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Dec 18, 2007
| ISBN 9780307415172
Dec 18, 2007 | ISBN 9780307415172
“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 Rayfiel has 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.
Thomas Rayfiel is the author of Split-Levels, Colony Girl—a Los Angeles Times Notable Book of the Year—and Eve in the City. He has published stories in GQ, Grand Street, Antioch Review, and The Quarterly. He lives in Brooklyn.
“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 RAYFIELDan 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 betweenthe novels Colony Girl and Eve in the City? Are they, ideally, tobe read as a “series”? Are they two totally separate novels thathappen to feature the same main character? If they could bepackaged together in a boxed set, would you want that? Willthere possibly be other Eve novels in the future?Tom Rayfiel: Colony Girl was meant as a single novel to standby itself. I was always aware of the possibility, though, that Evemight reassert herself, but in a different locale. The book ends,after all, with her heading toward New York City, and manypeople asked me what I thought would happen to her there.Nevertheless, I was resistant. For a long time I was stuck, didn’twrite anything. It was, I’m almost ashamed to say, the events of9/11 that got me off my ass, awakened my love for this citywith such a ferocity that I was determined to do my best tocapture its uniqueness, pay homage to it, in response to thosewho were bent on its destruction. But almost as soon as I beganEve in the City I realized, with a sinking feeling, that athird and final Eve story was inevitable. Why? Because I hatesequels but love trilogies. That’s what I’m working on now.DC: Here’s a Jonathan Franzen quote from a 2001 New YorkTimes Book Review of Colson Whitehead: “Although it’stechnically impressive and theoretically laudable when a malenovelist succeeds in inhabiting a female persona, somethingabout the actual practice makes me uneasy. Is the heroine doingdouble duty as the novelist’s fantasy sex object? Is thewriter trying to colonize fictional territory that rightfully belongsto women? Or does the young literato, lacking the perksof power and feeling generally smallened by the culture, perhapsbelieve 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’sadvocate with you here a bit, since I don’t totally agree withany of Franzen’s premises, but I’d like to hear what you haveto say.) And I’m interested in your own process, since I toowrite from the female point of view quite a bit. To what extentis writing from a woman’s perspective a kind of methodacting—a complex literary equivalent of drag? To what extentis it a version of yourself you’re exploring (“Madame Bovary,c’est moi,” as Flaubert says?). Are there any special difficultiesor sensitivities that you are aware of as you write? Do you consultwith your wife or female friends about issues of “accuracy”?Do you believe women think and react in radicallydifferent 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 believethere’s any difference between male and female. I mean,they’re useful distinctions, for bathrooms in restaurants andstuff like that. But they’re artificial. They’re imposed on us bysociety. Really we’re this complex mixture of both.” That, itseems to me, with all the problems it presents, is still a morefruitful approach than to regard the opposite sex as some fundamentallyunknowable “other” only capable of being depictedfrom without. Look at the sister in Franzen’s book TheCorrections. Because he’s unwilling to step into her skin, hebasically relegates her to the crudest functions of “male” fiction:sex and cooking. Yes, it’s lesbian sex, and yes, the cookingis in the world of haute cuisine, but that’s just tartingup old clichés. My understanding is basically this: Inside everystraight middle-aged man is a sixteen-year-old girl strugglingto get out. (My female side just happened to emerge in a bookand not on Vesey Street at four A.M.) By concentrating on theaspects of my personality that society deems “feminine,” Iwas able to discern a pattern, and finally a character, a voice,that was myself and yet not myself. As for special difficultiesor sensitivities, yes, I do show my work to my wife and otherwomen and ask, “Is my slip is showing?” I don’t always taketheir advice, though. There are as many different women asthere are people. All that said, I know what Franzen means. Eve was a great way to escape the hackneyed concerns of what a man settingout to write is often faced with, that barren, overgrazed field.For me, she was like a scraper, peeling the paint off flakingsurfaces, getting down to something more structural andload-bearing. The wood. The wall.DC: Eve seems so very real and natural that at times it’s hardto remember that there’s an author behind the book, creatingher. I wondered how much of the plot and structure was inyour mind when you began to work on the novel? Did youwrite with a general outline already conceived, or did you findyourself dreaming the story, following Eve in your imaginationas she went along? Were there any scenes or character decisionsthat appeared as you went along that took you bysurprise as you were writing?TR: I don’t plan ahead. I start with words, sentences that suggestother sentences, and then it accretes, like a coral reef, Isometimes think. I did have the voice of Eve, insistent but disembodied,and that Vision, of seeing a couple I thought weremaking love, but it was really something else. Then one thingled to another. Was I surprised by any scenes or character decisions?All of them, I hope, to varying degrees. If I, the firstreader, am not surprised, how can I expect all the readers whofollow to be surprised? (On a more prosaic level, yes, I planahead a ton, mostly to assuage the nervous hysteria of notknowing 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 ofthose paint-by-numbers pictures.)DC: You begin the novel with a device that immediately createssuspense: Eve witnessing a possible rape/murder—and atfirst many readers will think that the book is going to be akind of thriller. But you spend much of the novel undercuttingthat idea—the “thriller” element keeps unraveling, becomingmore dream-like and elusive, even though the mystery is“solved” at the end. Could you talk a little about this and howthe “detective” element functioned as you were working onthe novel?TR: Mystery seemed an appropriate form, since the storydeals with adolescence. Looking back on that time in yourlife, doesn’t it “read” like a detective novel? We enter a worldof clues and signs, peopled by compelling and sometimes repulsivecharacters, and we crave answers, resolution, a reassuringlyfinite explanation for a place that seems awash inuncertainty, unknowability. A lot of novels