Emily Barton in the NYRB

(New year catch-up post, five of five.)

About three years ago, a completely amazing review of Brookland was published in the New York Review of Books. It was more than just a review, really; it was a 3,500-word consideration of both Brookland and The Testament of Yves Gundron. The article was originally password-protected on the NYRB site, but as of this past April, it’s freely available: “The View from the Bridge,” by Christopher Benfey (NYRB Vol. 53, # 13).

Benfey closes with the following paragraph (I’ve taken the liberty of adding a direct link to footnote number five here—which might look a little funny if you were to print this page, like an endnote to an endnote):

In her first two novels, Emily Barton has taken on for herself Crane’s self-appointed task to “absorb the machine, i.e., acclimatize it as naturally and casually as trees, cattle, galleons, castles, and all other human associations of the past.” But something else is at work in Barton’s finely tuned vision, it seems to me, though I raise it with some hesitation since it is nowhere explicit in Brookland. I mean the events of September 11, 2001, and their aftermath, coinciding with the period during which Barton, living in Brooklyn, wrote Brookland. The Brooklyn Bridge itself was rumored to be on the list of potential al-Qaeda targets, with Osama bin Laden reportedly threatening to bring down “the bridge in the Godzilla movie.”[5] Barton appears to be alluding obliquely to the attacks of September 11 in her references to the “twin towers” of Prudence Winship’s bridge, in her attention to the “retaining wall” of her father’s distillery, which is also the site of his death, and in her notion of the bridge as a monument to the dead. Whatever we make of these apparent allusions, Emily Barton has written a moving testimonial to the dead on both sides of the river.

Benfey teaches at Mt. Holyoke, and, wonderfully, came to Emily’s reading at Amherst this past spring. I was hanging out with Toby back at the hotel, but I’m pretty sure this idea—that the novel is, allusively, about the beautiful and terrible view from Emily’s old apartment in Brooklyn Heights—didn’t come up at all at the reading; but as to the question of whether or not Benfey’s idea is right on the money, I can safely say: Yes.

I’m still working on my argument that both Brookland and Testament are crypto-steampunk—but that thesis might take a while to work its way into print.