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Tag: luc sante



Here’s more on Lou Reed:

From our man Luc Sante.

Jody Rosen.

Sasha Frere-Jones.

Kurt Loder and Carl Wilson.

And a playlist from The Daily Beast.  


[Images Via: This Isn’t Happiness]

Morning Art


Photograph by Charles Marville. 

The Banter Gold Standard: Parker

Here’s our pal Luc Sante on Richard Stark’s Parker. Stark, aka, Donald Westlake, was recently profiled by Michael Weinreb over at Grantland.

Luc’s piece is featured in several of the Parker books recently re-issued by the University of Chicago Press. If you’ve never read the Parker series, you’re in for a treat.


By Luc Sante

The Parker novels by Richard Stark are a singularly long-lasting literary franchise, established in 1962 and pursued to the present, albeit with a 23-year hiatus in the middle. In other ways, too, they are a unique proposition. When I read my first Parker novel–picked up at random, and in French translation, no less–I was a teenager, and hadn’t read much crime fiction beyond Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. I was stunned by the book, by its power and economy and the fact that it blithely dispensed with moral judgment, and of course I wanted more. Not only did I want more Parker and more Stark, I also imagined that I had stumbled upon a particularly brilliant specimen of a thriving genre. But I was wrong. There is no such genre.

To be sure, there are plenty of tight, harsh crime novels, beginning with Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, and there is a substantial body of books written from the point of view of the criminal, ranging from the tortured cries of Jim Thompson and David Goodis to the mordantly analytical romans durs by Georges Simenon. There are quite a few caper novels, including the comic misadventures Parker’s creator writes under his real name, Donald Westlake, and the works of a whole troop of French writers not well known in this country: José Giovanni, Albert Simonin, San-Antonio. The lean, efficient Giovanni in particular has points in common with Stark (anglophones can best approach him through movie adaptations: Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le deuxième souffle, Claude Sautet’s Classe tous risques), but with the key difference that he is an unabashed romantic.

Stark is not a romantic, or at least not within the first six feet down from the surface. Westlake has said that he meant the books to be about “a workman at work,” which they are, and that is why they have so few useful parallels, why they are virtually a genre unto themselves. Process and mechanics and trouble-shooting dominate the books, determine their plots, underlie their aesthetics and their moral structure. A great many of the editions down through the years have prominently featured a blurb from Anthony Boucher: “Nobody tops Stark in his objective portrayal of a world of total amorality.” That is true as far as it goes–it is never suggested in the novels that robbing payrolls or shooting people who present liabilities are anything more than business practices–but Boucher overlooked the fact that Parker maintains his own very lively set of moral prerogatives. Parker abhors waste, sloth, frivolity, inconstancy, double-dealing, and reckless endangerment as much as any Puritan. He hates dishonesty with a passion, although you and he may differ on its terms. He is a craftsman who takes pride in his work.

Parker is in fact a bit like the ideal author of a crime-fiction series: solid, dependable, attentive to every nuance and detail. He is annoyed by small talk and gets straight to the point in every instance, using no more than the necessary number of words to achieve his aim. He eschews short cuts, although he can make difficult processes look easy, and he is free of any trace of sentiment, although he knows that while planning and method and structure are crucial, character is even more important. As brilliant as he is as a strategist, he is nothing short of phenomenal at instantly grasping character. This means that he sometimes sounds more like a fictional detective than a crook, but mostly he sounds like a writer. In order to decide which path the double-crosser he is pursuing is most likely to have taken, or which member of the string is most likely to double-cross, or the odds on a reasonable-sounding job that has just been proposed to him by someone with shaky credentials, he has to get all the way into the skin of the party in question. He is an exceptionally intelligent freelancer in a risky profession who takes on difficult jobs hoping for a payoff large enough to hold off the next job for as long as possible. He even has an agent (Joe Sheer succeeded by Handy McKay). Then again he is seen–by other characters as well as readers–as lacking in emotion, let alone sympathy, a thug whose sole motivation is self-interest.

