Monday, November 26, 2007

Through the Children's Gate, Adam Gopnik

Through the Children’s Gate is Adam Gopnik’s ballad of New York and as such, it is surprisingly beautiful and moving. The New Yorker writer moved back to Manhattan from Paris with his wife and two small children in 2000 before the September 11 attacks. This series of essays covers five years in America’s most famous city, exploring what makes it unique and introducing us to his family, friends and acquaintances along the way.

A number of the essays focus on his children, Luke and Olivia, but where in less skilled hands they could have turned into boring parent brags, Gopnik has produced thoughtful, witty pieces of writing using the children and their thoughts and feelings as a basis and then extrapolating to the rest of the city. He is taking the advice of his late friend, the art historian and sometime football coach Kurt Varnedoe: break it down and then build it up again.

The inter-related essays cover a range of subjects, from the death of a friend to the death of Olivia’s goldfish, from the games children play to the games adults play. “Last of the Metrozoids” is particularly moving. It is the story of Varnedoe's slow death from cancer, even as he composes a set of wonderful lectures on the history of art and builds a football team that never plays a game.

"Bumping into Charlie Ravioli" is a fascinating look at the crazy pace of New York life as perceived by a three-year-old. Olivia's imaginery friend is one Charlie Ravioli, a boy of her brother's age who is working on a TV show and never has time to actually play with her. She just bumps into him, jumps into a cab, grabs lunch - until he becomes so busy that he no longer has time even to speak to her. Then the relationship is conducted through his personal assistant.

The attacks on New York are always there in the background, but Gopnik shows that life goes on even in the face of fear and uncertainty because there is no other choice. This is an entirely different New York than that shown by Candace Bushnell in her Sex and the City stories: less glamorous but all the warmer, more intelligent and real for it.

The only part of the collection that is off-putting is the introduction. I nearly threw the book aside in frustration in the first 10 pages at the writing style. It was as though Gopnik had challenged Henry James to a convoluted sentence contest and came horribly close to winning. But the essays themselves are another kettle of ravioli. The writing is simple and evocative and shows a complete dedication to his family that is touching without becoming cloying. It is hard to believe that stories that take as their bases subjects such as baseball cards, a school play of Peter Pan and a children's chess tournament could be so revealing of adult life, yet Gopnik has managed it.


davey said...

Lovely review, thanks redcap. The book looks really interesting, I'll keep my eyes open for it.

I felt an empathetic embarrassment at the mention of the 'convoluted sentence competition'. It's something that I've been trying to avoid recently as well. Perhaps I should also try to heed the advice of sometime football coach Kurt Varnedoe.

Rosanna said...

Redcap I have never read this book, but I am stocking up for my very long-haul plane flight next week - so I shall have to buy it.

It sounds stunning (except the introduction. Why do authors decide to play a tennis match of wacky dialogue?)

Ariel said...

Thanks for that! Have been mooching over that book in shops for ages now but never quite buying it. You have convinced me to do so. Or, at least, make a concerted effort to cadge a freebie! (No, really, I would pay for it.) I love your reviews.

redcap said...

Thanks davey :) I think everyone's channelled Henry James and been guilty of long sentences at some stage. Well, everyone but Hemingway and Kathy Reichs.

rosanna, possibly not plane material - it's a very thinky read and I find I can neither think nor read on planes.

ariel, you should! His writing style actually reminds me of you and Luke made me think of F.

redcap said...

God. Now I can't make my tenses agree. His writing style reminded me of you.

R.H. said...

After buying 200 secondhand books in the last two years the other day I thought maybe I should read one. Just by fluke I opened Lillian Hellman (by William Wright) somewhere in the middle, and found it so interesting I went back to the start. Hellman had a thirty-year affair with Dashiell Hammet who they say turned crime writing into literature. She herself is famous for two popular stage plays -which I suspect Hammet wrote for her or had a big part in. Hammet published The Thin Man around the same time Hellman's Children's Hour appeared, and then nothing at all for 27 years, dying at the age of 67. Anyway it's very good value, this biography, giving a peep into the publishing industry of the time, and lots more besides.
I'm always astonished at the energy of biographers (all that detail), it's much harder than fiction. Thank goodness they bother.
Yes, and another good review here (redcap), well done. Newspaper reviews aren't much good: all ego, no love.

Ariel said...

I dutifully (okay, pleasurably) cadged the freebie and devoured the book over the past couple of days. LOVED it. Thank you! And yep, Luke reminds me a lot of F, too. I'm going to cherish that comparison of yours, because I loved his style. And I have to admit, it's exactly the kind of thing I'd love to have written myself.