use this device butthen drop it as the story goes on. I feel that violates some kindof compact with the reader. It offends my sense of craft. Mysteryshould have a solution, in art if not in life, and that solutionshould tell us something about ourselves, make the adventureof having lived through it worth our time.DC: So much of Eve in the City seems to be focused on theidea of “searching”—the quest for a sense of identity, understandingour place in the world, our “true selves” as well asthe parts of ourselves that we sell, commodify, prostitute. Atone point your performance artist Marron says, “I think thereare forces that sweep you along. That bring you together . . .Invisible powers.” What are the forces that you believe are importantin shaping a person’s life?TR: I believe we’re swept along by forces, but I don’t pretendto know what they are. Chance. Fate. Destiny. How can a memberof a subset have any notion of the whole? I don’t think ourbrains can fit around such a concept. If they could, we wouldn’tbe who we are. I think Eve finds by the end that the key is totry to discern, dimly, what those forces are and ride them, notjust give up and be swept along.DC: In contrast to the suspense elements, another part of theplot 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. VanArsdale. Did you entertain the possibility that Eve might end upwith 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 acult. In Eve in the City, Eve marries, but not a guy. Yes, allthese potential suitors come her way, but at the end, she marriesthe 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 presentat her bridal shower, the words she is supposed to say onher wedding night: “It’s just not what I expected.” How hasshe reached such a point? By discovering who she is, by decidingto make herself over figuratively (getting a job, moving outof that strange attic room, hanging up on the Devil in the formof Van Arsdale) and literally (dyeing her hair, proclaiming herselfa Flaming Redhead). All these men want to make her intosomething else: a muse, a daughter, a wife. Rejecting thoseroles turns out to be the act that enables her to define herself.DC: The idea of “marrying a city” is an interesting one. Itmakes me wonder about your own personal relationship tothe geography of Eve in the City, the arc that leads from Iowato New York.TR: I’m strongly affected by place. I grew up in the suburbsringing New York City (my first book, Split-Levels, takes placethere), and went to college in Grinnell, Iowa. Place, to me, islike the metrical scheme of a poem. It has a huge say in the socalledcontent of any work. So yes, while the gender may notbe autobiographical, the geography is. That’s another reasonwhy Eve in the City has so many mystery elements in it. Anyonewho 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 ofthe Internet and satellite TV?TR: In this day of dumbed-down mass media, I value thosewho attempt it, but can’t imagine it being much of a force. Assoon as anything regional gets appreciated it’s co-opted andmainstreamed 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 onthe imagination of a juicily budding young woman broughtup on Mars or, in this case, on a fundamentalist commune.” Ithink it’s funny that he compares fundamentalists to Martians,and I admired the fact that you didn’t condescend toEve’s religious upbringing. In fact, I thought you wrote beautifullyand movingly about Eve’s complicated sense of God inboth books. I wondered if you were raised within a religioustradition? Would you consider yourself a religious or spirituallyoriented person now?TR: I don’t think I have a religious bone in my body. I don’tsay that boastingly or regretfully. It’s just a fact. Perhaps that’swhy religion appeals to me as a subject, because I have distancefrom it and I’m curious about what a large part it playsin so many people’s lives. I have no axe to grind, no position toattack or defend. It was also an exciting challenge. The realstretch for me was assuming the voice of a Tertiary Baptist(the nonexistent sect Eve was raised in.) But no one asked meabout that. They all wanted to know how I dealt with brasand periods and stuff like that.DC: Did you ever hear from readers who had a strong fundamentalistbent?TR: No. I don’t think this kind of book makes it onto theirradar. I’d be curious to know what they think, though.DC: Eve interacts a great deal with the New York art world. Isthat autobiographical? Do you know a lot of artists?TR: I know some, but I used art because Eve is so perplexedby this Vision, what she saw, and tries so hard to make senseof it, that the best world in which to work out this problemseemed to be that of the visual arts. Horace and Marron, forall their eccentricities, are serious makers, addressing concernsabout reality and representation that are crucial to Eve’sprogress as a person. Yes, they use her, but she learns fromthem, from the hurt they inflict, and finally uses what shelearns to move on.DC: Speaking of reality and representation, the novel draws alot of intensity from your use of point of view, the use of “unreliablenarration”—is that the word you would use? As DetectiveJourdain tells her, “Between what you see and what youthink you see, there’s this space. More than anyone else I’veknown.” I found myself fascinated by the many ways youmade use of that “space” in Eve’s perception, the way it can beplayed for humor and pathos, the way it underpins the dreamlikemood and music of the prose but is also intrinsic to thetwists and surprises of the plot in the end. Why do you thinkyou’re drawn to this particular technique? What does it do foryou as a writer, and what effect are you hoping that it will haveon a reader?TR: I don’t believe in unreliable narrators. Or rather, I believeevery narration is unreliable. Eve sees what she sees, thinkswhat she thinks, when she sees and thinks it. Don’t you, Dan,don’t we all, see crazy things that a moment later we decideweren’t there, that we cancel out or paper over because wecan’t really handle the bizarreness of our brains? Don’t yousometimes think strange and terrible thoughts? I do. Then Ipull back and dismiss them. We all perform this mental maneuverhundreds of times a day, in order to maintain appearances.Well, Eve was brought up in such a stark spirituallandscape that she hasn’t learned to do that, yet. She calls itexactly as she sees it and, I would contend, by striving to stayclose to her true vision of what’s going on gives a more “accurate”picture of the world than an ordinary, plausible depictionof what we’ve all tacitly agreed is out there.DC: I’m greatly looking forward to the next book. Any hintsabout 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 takeon motherhood is, needless to say, all her own.
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