And no wonder: Parker is a big, tough man with cold eyes. “His hands looked like they’d been molded of brown clay by a sculptor who thought big and liked veins”; the sentence appears like a Homeric epithet somewhere in an early chapter of most of the books. He might just possibly pass for a businessman, provided the business is something like used cars or jukeboxes. He doesn’t drink much, doesn’t gamble, doesn’t read, likes to sit in the dark, thinking, or else in front of the television, not watching but employing it as an aid to concentration. Crude and antisocial at the start of the series, he actually evolves considerably over its course. Claire, whom he meets in The Rare Coin Score, seems to have a lot to do with this–by Deadly Edge they actually have a house together. And Alan Grofield, first encountered in The Score and recurring in The Handle, among other titles, twice in the series becomes the recipient of what can only be called acts of kindness from Parker, however much Stark equivocates on this point, insisting that they merely reflect professional ethics or some such.

Parker is a sort of super-criminal–not at all like those European master criminals, such as Fantômas and Dr. Mabuse, but a very American freebooter, able to outmaneuver the Mob, the CIA, and whatever other forces come at him. For all that he lives on the other side of the law, he bears a certain resemblance to popular avengers of the 1960s and ‘70s, Dirty Harry or Charles Bronson’s character in Death Wish. He is a bit of a fanatic, and even though we are repeatedly told how sybaritic his off-duty resort-hotel lifestyle is, it remains hard to picture, since he is such an ascetic in the course of the stories. He is so utterly consumed by the requirements of his profession that everything extraneous to it is suppressed when he’s on, and we are not privy to his time off, except for narrow vignettes in which he is glimpsed having sex or, once, swimming. But then, writers are writing even when they’re not writing, aren’t they?

After The Hunter, all the remaining titles concern jobs gone wrong, which seems to account for most of Parker’s jobs, barring the occasional fleeting allusion to smoother operations in the past. The Seventh is, naturally, the seventh book in the series, as well as a reference to the split from the take in a stadium job. The actual operation is successful; the problem is what occurs afterward. It represents the very rare incursion, for the Parker series, of a thriller staple: the crazed gunman. Along with The Rare Coin Score, it is one of Stark’s always very pointed explorations of group dynamics. The Handle, with its private gambling island, ex-Nazi villain, and international intrigue, is (like The Mourner and The Black Ice Score) a nod to the espionage craze of the 1960s, when authors of thrillers could not afford to ignore James Bond. If The Seventh is primarily aftermath, The Handle is largely preamble. In The Rare Coin Score (the first of four such titles, succeeded by Green Eagle, Black Ice, and Sour Lemon) the culprit is an amateur, a coin dealer whose arrested development is so convincingly depicted the reader can virtually hear his voice squeak. Sharp characterizations abound in this one–its plot turns entirely on character flaws of various sizes.

The Parker books are all engines, machines that start up with varying levels of difficulty, then run through a process until they are done, although subject to different sorts of interference. The heists depicted are only part of this process–sometimes they are even peripheral to it. Parker is the mechanic who runs the machine and attempts to keep it oiled and on course. The interference is always caused by personalities–by the greed, incompetence, treachery, duplicity, or insanity of various individuals concerned, although this plays out in a variety of ways, depending on whether it affects the job at beginning, middle, or end, and whether it occurs as a single dramatic action, a domino sequence of contingencies, or a gradually fraying rope. The beauty of the machine is that not only is suspense as effective as it usually is, but its opposite is, too: the satisfaction of inevitability. Some Parker novels are fantastically intricate clockwork mechanisms (The Hunter, The Outfit, the seemingly unstoppable Slayground, the epic Butcher’s Moon), while others hurtle along as successions of breakdowns (the aptly acidic The Sour Lemon Score, the almost sadistically frustrating Plunder Squad).

