“They say the city never sleeps. It does. Just before dawn you can hear it snore. Light hangs in the air, directionless, not yet pressed into rays. The smell of a hidden sea soaks through stone. The streets themselves have that booming emptiness of a shell held to the ear. Everyone is dreaming. It’s when I began to wander, that time in between.”
For Eve, newly arrived from a religious colony in the heartland, the sidewalks of New York aren’t conveyors of humanity, they are sacred symbols, holy places. In the early morning, when her shift as an after-hours barmaid ends, she roams the deserted neighborhoods. It is a pilgrimage of sorts. Like so many before her, Eve has come to Manhattan to find herself among the lights and noise and sea of anonymous faces that make up the city.
One night, her nocturnal meanderings lead her to a scene that will set her life on an unexpected course. She sees two people pressed against each other in the shadows of a building. Is it a mugging? A rape? Or is this what love looks like when viewed from the outside? Eve’s gaze locks into that of the struggling woman. There is a moment of connection, of silent communication, and then she is gone, the sound of her footsteps swallowed by the city, leaving behind a man . . . bleeding on the pavement.
As Eve attempts to understand what she actually saw, she becomes involved with an up-and-coming artist who draws her to him even as his actions push her away; she meets a peculiar, father-like detective who pressures her to talk about a crime she now thinks may not have even happened; and she contemplates a marriage proposal that will give her a lot more than a last name. Everyone seems to want something from Eve; now if only she can figure out what, exactly, she has within her to give.
With Eve In The City, Thomas Rayfielhas written a love letter to New York, from empty dawn streets to the glitter of Bloomingdale’s to the galleries of SoHo. Here is a smart, often dark-humored novel of a young woman’s search for self.
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“Splendid . . . moments of acute, astonished delight . . . Rayfiel has a grittily haunting feel for New York.” –The New York Times
“Rayfiel’s atmospheric, day-is-night story reads like a primal…fairy tale with a contemporary twist.” –Elle
“Rayfiel’s prose is no less beautiful for the way it nearly ruptures with the pressure of adolescent sex and revelation–it has the harsh, urgent beauty of a great pop tunee emerging in a four-track demo.” –JONATHAN LETHEM, author of The Fortress of Solitude
“[A] likable heroine whom readers will want to follow." –Booklist
A CONVERSATION WITH THOMAS RAYFIEL
Dan Chaon is the author of the novel You Remind Me of Me and two short-story collections, Fitting Ends and Among the Missing, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. A native of Nebraska, Chaon currently lives in Cleveland, Ohio, with his wife and two sons. He is at work on a new novel.
Dan Chaon: How do you envision the relationship between the novels Colony Girl and Eve in the City? Are they, ideally, to be read as a “series”? Are they two totally separate novels that happen to feature the same main character? If they could be packaged together in a boxed set, would you want that? Will there possibly be other Eve novels in the future? Tom Rayfiel: Colony Girl was meant as a single novel to stand by itself. I was always aware of the possibility, though, that Eve might reassert herself, but in a different locale. The book ends, after all, with her heading toward New York City, and many people asked me what I thought would happen to her there. Nevertheless, I was resistant. For a long time I was stuck, didn’t write anything. It was, I’m almost ashamed to say, the events of 9/11 that got me off my ass, awakened my love for this city with such a ferocity that I was determined to do my best to capture its uniqueness, pay homage to it, in response to those who were bent on its destruction. But almost as soon as I began Eve in the City I realized, with a sinking feeling, that a third and final Eve story was inevitable. Why? Because I hate sequels but love trilogies. That’s what I’m working on now. DC: Here’s a Jonathan Franzen quote from a 2001 New York Times Book Review of Colson Whitehead: “Although it’s technically impressive and theoretically laudable when a male novelist succeeds in inhabiting a female persona, something about the actual practice makes me uneasy. Is the heroine doing double duty as the novelist’s fantasy sex object? Is the writer trying to colonize fictional territory that rightfully belongs to women? Or does the young literato, lacking the perks of power and feeling generally smallened by the culture, perhaps believe himself to be, at some deep level, not male at all? I confess to being unappetized by all three possibilities. . . .” What do you think of that? (I’m obviously playing devil’s advocate with you here a bit, since I don’t totally agree with any of Franzen’s premises, but I’d like to hear what you have to say.) And I’m interested in your own process, since I too write from the female point of view quite a bit. To what extent is writing from a woman’s perspective a kind of method acting—a complex literary equivalent of drag? To what extent is it a version of yourself you’re exploring (“Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” as Flaubert says?). Are there any special difficulties or sensitivities that you are aware of as you write? Do you consult with your wife or female friends about issues of “accuracy”? Do you believe women think and react in radically different ways than men do? TR: Wow! That’s quite a quote from Franzen. I’ll let Marron, one of the characters in the book, answer: “I don’t believe there’s any difference between male and female. I mean, they’re useful distinctions, for bathrooms in restaurants and stuff like that. But they’re artificial. They’re imposed on us by society. Really we’re this complex mixture of both.” That, it seems to me, with all the problems it presents, is still a more fruitful approach than to regard the opposite sex as some fundamentally unknowable “other” only capable of being depicted from without. Look at the sister in Franzen’s book The Corrections. Because he’s unwilling to step into her skin, he basically relegates her to the crudest functions of “male” fiction: sex and cooking. Yes, it’s lesbian sex, and yes, the cooking is in the world of haute cuisine, but that’s just tarting up old clichés. My understanding is basically this: Inside every straight middle-aged man is a sixteen-year-old girl struggling to get out. (My female side just happened to emerge in a book and not on Vesey Street at four A.M.) By concentrating on the aspects of my personality that society deems “feminine,” I was able to discern a pattern, and finally a character, a voice, that was myself and yet not myself. As for special difficulties or sensitivities, yes, I do show my work to my wife and other women and ask, “Is my slip is showing?” I don’t always take their advice, though. There are as many different women as there are people. All that said, I know what Franzen means. Eve was a great way to escape the hackneyed concerns of what a man setting out to write is often faced with, that barren, overgrazed field. For me, she was like a scraper, peeling the paint off flaking surfaces, getting down to something more structural and load-bearing. The wood. The wall.
