I’ve been following author Matthew Gallaway from afar (or not so far, really, as we are both residents of Northern Manhattan) for a while now. I’ve read his writing on various blogs, and have thoroughly enjoyed what he has to say. Moreover, Gallaway attended law school, like I did, and I often find myself attracted to writers who have migrated from the law to fiction. (As Gallaway puts it on twitter, “JD as an MFA.” I like this.) Something about this career path provides an interesting perspective on life, if only because us former lawyers are generally
fucked up unique individuals. Happily, the release of his debut novel, The Metropolis Case, coincided with my vacation, so I got to read it on the beach while Dad prevented the Kid from eating sand and running headlong into the ocean.
The Metropolis Case follows the lives of several disparate characters: Lucien, a budding opera singer in 1860’s Paris; Maria, a young singer and outcast from blue-collar Pittsburgh who is bound for big things; Martin, a lawyer, opera buff, and gay man who, in the face of tragedies, discovers his true self, in spite of himself; and Anna, a famous opera singer. Eventually, the lives of these characters converge. I’m gonna admit, it is quite obvious from the beginning how the characters are connected (and I’m usually slow on the uptake on these sorts of things), but figuring out the “surprise” did not ruin the book whatsoever. The book is not meant to be a potboiler mystery novel, after all. Rather, the glaringly evident connections between these characters are used to explore more profound themes that are really at the heart of this novel (and that I discuss further below).
One of the things I pondered as I read The Metropolis Case is “For whom is this book meant?” (I think Gallaway, too, has thought a bit about this.) I imagine this book has been marketed towards opera buffs, since nearly all of the characters are connected to the opera in some way. Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde connects the various characters across the eras. Now, I’ve been to the opera before, but I can’t say I listen to opera regularly. In fact, it is possible that I might have fallen asleep during long operas on certain occasions. I never heard Tristan und Isolde until this book inspired me to listen to a bit of it (and I was expecting something really wacky based on Gallaway’s description of the opera, but to my uneducated ear, I thought the opera sounded like a fairly “normal” opera). Anyway, I didn’t find it at all necessary to be a bona fide opera lover to enjoy this book, though certainly opera aficionados will enjoy some of the insidery stuff. Really, the opera is a sort of stand-in for “finding your passion,” though I admit that’s a rather pat way of putting it, and surely Lucien, Anna, Martin and Maria would scoff at my simplification, given each of their complicated relationships with the opera. If I wanted to get really profound, I could say that TMC’s view of opera, and specifically Tristan, has to do with Schopenhauer‘s concept of the “will,” but truthfully I don’t know a lot about Schopenhauer and I don’t want to embarrass myself any further by trying to draw that parallel. Nonetheless, the novel’s treatment of opera means something more than a fat lady singing, and can extend to a search for beauty, a newfound maturity or discovery of self, a symbol of the fates, a beacon through life’s travails, or what have you.
Another alleged audience for The Metropolis Case, and one that Gallaway himself seems to fret over, is gay people. Martin is a gay man, and the book follows his coming out of the closet. Lucien’s true love is another man, though he has sex with men and women, mainly men. Gallaway has written about his own worries on being pigeonholed as a gay writer, by both the gay community and the straight community. I have to admit that this never occurred to me until I read his blog posts on the topic. I guess I just don’t choose my reading material based on the character’s sexual orientation, though I suppose some people might. At any rate, I followed Lucien, Martin, and Maria’s (a straight woman) sexual awakenings with equal interest; but interestingly, as a straight woman myself, I most related to Martin.
Martin is a person who struggles with what one is “supposed” to do, based on parental and societal expectations, versus what one would actually prefer to do, based one one’s own inner values and proclivities. This struggle is not just about Martin’s sexual life, though his coming out is a wonderful illustration of this turmoil, but it also manifests itself in his education, career choices, family relationships, extracurricular activities, and even his geographic location. For instance, Martin eventually realizes that he is hiding behind his legal career as a way to “legitimize” himself:
For many years, he had in fact relished the broader approval and prestige that came with a high-paying position in a Manhattan law firm but with the passage of time and the accompanying acclimation to his desires, this motivation had waned; he no longer relied on his career as a crutch for his identity, to justify his existence, gay or otherwise.
I certainly relate to this, having left my own legal career. However, when one realizes that being a lawyer is not a good fit, and also, when you realize that the “broader approval” of society is bullshit if you aren’t happy, then it becomes easier to find better reasons to justify your existence. In saying this, I don’t mean to imply that my own experience of leaving the law is at all comparable to Martin’s far more complex and fraught process of coming out; yet, I do, in some small way, understand what it means to be in a world where you don’t quite fit in. I think it’s fair to say that most people will have this feeling at some point in their lives (and if you haven’t, I’m not sure we would get along). Accordingly, I can hardly allow that The Metropolis Case be limited to a gay audience.
Now, there is one audience that I believe will embrace The Metropolis Case wholeheartedly: Manhattanites. First, I’m getting a little tired of the cult of Brooklyn writers, so it was nice to see a promising debut novel coming from Washington Heights and not Bushwick. Second, a portion of the book takes place uptown, a place close to my own heart. I don’t often seen upper Manhattan featured in literary fiction, let alone in such a lovely way:
To the south was the George Washington Bridge, while the sheer cliffs of the New Jersey Palisades extended impressively to the north. The bridge seemed to bring the same order to his thoughts as it did to the cars streaming over it, and as he considered the river, he was struck by a stillness and a grandeur that had nothing to do with the more frenzied atmosphere in which he had lived for the previous twelve years. It was difficult to believe he was still in Manhattan, but the certainty that he was added to the allure; as he looked farther south, at the outline of midtown, he felt as if a fever had just broken. The city had always seemed alive to him — and in ways that were increasingly difficult to romanticize — but from this vantage point it appeared less monstrous than benevolent, and in admiration he felt an encouraging spark of love and possibly forgiveness.
Yes! I just love how this passage captures the feeling I get when running south on the greenway underneath GWB, past the lighthouse, and around the bend, and then — bam! — there is midtown hovering in the distance. But I’m getting carried away with my own unique experience here. In truth, TMC also takes place in Paris and Vienna, and so really will appeal not just to Manhattanites, or Manhattan-philes, but to Metropolitans generally.
All this blabbering on, and I don’t think I’ve answered my own initial question adequately, but hopefully I’ve provided some general sense of The Metropolis Case. I’d love to say that it’s a book for everyone, but it’s not. Some people may find it uncomfortable, because they don’t like opera, or gay people, or cats, or whatever. Like those living in the City, to enjoy TMC you have to be willing to accept a bit of chaos, deal with some graphic depictions of life, suspend some disbelief, and have an open mind towards cultural experiences.