Like all machines but unlike lesser thrillers the novels have numerous moving parts, and the more the better–more people, more subplots, more businesslike detail, more vignetted glimpses of marginal lives. Stark’s momentum is such that the more matter he throws into the hopper the faster the gears turn. The books are machines that all but read themselves. You can consume the entire series and not once have to invest in a bookmark.

The Banter Gold Standard: The Clear Line

My mother was born in Brussels in the spring of 1944. Three years later my grandfather moved the family to the Congo, then a Belgian colony, where she would live until she was sixteen. She came back to Belgium with her sister at the end of June in 1960 just a few days before the Congolese Independence. During her childhood in Africa, my grandfather read his daughters the latest adventures of Tintin–first as they were serialized in newspapers and magazines, and later in hardcover books.

Mom kept most of those books and brought them to America when she married my father. She read them to my sister, brother, and me when we were kids and now she reads the adventures of Tintin to her grandchildren. I’ve known those stories, and more to the point, those books and Herge’s drawings, for as long as I can remember.

So it with great personal pleasure that I share with you the following piece on Tintin by Luc Sante, author of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York. This story, written in 2004, can be found in Sante’s fine collection, Kill All Your Darlings.

“The Clear Line”

By Luc Sante

In a corner of my office, on top of a bookcase, lies a hunting horn–a sort of bugle, curved in the manner of a French horn. It has occupied a place in my inner sanctum wherever I’ve lived since childhood. Such horns are not hard to find secondhand in the Ardennes Mountains of southern Belgium, since these days there’s not much call for them by hunters of the stag and the boar. The reason I talked my parents into buying me this horn can be found in the fifth panel on page 4 of the sixth adventure of Tintin, The Broken Ear. The panel shows Tintin visiting an artist’s garret, a low skylit room with a bed on the floor amid a panoply of artistic bric-a-brac: a plaster bust, a horseshoe, a sixteenth-century helmet, a skull, a few paintings and sketches, and, directly above the pillow, a hunting horn. Since I wanted to be an artist at an age when most kids want to be firefighters, I knew that I would one day live in a room just like that, and wanted to get started accumulating the props. Possession of such a horn would ensure my future as an artist. The Tintin albums were never wrong about such things. Had I wanted to be a sea captain instead, I would have pestered my mother into knitting me a blue turtleneck sweater with an anchor motif on the chest, the kind worn by Tintin’s friend Captain Haddock. The sweater would automatically have conferred upon me the authority to command a vessel.

But if the adventures of Tintin were my guide to life (and worryingly, perhaps, they still are; just a few years ago I bought a floor lamp at a flea market because it looked like the sort of thing Tintin would have in his living room), they were also the reason I wanted to be an artist. I was not alone. Because of Tintin, kids in Belgium, where the series and I both originated, aspire to draw comic strips the way their American counterparts want to start rock bands. I was typical: As soon as I could draw recognizable figures, I started working on a comic strip featuring an adventurous lad and his faithful dog. But even Belgians with no discernible talent have incorporated Tintin and his world-view into the fiber of their beings. The boy reporter made his debut in 1929 in the children’s supplement of a Catholic newspaper, crudely drawn at first, but with his personality and that of his white terrier Milou (called “Snowy” in translation) fixed almost from the first panel of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, the first adventure. That he was an ageless kid, of less than medium height and of an uninsistent modesty despite his many accomplishments, answered to the best aspects of the suffering Belgian self-image. Overnight, or almost, he became a national icon.

Tintin is of indeterminate age; he can drive a car and shoot a gun but is said at least once by another character to be “hardly more than a child.” He is invariably called “the boy reporter” in the fictional newspaper and radio accounts that are quoted within the panels, but is never seen doing any reporting or writing nor is any such work ever otherwise alluded to. He has a nice apartment and a substantial library although no apparent income; his constant travel might be paid for by law-enforcement agencies–Interpol, maybe–since the trips always lead to the solving of some crime or other, but he is never seen being assigned, debriefed, supervised, or compensated. He has no parents or any other relatives unless you count the all-male elective family he accumulates over the course of the series: Captain Haddock, the eccentric Professor Tournesol (“Calculus” in translation), and the twin detectives Dupont and Dupond (“Thompson” and “Thomson”).

