Ovid's Concrete Labyrinths
In this energetic collection, City in Love: The New York Metamorphoses (winner of the 1996 FC2/Illinois State University National Fiction Competition), Alex Shakar recreates a number of Ovid's myths, setting them in an immediately recognizable New York City. And just as the Metamorphoses criticized Ovid's Augustan world, here Shakar questions the precepts of our own Pax Americana. Overtly and repeatedly rejecting the structures of 'conformist' fiction - setting one story "A Million Years from Now," while placing another in "B.C." - these stories, like their sources, are in fact contemporary explorations of desire, love, rapture, and quiet desperation.
City in Love often stays strikingly true to Ovid. "Waxman's Sun" recasts Phaeton's search for his father, Apollo - and Phaeton's fiery and fateful chariot drive across the sky - as the story of a young Brooklyn Heights boy's search for self-worth. Here, the father, 'Apollo,' is a muscular subway driver - his chariot, a subway train of epic proportions - and the son must brave the breadth and nations of the world as Phaeton did, traversing the length and ethnicities of Manhattan. In "A Million Years From Now," a junk artist, as disgusted with the hardened prostitutes who walk his avenue as Pygmalion was with those in the temples, sculpts his ideal woman from the leavings of the city, and longs for his creation just the same. And in "A Change of Heart," a hopelessly smitten Apollo pursues Daphne through a 'forest' of bars and clubs.
Less easily tied to correspondent myths in Ovid are "The Sky Inside," "On Morpheus, Relating to Orpheus...," and "Maximum Carnage." "The Sky Inside" seems to be a recapitulation of the stories of Hercules' labors and apotheosis, but employs supporting characters who exist only in New York City. Shakar here somewhat successfully records an assortment of New York dialects in his agile narrative shifts, all the while drawing us through this mystery of a disturbed 'demigod' who paints his name throughout the city, one huge letter at a time. Not to be missed in "The Sky Inside" is Shakar's Calvino-esque playfulness, coding a text within the text. "On Morpheus, Relating to Orpheus..." melds the two myths indicated in its title into a " Rear Window "-style story of loss and despair, and " Maximum Carnage " departs almost completely from Ovid to offer us a chilling critique of our blasé appetite for grisly video games and bloodsport, and how ridicule and derision - here, among schoolkids - can lead to rage, violence, and revenge. "City in Love," the title story, again is a text within a text, using a structure similar to Nabokov's "The Vane Sisters" - hiding sentences in sentences, cueing the reader with 'markers' as to how the story should be read - so as to turn what seems to be gibberish into an analysis of modern love.
While Ovid's heroes and gods played out their dramas in a natural world of forests and streams, Shakar's mortals search for themselves in the concrete labyrinths of the city. For this reader, the impetus for retelling Ovid comes clear in "The Sky Inside." For a part of this story, two characters seeking meaning in their lives walk through a natural history museum after hours and turn on the Planetarium projector to see the stars. "You know something [is] wrong when you have to go inside [a] building to see star[s] at night. It is all ass backward...forest inside, jungle inside, sea inside, sky inside." Shakar's subtle criticisms begin here and widen to encompass unfiltered media, unbridled consumerism, cultural impersonalization, and the way we inhabit our buildings - surreptitiously listening to each other's lives through our apartments' thin walls, too frightened, later, on the street, to exchange greetings with people we have already come to know.
In these nuanced and highly-crafted stories, our everyday longings are distilled to a point beyond acuity, our desires illustrated through myth. While not even beginning to approach the scope or function of The Metamorphoses of Ovid as the sub-title The New York Metamorphoses proposes, City in Love is a demanding, rewarding book that achieves something well beyond experimental innovation.