There's no shortage of contemporary writing about New York. While that's not surprising — it's the largest city in the country, and has always had a special hold on the American imagination — it sometimes seems like it's hard to find new fiction not set in the five (but usually just two) boroughs. That's a problem for aspiring novelists who couldn't care less about the city, but it's also one for New York writers struggling to find something new to say about their hometown.
Brooklyn-based Kristopher Jansma, author of the stunning new novel Why We Came to the City, is not afflicted with this problem. His book is both a love note and a breakup letter to New York, and he captures perfectly the way young people give themselves to the city, and what the city gives to — and takes from — them.
A novelist is lucky if he can hook a reader in the first 20 pages. Jansma does this in his first few lines: "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."
The "we" here is a tight-knit group of college friends who moved to New York five years before the novel begins. There's Sara, a journalist and the group's de facto leader, and her boyfriend, George, an astronomer struggling with addiction. They still keep in close touch with Jacob, a hospital orderly ("Once Jacob had written poetry, but now he was just a poet"), and Irene, a sculptor and art gallery employee.
The novel begins at a New Year's party, where those four run into William, a college acquaintance and investment banker who has nursed a crush on Irene for a long time. Sara and George get engaged, William and Irene hook up, and there's an electric feeling as the group, heavily intoxicated on camaraderie and alcohol, welcomes January.
But the good feelings don't last long. Irene is diagnosed with bone cancer and forced to undergo draining chemotherapy sessions. Her friends, stunned, stumble through their changed lives — George tries to confront his drinking problem; Jacob avoids confronting his relationship issues (his boyfriend is also his boss).
It's difficult, on many levels, to write a convincing novel about a person facing a serious illness. Things can get maudlin quickly, and it's tempting to substitute phoned-in sentimentality in place of real emotional resonance. But Jansma doesn't make a false move. He explores Irene's treatment with compassion and honesty — it can be difficult to read, but it's always rewarding.
He is similarly adept at writing about the dynamics of friendships, which are always more complex than we assume. These aren't sitcom friends; they're imperfect, occasionally annoying, and there's not always hugging and reconciliation at the end of a fight. Jacob, in particular, is witty and occasionally sweet, but he "could be a jerk when he wanted to be, and he nearly always wanted to be."
Only the luckiest groups of friends have never had to deal with a crisis at some point, and disasters have a way of altering the architecture of relationships permanently. The group of friends in Why We Came to the City aren't immune to that. After Irene becomes ill, there's a dramatic change in all their conversations, all their interactions: "Like old wood, we splintered apart at the slightest touch until we were nothing but tiny slivers stuck inside each other's fingertips."
What makes Jansma's novel special, though, is his characters' relationships with New York. "Why shouldn't we live with such hurry and waste of life? We were determined to be starved before we were hungry," he writes in the beginning. After Irene's diagnosis, though, that all changes, and their thoughts turn to leaving New York behind: "And only when we finally got up, threw on our clothes and walked away did we realize that we had all been gone for years already."
It's that kind of observation that makes Why We Came to the City such a beautiful, sprawling and generous book. Jansma is a brilliantly talented writer, but he also has a unique insight into what friends mean to one another, and what it means to be part of a city in which you never quite belong, but can't quite bring yourself to leave. It's a heartfelt novel, tender and painful and cathartic all at once, and even if the characters belong to New York, the story belongs to us all.