A Review of Rebecca McClanahan’s In the Key of New York City
September 4, 2020 § Leave a comment
By Vivian Wagner
Rebecca McClanahan’s In the Key of New York City: A Memoir in Essays is an exploration of what it means to live in a place, and, in fact, what it means to live at all. It’s a haunting book, with many detailed glimpses into the everyday realities of apartment-dwelling, rent-paying, and meaning-making in a city that’s at once glorious and difficult. This book is a love letter to New York—a letter that, perhaps, both we and the city need now more than ever.
I read this book in the middle of the COVID 19 pandemic, and as I read, I couldn’t help but think of New York in the grips of the virus, reeling from grief, loss, and confusion. And yet, despite everything, it’s also a city discovering, as it always seems to, a spirit of shared humanity and community.
New York is somehow able to continually remake itself, and McClanahan’s essays document and celebrate this creativity and transformative power. Together, these essays narrate a period when she and her husband, Donald, move from their home in North Carolina to the city to try to make a new life for themselves. Her essays speak of loneliness and disconnection, even as they explore the small connections that the couple is gradually able to make with the people around them. If at first McClanahan feels like she doesn’t belong in the city, over time she comes to see that everyone there is connected, and everyone has a role to play, a story to tell, a song to sing.
The collection begins with an essay called “Signs and Wonders,” which focuses on the small, everyday signs that we seek out to make sense of our lives—and the casual miracles we might find if we look closely enough. It’s an essay about reading and interpretation, and about survival in a peculiar, bewildering place where cut flowers cost less than food. As Donald says, with an inimitable optimism and cheerfulness that we come to know well in this book: ”We’ll just have to eat flowers.”
It’s a kind of Mrs. Dalloway moment, and the party here is, we learn, the tumultuous years that this couple will spend in New York, getting to know the city and themselves, and ultimately being transformed in the process.
McClanahan’s book is haunted by 9/11, as a pivotal, traumatic moment that almost brings the city and its people to their knees. These essays, though, show how 9/11 is also a moment when residents pull together and create a future for themselves and each other, through acts of compassion and kindness both small and large. The essays almost all touch on 9/11 in some way, often tangentially, as if it’s an event that can’t be looked at head-on, a story that can only be told aslant.
The days leading up to the event are narrated in an essay called “‘And We Shall Be Changed’: September 7-11, 2001,” which focuses, among other things, on catching a stray squirrel that falls into the apartment and needs to be rescued. As McClanahan releases the squirrel into the park on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the only hint that something is amiss in the city is the wailing of sirens in the background. At the end of the essay, though, we see not smoke billowing from buildings, but a free-at-last squirrel darting up a tree:
Up, up, stopping at each branch to look down, as if he wants to tell me something. His tail quivers, his head bobs and then, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, he’s gone. I watch until there’s no sign of him anywhere, just a shiver in the highest branch, beside a patch of blue, blue sky.
It’s a powerful moment of transformation and, not insignificantly, disappearance. Ultimately, this is an essay about falling into an unknown and sometimes terrifying future—a future that, nonetheless, inevitably changes us. In moments like this, our old selves, like a squirrel darting up a tree, fall away and disappear.
In this way, we shall be changed.
The essays in this collection garner much of their power from McClanahan’s strong sense of musicality and her skillful way with sound and phrase. We learn that she lives next door to a musician, and we hear in several essays about the music wafting through the walls and serving as a kind of unexpected, beautiful accompaniment to their daily lives. McClanahan’s writing is infused with her sense of music, and the “key of New York City” becomes shorthand for the rhythm and notes that make up a life.
While reading this book, I found myself becoming hopeful that New York—and perhaps all of us—can and will survive whatever traumas come our way. Nothing will be easy. There will be cancer, affairs, dying baby birds, urine on the sidewalk. There will be tragedies both personal and universal. But we’ll survive by being there for each other, by listening to one another’s stories, and by cultivating kindness, even toward those who seem to be strangers on the far side of a seemingly-uncrossable divide.
As McClanahan says in an essay called “Hello Stranger,” “Maybe it takes a stranger to wake you up—to your city, your loved ones, your life.” These days, we’re all strangers in a strange place. Perhaps the best—and the only—thing we can do is greet one another, smile behind our masks, and look for whatever twinkle manages to find its way into the eyes.
Vivian Wagner lives in New Concord, Ohio, where she’s an associate professor of English at Muskingum University. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music, and several collections of poetry: The Village, Curiosities, and Raising, and the recent chapbook, Spells of the Apocalypse.