Milou (I can’t bear to call him “Snowy”) goes with him everywhere, including to the moon, where he has his own four-legged spacesuit. Tintin has a little tuft of blond hair sticking up in front, and unless he is in costume or disguise he wears the clothes of a jaunty youth of the 1930s, including plus-fours with argyle socks. My father, who was short, blond, and usually wore plus-fours, was called “Tintin” by his friends back before the war, although by the time I knew him his hair had turned black.

I began absorbing Tintin before I learned to read. I know that my father’s mother gave me a subscription to the Tintin weekly magazine before she died, which was sometime around my fourth birthday. I’m pretty sure the magazine was then serializing Tintin in Tibet, the twentieth of the twenty-three volumes–twenty-four if you count the one left in rough sketch form by the death in 1983 of Georges Rémi, known as Hergé, who wrote and drew the series and refused to consider a successor. Hergé attained his peak of productivity in the ’40s, right in the middle of the war, when he published his strips in the Brussels daily Le Soir. The paper from those years is referred to as Le Soir volé–the stolen Soir–because it was overseen and censored by the German occupiers. Unlike most collaborators, Hergé got little more than an administrative slap after the war, and hardly any public opprobrium, because it was so clear he was an innocent by nature. His ideology was conservative, but it was molded for all time by the Catholic Boy Scouts. His world-view was that of a serious-minded twelve-year-old.

A serious-minded Belgian twelve-year-old in, say, 1939 would think of the colonial subjects in the Congo as simple, happy people who derived enormous benefits from being colonized. You couldn’t expect them to understand complex matters, but at least you could send in the White Fathers to convert them to the Roman religion and stop them from eating each other, or whatever it was they did. Tintin in the Congo, book number two, makes for painful reading today, and not only because Tintin is so determined to bag every sort of big game that, unable to shoot a rhinoceros, he blows it up–although he uses too much powder and is left with just the horn.

The caricatures of foreign cultures in the Tintin books are hardly virulent, just indicative of a smug ignorance pervasive throughout the Western world then, but the treatment of the Congolese is shocking because its grotesque simplifications had to have been based on self-serving firsthand accounts by the colonizers. To confirm this, all I have to do is look in my family album. My Uncle René, a drunken ne’er-do-well who lived in the Congo in the 1950s, is pictured with a much more mature-looking African gentleman standing a few paces behind him; this man is identified on the back as his “boy.” The English word was used to mean “manservant” for obvious reasons–it wouldn’t do to think of the Congolese as adults. Tintin is not an adult, either; he is the champion of youth, fighting the scary and corrupt adults of the world on their behalf. In the Congo these inimical adults are nearly all white, while the natives belong to Tintin’s constituency regardless of their ages–it is the only country he visits where everyone recognizes him. When he leaves, the people cry.

Possibly the most striking thing in the Tintin universe is the almost complete absence of women. Of the 117 characters pictured in the portrait gallery on the endpapers of the hardcovers, only seven are female. Women are thin-lipped concierges or very occasionally the silent consorts of male characters; few have more than walk-on parts. The only significant or recurring female character is the overbearing diva Bianca Castafiore, who periodically appears to sing the “Jewel Song” from Gounod’s Faust, a performance that has the effect of a gale-force wind.