DC: Eve seems so very real and natural that at times it’s hard to remember that there’s an author behind the book, creating her. I wondered how much of the plot and structure was in your mind when you began to work on the novel? Did you write with a general outline already conceived, or did you find yourself dreaming the story, following Eve in your imagination as she went along? Were there any scenes or character decisions that appeared as you went along that took you by surprise as you were writing? TR: I don’t plan ahead. I start with words, sentences that suggest other sentences, and then it accretes, like a coral reef, I sometimes think. I did have the voice of Eve, insistent but disembodied, and that Vision, of seeing a couple I thought were making love, but it was really something else. Then one thing led to another. Was I surprised by any scenes or character decisions? All of them, I hope, to varying degrees. If I, the first reader, am not surprised, how can I expect all the readers who follow to be surprised? (On a more prosaic level, yes, I plan ahead a ton, mostly to assuage the nervous hysteria of not knowing where I’m going, what I’m going to write tomorrow. But in the act of composition it always comes out different. Otherwise . . . I wouldn’t be writing, I’d be coloring in one of those paint-by-numbers pictures.)
DC: You begin the novel with a device that immediately creates suspense: Eve witnessing a possible rape/murder—and at first many readers will think that the book is going to be a kind of thriller. But you spend much of the novel undercutting that idea—the “thriller” element keeps unraveling, becoming more dream-like and elusive, even though the mystery is “solved” at the end. Could you talk a little about this and how the “detective” element functioned as you were working on the novel? TR: Mystery seemed an appropriate form, since the story deals with adolescence. Looking back on that time in your life, doesn’t it “read” like a detective novel? We enter a world of clues and signs, peopled by compelling and sometimes repulsive characters, and we crave answers, resolution, a reassuringly finite explanation for a place that seems awash in uncertainty, unknowability. A lot of novels use this device but then drop it as the story goes on. I feel that violates some kind of compact with the reader. It offends my sense of craft. Mystery should have a solution, in art if not in life, and that solution should tell us something about ourselves, make the adventure of having lived through it worth our time.
DC: So much of Eve in the City seems to be focused on the idea of “searching”—the quest for a sense of identity, understanding our place in the world, our “true selves” as well as the parts of ourselves that we sell, commodify, prostitute. At one point your performance artist Marron says, “I think there are forces that sweep you along. That bring you together . . . Invisible powers.” What are the forces that you believe are important in shaping a person’s life? TR: I believe we’re swept along by forces, but I don’t pretend to know what they are. Chance. Fate. Destiny. How can a member of a subset have any notion of the whole? I don’t think our brains can fit around such a concept. If they could, we wouldn’t be who we are. I think Eve finds by the end that the key is to try to discern, dimly, what those forces are and ride them, not just give up and be swept along.
DC: In contrast to the suspense elements, another part of the plot of this novel centers around complicated, unlikely poten- tial romantic entanglements: Viktor, Horace, Detective Jourdain, and, to an extent at the end, even the mysterious Mr. Van Arsdale. Did you entertain the possibility that Eve might end up with one of these guys, or was it out of the question for you? TR: In Colony Girl, Eve left home, but not a house. She left a cult. In Eve in the City, Eve marries, but not a guy. Yes, all these potential suitors come her way, but at the end, she marries the city itself. That’s why she goes out of her apartment, in her wedding dress, with snow falling like rice at a reception, and remembers the words she said when she opened the present at her bridal shower, the words she is supposed to say on her wedding night: “It’s just not what I expected.” How has she reached such a point? By discovering who she is, by deciding to make herself over figuratively (getting a job, moving out of that strange attic room, hanging up on the Devil in the form of Van Arsdale) and literally (dyeing her hair, proclaiming herself a Flaming Redhead). All these men want to make her into something else: a muse, a daughter, a wife. Rejecting those roles turns out to be the act that enables her to define herself.
