New York State of Mind: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

New York, to me, is a city of the mind. I’ve been there; I have relatives who live there; but it isn’t quite real to me. It’s a collage of images from movies, TV shows, books and news footage. Amor Towles’ debut novel, Rules of Civility, evokes that mythical New York. Set primarily in 1938, it reminded me of the glamorous, smart-talking films of that era.

In Rules of Civility Katey Kontent (pronounced Con-tent), daughter of Russian immigrants, describes the year in which she began her rise from a law-firm secretary to an editor of a Condé Nast magazine, married to a man from an old-money family. It’s a classic American story of reinvention. Except that it’s not. Oh, her life has that plot, but that isn’t really what interests Katey, or Towles. Such narratives usually have an earnest desire to tell us how hard the struggle is, how well-deserved the successful conclusion. Katey’s narration is detached and somewhat unreliable, partly because she isn’t always honest with herself about her feelings. At the end of the narrative she doesn’t celebrate her happy ending, the right choices she made that year in her 20s, but reflects that “the right choices by definition are the means by which life crystalizes loss.” This is a novel about the road not taken.

On New Year’s Eve 1937, Katey is at a jazz club with her boarding-house roommate Eve Ross, where they meet Tinker Gray, a young man who (she assumes from the elisions in his account of himself) “was born in the Back Bay, attended Brown, and now worked at the bank that his grandfather founded.” This chance meeting leads to several more, and the people she meets in 1938–none of them quite what they first seem–influence Katey’s future in ways she doesn’t anticipate, and sometimes doesn’t recognize until looking back years later.

I found this novel slow to get into, in part because it’s rather episodic, in part because the narrative holds the reader at an emotional distance. It’s like a series of brilliantly faceted diamonds: often quite beautiful, but I was uncertain whether there was much below their glittering surface or whether they were going to be strung together to make anything.

Many of the episodes are memorable. Katey and Eve take Tinker to Chernoff’s, an underground Russian club featuring a floor show in which “the rootless nostalgia of the Cossack’s song was swept aside to make room for Cole Porter’s carefree lyrical wit and the long legs, short skirts, and untested dreams of the dancers” (the Porter tribute has a unique flavor, going from “It’s Delightful, It’s Delicious, It’s Delancey” to “I Gyet A Keek Out of You”). Later Katey, in a dress she can’t really afford and newly red hair, treats herself to an elaborate dinner at La Belle Époque which makes her ill. She crashes glamorous parties and seduces a younger man in his bathtub.

There are apt allusions (to Great Expectations, another tale of a striver influenced by a mysterious older woman; to Walden, which warns of the dangers of getting caught up in striving). There are lovely images that capture the novel’s themes, such as the display of butterflies at the Explorer’s Club:

The insects were pinned on the felt in such a way that you could only see the topside of their wings. But if you know anything about butterflies, you know that the two sides of their wings can be dramatically different. If the top is an opalescent blue, the underside can be a brownish gray with ocher spots. . . .

It’s a bit of a cliché to refer to someone as a chameleon: a person who can change his colors from environment to environment. In fact, not one in a million can do that. But there are tens of thousands of butterflies: men and women like Eve with two dramatically different colorings–one which serves to attract and the other which serves to camouflage.

I enjoyed these glittering surfaces very much, but in the end they felt a little too polished, too carefully crafted and artificial. I guess I like earnestness.

As a romance reader, I was fascinated by the way the novel worked as anti-romance. I don’t mean that I found it depressing. For one thing, Katey gets her HEA; we know that because of the novel’s framing scenes, set in 1966. She looks back with some regret, but accepts that regret as inevitable. It doesn’t destroy her happiness. What I mean by “anti-romance” is that the novel doesn’t focus on a successful courtship (there’s a brief scene where she meets her husband to be, but they don’t meet again until years later, and there’s no shock of recognition). Nothing happens as a romance-reader would want or expect it to. At one point, Katey considers the way she and her friends have renamed themselves (“Teddy to Tinker, Eve to Evelyn, Katya to Kate”) and comments that such changes only appear to come “free of charge.” Comparing their “masquerades” to those in the two versions of The Thief of Baghdad Katey remarks that they “don’t require much imagination to initiate or comprehend . . . But to assume that they will enhance one’s chances at a happy ending, this requires the one suspension of disbelief that the two versions . . . share: that carpets can fly.” Reading genre romances I too often find that the carpet does fly, that characters transform themselves without much cost and get happy endings they haven’t really earned. Moreover, characters don’t always choose their lives as much as give in to the dictates of fate and irresistable attraction. I appreciated Rules of Civility’s realistic awareness that there’s a cost to “right” choices, because there are other choices which might lead to a different happiness.

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