This is not so much misogyny as, again, the perspective of a nerdish pre-sexual twelve-year-old. There are no young girls, or attractive women of any age, because the frightened boy is determined not to see them. Tintin has been psychoanalyzed voluminously–the critical literature is vast, and canted upon every sort of postmodern theoretical framework–so that I’m certain that some academic somewhere has already suggested how much Tintin’s family, as it were, resembles the Holy Trinity: the boy reporter as Jesus, Captain Haddock as an irascible Old-Testament Jehovah, and Milou–small, snow-white, and ever-present–as the Holy Ghost. You might still expect women to hover on the periphery of consciousness as mothers and whores, although both would distract from the serious business of adventure and crime-fighting, and introduce all kinds of unwanted ambiguity. Hergé, ever the Boy Scout, simply excised them.

Hergé redrew the first several stories (with the exception of the irredeemably crude Land of the Soviets) for their postwar publication in album form. Nevertheless, they are set in a period that while undefined necessarily predates May 1940, when the Nazis invaded Belgium. Even the later stories seem to take place in the 1930s, although none of us kid readers of the late ’50s and early ’60s minded or even noticed, since until the “economic miracle” of 1964, postwar Belgium itself effectively lived in the prewar era, at least with regard to technology. The world of Tintin’s adventures is one in which servants wear livery, savants wear long beards, men emerge from fights with their false collars jutting out, and the lower orders are identified by their caps. The world is big enough to include little-documented countries you’ve never heard of, although no subject is so obscure that there isn’t in Brussels some smock-wearing expert who knows all there is to know about it, and possesses the book- and artifact-stuffed apartment to prove it. It is a cozy world in which every detail is correctly labeled and filed away on the appropriate shelf. The world may contain its share of evil, but it is regularly swept and, like Belgian sidewalks, washed every week. There are no areas of gray. Villains–they are most often drug smugglers, sometimes counterfeiters–look and act like villains, and if heroes have their share of human failings (Captain Haddock’s alcoholism being the major case in point), there is nevertheless no doubt about the purity of their souls. Sex, of course, would mess up everything.

The clear moral line is beautifully expressed by Hergé’s graphic style, which is in fact called “clear line.” This method of rendering the world accurately, sensuously, and yet very simply by distilling every sight down to its primary linear constituents derives most obviously from the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Japanese popular woodblock-print style called ukiyo-e, and its masters Hiroshige and Hokusai. Those graphic artists were introduced to European eyes in the late nineteenth century, when their work had a particular impact upon the French Impressionists, especially Manet and Degas, who learned from them the value of cropping and of visual shorthand. Hergé absorbed not just those lessons; he swallowed their style whole. He enclosed every particule of the visible, no matter how fluid and shifting, in a thin, black, unhesitating line; made that line carry the burden of mass and weight without modeling; and endowed the line with an accomplice in the form of pure, clear, emphatic but not garish color. The style makes the world wonderfully accessible, in effect serving as an analogue to its hero’s mission: Just as Tintin, a mere boy, can travel the world and navigate its dark passages and defeat its oppressors without himself succumbing to corruption, so you, too, whether you are seven or seventy-seven (the advertised age-range of the weekly), can confront the overwhelming variousness of the perceptual universe and realize its underlying simplicity without sacrificing your sense of wonder. And that is the core of Hergé’s genius: to mitigate his young audience’s fears and convert them into sensual delight.

When Tintin, menaced by Chicago gangsters in Tintin in America, must exit his hotel room through the window and make his way to the next one by inching his fingernails and shoe soles along the mortar between the bricks, the young reader prone to acrophobia (me, that is) can translate his trepidation into pleasure at the magnificent geometry of those many unyielding rows of windows as depicted very precisely from a dizzying oblique angle.

The terror of suddenly coming into an entirely foreign landscape–notably, Shanghai in The Blue Lotus–can give way to joy at the immense panels of streets crowded with very individual pedestrians and surmounted by overlapping ranks of colorful banners and signs filled with intriguing if indecipherable Chinese characters. (For this volume Hergé sought the advice of a young Chinese artist then resident in Brussels, Chang Chong-Jen–who became a character in the story–so that the details possess particular authenticity.) The great heights, deep cold, and blinding snows of Tibet; the horror vacui of the featureless Sahara; the threat of a tempest at sea as experienced on a raft; even the empty and unknowable surface of the moon (circa 1955)–all of these can be not only managed but appreciated. To say that Hergé domesticated those locations and experiences would be putting the emphasis in the wrong place. What he did was to bring them into the child’s compass, not only through the heroic surrogate of the boy reporter, but also visually, by scraping away murk and muddle and purifying it, revealing the world as an awe-inspiring but comprehensible series of planes.

