university friends strive to make their lives count against the indifferent backdrop of recession-era New York City. When one of them falls ill, they pull together like a family. Rich with emotion and literary allusions, this is my favourite novel of 2016 so far.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 432||Date: February 2016|
|External links: Author's website|
We came to the city because we wished to live haphazardly, to reach for only the least realistic of our desires, and to see if we could not learn what our failures had to teach, and not, when we came to live, discover that we had never died. We wanted to dig deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to be overworked and reduced to our last wit.
From those first lines adapting Thoreau's Walden ('I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…') onward, Kristopher Jansma's second novel is full of literary references. That first-person plural narration, used to great effect in three short chapters of the novel, indicates that this is an ensemble cast. The perspective and focus shift between five university friends as they struggle to hold onto health, love and professional success in recession-era New York City. Friendship sustains them throughout, with echoes of The Iliad and other classic works of literature lending weight to their everyday heroics.
The novel proper opens at a 2008 holiday party hosted by the K Gallery at the Waldorf Astoria. Irene Richmond works for these modern art purveyors and does painting and art installations on her own time. Joining her tonight are her best friends: George Murphy, an astronomy postdoc from Ohio; his girlfriend Sara Sherman, a newspaper journalist; and Jacob Blaumann, George's former roommate, who works as an orderly at a mental hospital and also writes poetry. A surprise addition to the evening is William Cho, an acquaintance from their university days who now works for an investment firm.
A posh party is the perfect way to introduce the friends and their common feeling that, even after five years out in the real world, they're still just impostor adults. On this night we catch little glimpses of their personalities that expand as we turn to spend sections or whole chapters with each one in turn: Irene, bisexual, is cagey about her past; George is a brooding romantic who proposes to Sara in a hot tub on the hotel roof; Sara is a loveable know-it-all who wants to solve all her friends' problems; Jacob is a loudmouth who flits between boyfriends; and William has a soulless designer apartment and a string of blind dates with the daughters of his mother's Korean church friends – yet falls gently in love with Irene.
When Irene discovers a sore lump under her eye and a biopsy reveals that it's cancer, the friends band together like never before. They become each other's true family, taking on intensive caregiving duties. Sara and George put their wedding planning on hold, Jacob throws himself into saving a teenage patient through poetry (which seemed to me a somewhat unsubtle way of displacing his frustration over Irene's illness), and William dives into the mystery of Irene's family background, a subject she never discusses.
The tone of the novel lies somewhere between A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and the sitcom Friends (a Mexican version of which the characters watch obsessively): two New York stories about groups of friends, but occupying opposite poles of tragedy and comedy. Even as his characters realise that they are not special and not in control of their lives, Jansma never lets his book descend too far into gloom. The frequent references to The Iliad emphasise that the glory is in the struggle, and every human life is a hero's journey. After all, the friends met in Ithaca, New York.
This narrowly misses out on 5 stars from me because the storyline loses momentum in Part Two and I wearied of a later 80-page chapter spent with Jacob. These quibbles aside, there is much to admire here. Nearly every chapter is a perfectly self-contained unit with a resonant title. Jansma creates unforgettable set pieces, like William's mother, a traditional healer, feeding Irene fish eyes to make her own eye better; or Jacob flirtatiously catching in his mouth an oyster thrown from across a room. I also loved spotting all the literary references, both overt and sly – Kipling, Tolstoy, T.S. Eliot and so on. For example, George and Sara must be modelled on Gerald and Sara Murphy, the party-hosting friends of F. Scott Fitzgerald who inspired the main characters in Tender Is the Night and are explored in full in Liza Klaussmann's Villa America.
'Literature is really just the documentation of human struggling,' Jacob observes. And that's what Jansma does so artfully here, fusing a nostalgic picture of post-university friendship with the feeling of being 'overwhelmed by a plurality of possible futures'. You'll see yourself in one or more of the characters, and the rest you'll greet as if they were your own friends and makeshift family. An excellent, true-to-life novel – my favourite from 2016 so far.
Further reading suggestion: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is also about a group of New York City friends – but we advise reading it when you're feeling emotionally stable. To revisit a classic Jansma often references, try The Iliad (The Classics) by Rosemary Sutcliff and Alan Lee (illustrator).
You can read more book reviews or buy Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
You can read more book reviews or buy Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma at Amazon.com.
Like to comment on this review?
Just send us an email and we'll put the best up on the site.