DC: The idea of “marrying a city” is an interesting one. It makes me wonder about your own personal relationship to the geography of Eve in the City, the arc that leads from Iowa to New York. TR: I’m strongly affected by place. I grew up in the suburbs ringing New York City (my first book, Split-Levels, takes place there), and went to college in Grinnell, Iowa. Place, to me, is like the metrical scheme of a poem. It has a huge say in the socalled content of any work. So yes, while the gender may not be autobiographical, the geography is. That’s another reason why Eve in the City has so many mystery elements in it. Anyone who has walked the city at night, seen the almost mathematical, interlocking puzzle pieces of which it is composed, comes away with the sense of conspiracy, of hidden connectedness, that Eve, a newcomer, responds to so strongly.
DC: Is there still such a thing as “regionalism” in the age of the Internet and satellite TV? TR: In this day of dumbed-down mass media, I value those who attempt it, but can’t imagine it being much of a force. As soon as anything regional gets appreciated it’s co-opted and mainstreamed out of all recognition.
DC: But Eve is somewhat of an anomaly in this day and age, isn’t she? In his New York Times review, Richard Eder says, “Rayfiel has tried to conceive how the city might register on the imagination of a juicily budding young woman brought up on Mars or, in this case, on a fundamentalist commune.” I think it’s funny that he compares fundamentalists to Martians, and I admired the fact that you didn’t condescend to Eve’s religious upbringing. In fact, I thought you wrote beautifully and movingly about Eve’s complicated sense of God in both books. I wondered if you were raised within a religious tradition? Would you consider yourself a religious or spiritually oriented person now? TR: I don’t think I have a religious bone in my body. I don’t say that boastingly or regretfully. It’s just a fact. Perhaps that’s why religion appeals to me as a subject, because I have distance from it and I’m curious about what a large part it plays in so many people’s lives. I have no axe to grind, no position to attack or defend. It was also an exciting challenge. The real stretch for me was assuming the voice of a Tertiary Baptist (the nonexistent sect Eve was raised in.) But no one asked me about that. They all wanted to know how I dealt with bras and periods and stuff like that.
DC: Did you ever hear from readers who had a strong fundamentalist bent? TR: No. I don’t think this kind of book makes it onto their radar. I’d be curious to know what they think, though.
DC: Eve interacts a great deal with the New York art world. Is that autobiographical? Do you know a lot of artists? TR: I know some, but I used art because Eve is so perplexed by this Vision, what she saw, and tries so hard to make sense of it, that the best world in which to work out this problem seemed to be that of the visual arts. Horace and Marron, for all their eccentricities, are serious makers, addressing concerns about reality and representation that are crucial to Eve’s progress as a person. Yes, they use her, but she learns from them, from the hurt they inflict, and finally uses what she learns to move on.
DC: Speaking of reality and representation, the novel draws a lot of intensity from your use of point of view, the use of “unreliable narration”—is that the word you would use? As Detective Jourdain tells her, “Between what you see and what you think you see, there’s this space. More than anyone else I’ve known.” I found myself fascinated by the many ways you made use of that “space” in Eve’s perception, the way it can be played for humor and pathos, the way it underpins the dreamlike mood and music of the prose but is also intrinsic to the twists and surprises of the plot in the end. Why do you think you’re drawn to this particular technique? What does it do for you as a writer, and what effect are you hoping that it will have on a reader? TR: I don’t believe in unreliable narrators. Or rather, I believe every narration is unreliable. Eve sees what she sees, thinks what she thinks, when she sees and thinks it. Don’t you, Dan, don’t we all, see crazy things that a moment later we decide weren’t there, that we cancel out or paper over because we can’t really handle the bizarreness of our brains? Don’t you sometimes think strange and terrible thoughts? I do. Then I pull back and dismiss them. We all perform this mental maneuver hundreds of times a day, in order to maintain appearances. Well, Eve was brought up in such a stark spiritual landscape that she hasn’t learned to do that, yet. She calls it exactly as she sees it and, I would contend, by striving to stay close to her true vision of what’s going on gives a more “accurate” picture of the world than an ordinary, plausible depiction of what we’ve all tacitly agreed is out there.
DC: I’m greatly looking forward to the next book. Any hints about what the future might look like for Eve? TR: When we next meet Eve, she’s sitting in a playground, taking care of her seven-month-old daughter. But Eve’s take on motherhood is, needless to say, all her own.