In every way but the visual it is easy to dismiss the simplifications of the series. They are the legacy of the comfortable world view that rationalized colonialism–that complacently taught African children in French possessions to remember “our ancestors, the Gauls.” They are of a piece with the creed of scouting as devised by Baden-Powell, with pen-pal clubs and ham radio and collecting stamps, which Walter Benjamin said were the visiting cards left by governments in children’s playrooms. They belong to the same branch of literature as the Rover Boys and Tom Swift and the fantasized travels of Richard Halliburton. They are predicated on nostalgia for a world in which strength rested upon ignorance, and this was so even in the ostensibly simpler times in which Hergé conceived them. Their world is the cosmos of childhood, after all, and childhood past is what all nostalgia refers to, even if wrongheaded adults insist on situating it within historical coordinates.

The visual, by today’s lights, might be diminished just as easily, you might think, considering by contrast the dark abstract tangles that represent the world in many of today’s strips, including some of the better-known superhero adventures, or noting that the heirs of the clear line, most famously Joost Swarte, have applied it to an ironically jolly delirium in which there are not only no moral certainties, but not even any definite up or down or inside or outside. But even Batman has one foot in the adult world these days, even if politicians are no closer to growing up. That the adventures of Tintin remain unsullied by maturity or experience allows them to preserve their power as a visual primer. They are an Eden of the graphic eye, in which every object–each shoe, each road, each flame and book and car and door–is in some way the first, the model that instructs the beholder on the nature of the thing and makes it possible to grow up knowing how to cut through fog and perceive essentials. What Hergé did is as serious and as endlessly applicable as geometry. Small-minded, reactionary, immature, he is not the Rembrandt or the Leonardo or the Cézanne of the comic form–he is its Euclid.



Million Dollar Movie

There is a new book out from W.W. Norton, “The Times Square Story,” by Geoffrey O’Brien that looks like a keeper.

Over at Bombsite, O’Brien is interviewed by Banter favorite, Luc Sante, where the talk is about the old Times Square:

LS Times Square has been the madcap entertainment capital of the world since at least 1906. But there is a special potency to the postwar era. It seems like the one that will be engraved in collective memory; there’s an enormous subculture based on Times Square in the 1950s and ‘60s—books, videos, CDs, Psychotronic…

GO It’s the old seediness, the old sordidness, which has a completely different meaning now. Part of what changed in Times Square was the advent of hard-core pornographic movies at the end of the 1960s, which put the previous movies in a very different light. It’s as if everything up to that point had been a long, complicated tease and then finally the tease was over. The character of Times Square changed drastically in the ‘70s; by the early ‘80s it was a pretty scary place. It certainly was a different place to walk around in than it had been in the ‘60s. Having grown up in suburban Long Island, I had never seen anything like that. There was really a sense of, Oh, this is the culture I live in. This is what our culture is really thinking about underneath everything else: gigantic forms, enormous shapes, all the hot buttons being pushed, the beautiful unsubtlety of everything. At the same time, there were all kinds of strange subtleties to be discovered. I’m thinking about the movies I watched in the ‘60s, Italian horror movies, science fiction movies, all those spy movies that you and I both seem to have been marked by.

…LS Now, in a way, Times Square is everywhere.

GO Times Square was a kind of zoo of images which are available everywhere now. There is almost no more need for Times Square in the same way there was no need for porno theaters after video came out. You rent movies now about mad doctors dismembering people or people being held in South American prison camps or whatever your particular fancy is. So Times Square is everywhere in this sort of disembodied form, but without the smoke, without the hot dogs, without the peripheral population of people which made it human and which made it seem like part of the world. Now it seems like some weird hyperspace culture of self-replicating images.

