New York is, famously, the everything bagel of megalopolises—one of the world’s most diverse cities, defined by its churning mix of religions, ethnicities, social classes, attitudes, lifestyles, etc., ad infinitum. This makes it a perfect match for the novel, a genre that tends to share the same insatiable urge. In choosing the best New York novel, then, my first instinct was to pick something from the city’s proud tradition of megabooks—one of those encyclopedic ambition bombs that attempt to capture, New Yorkily, the full New Yorkiness of New York. Something like, to name just a quick armful or two, Manhattan Transfer, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Underworld, Invisible Man, Winter’s Tale, or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay—or possibly even one of the tradition’s more modest recent offspring, like Lush Life and Let the Great World Spin. In the end, however, I decided that the single greatest New York novel is the exact opposite of all of those: a relatively small book containing absolutely zero diversity. There are no black or Hispanic or Asian characters, no poor people, no rabble-rousers, no noodle throwers or lapsed Baha’i priests or transgender dominatrixes walking hobos on leashes through flocks of unfazed schoolchildren. Instead there are proper ladies behaving properly at the opera, and more proper ladies behaving properly at private balls, and a phlegmatic old Dutch patriarch dismayed by the decline of capital-S Society. The book’s plot hinges on a subtly tragic love triangle among effortlessly affluent lovers. It is 100 percent devoted to the narrow world of white upper-class Protestant heterosexuals. So how can Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence possibly be the greatest New York novel of all time?
more from Sam Anderson at New York Magazine here.