LS That is the shape of the future. All of culture is disembodied. You and your 75 friends on the Internet who are interested in H0-scale railroads have never actually met. In city after city, whatever was the equivalent of Times Square is gone, though you can see its vague outline. I was in Seattle last month and realized my hotel was on what used to be that strip. You could tell because across the street there was still one pawn shop and one gun shop. All the movie theaters were gone.

GO I had a similar experience in San Jose, which has otherwise been dismantled and rebuilt as a theme park called Downtown San Jose. I went wandering and found a strip with some funky little stores that were selling bizarre memorabilia and old knickknacks. That general air of rotting paper is always a clue you’re getting near. The only beautiful building I saw in San Jose was a battered old movie theater, which I was told was the subject of a massive political struggle between the people who wanted to preserve it and the developers who wanted to tear it down. It had become the battleground for the preservation of some kind of ancient, sleazy, downtown culture.

The book is about the 1960s but I remember the Times Square of the early ’80s.

My old man lived in Weehawken for a year in 1981-82 and we often walked across 42nd street from the Port Authority on 8th Avenue to Grand Central on the East Side, where he’d put us back on a train to Westchester. I always felt safe with my dad but I remember feeling danger and unease every step of the way. I’ll never forget the signs for Kung Fu movies and the Porno theaters–what was the difference between X and XXX, anyway?–the hookers with bruises on their legs and the men looking at you with screwed up faces.

“The Times Square Story” is out now. Check for it.

Sucking in the Seventies

This morning I see a guy on the train reading Kill All Your Darlings, a fine collection of essays by Luc Sante. So we chat for a minute and I get to thinking about this wonderful essay by Sante, My Lost City:

The idea of writing a book about New York City1 first entered my head around 1980, when I was a writer more wishfully than in actual fact, spending my nights in clubs and bars and my days rather casually employed in the mailroom of this magazine. It was there that Rem Koolhaas’s epochal Delirious New York fell into my hands. “New York is a city that will be replaced by another city” is the phrase that sticks in my mind. Koolhaas’s book, published in 1978 as a paean to the unfinished project of New York the Wonder City, seemed like an archaeological reverie, an evocation of the hubris and ambition of a dead city.2 I gazed wonderingly at its illustrations, which showed sights as dazzling and remote as Nineveh and Tyre. The irony is that many of their subjects stood within walking distance: the Chrysler Building, the McGraw-Hill Building, Rockefeller Center. But they didn’t convey the feeling they had when they were new. In Koolhaas’s pages New York City was manifestly the location of the utopian and dystopian fantasies of the silent-film era. It was Metropolis, with elevated roadways, giant searchlights probing the heavens, flying machines navigating the skyscraper canyons. It was permanently set in the future.

The New York I lived in, on the other hand, was rapidly regressing. It was a ruin in the making, and my friends and I were camped out amid its potsherds and tumuli. This did not distress me—quite the contrary. I was enthralled by decay and eager for more: ailanthus trees growing through cracks in the asphalt, ponds and streams forming in leveled blocks and slowly making their way to the shoreline, wild animals returning from centuries of exile. Such a scenario did not seem so far-fetched then. Already in the mid-1970s, when I was a student at Columbia, my windows gave out onto the plaza of the School of International Affairs, where on winter nights troops of feral dogs would arrive to bed down on the heating grates. Since then the city had lapsed even further. On Canal Street stood a five-story building empty of human tenants that had been taken over from top to bottom by pigeons. If you walked east on Houston Street from the Bowery on a summer night, the jungle growth of vacant blocks gave a foretaste of the impending wilderness, when lianas would engird the skyscrapers and mushrooms would cover Times Square.

Bring in the bass…

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