New York is, famously, the everything bagel of megalopolises—one of the world’s most diverse cities, defined by its churning mix of religions, ethnicities, social classes, attitudes, lifestyles, etc., ad infinitum. This makes it a perfect match for the novel, a genre that tends to share the same insatiable urge. In choosing the best New York novel, then, my first instinct was to pick something from the city’s proud tradition of megabooks—one of those encyclopedic ambition bombs that attempt to capture, New Yorkily, the full New Yorkiness of New York. Something like, to name just a quick armful or two, Manhattan Transfer, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Underworld, Invisible Man, Winter’s Tale, or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay—or possibly even one of the tradition’s more modest recent offspring, like Lush Life and Let the Great World Spin.
In the end, however, I decided that the single greatest New York novel is the exact opposite of all of those: a relatively small book containing absolutely zero diversity. There are no black or Hispanic or Asian characters, no poor people, no rabble-rousers, no noodle throwers or lapsed Baha’i priests or transgender dominatrixes walking hobos on leashes through flocks of unfazed schoolchildren. Instead there are proper ladies behaving properly at the opera, and more proper ladies behaving properly at private balls, and a phlegmatic old Dutch patriarch dismayed by the decline of capital-S Society. The book’s plot hinges on a subtly tragic love triangle among effortlessly affluent lovers. It is 100 percent devoted to the narrow world of white upper-class Protestant heterosexuals. So how can Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence possibly be the greatest New York novel of all time?
Well, it is. It builds itself, obsessively, out of all the essential New York themes. The necessary (but often terrifying) seesawing between change and stasis. The constant drama of taste and class; the connoisseurship of gossip. (One man, preparing to dispense a particularly juicy bit, gives “a faint sip, as if he had been tasting invisible Madeira.”) The shiny lure of fantasy versus the sharp hook of reality. The giant shell game of phoniness and authenticity. The existential strain of distinction versus assimilation—that yearning to be free (one of Wharton’s keywords) but also to belong to a social tribe (another of her keywords). The agonizing, paradoxical struggle to feel like a special individual in a city of millions.
These are the same struggles you’ll find in pretty much all the great New York novels, from Catcher in the Rye to Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Wharton, though, got there first—the book was published in 1920—and The Age of Innocence is also the first New York novel that feels like us. Its concerns are our concerns. (“Yes: my good father abhorred hurry,” says one character. “But now we live in a constant rush.”) There’s even a scandalous financial disaster based on unethical speculation, “one of the most discreditable in the history of Wall Street.” Above all, Wharton’s irony and self-consciousness—the psychic backflips her characters perform in order to gauge their own authenticity and status in the tribe—feel deeply familiar in our age of hipster anxiety and Stuff White People Like: “His heart sank, for he saw that he was saying all the things that young men in the same situation were expected to say, and that she was making the answers that instinct and tradition taught her to make—even to the point of calling him original.”
Also, crucially: The Age of Innocence’s lack of diversity is an illusion. The book is entirely about the moment the barriers broke down—when the roiling masses started to gain cultural traction and define the city, when Society surrendered its capital S. It’s a portrait of the moment that created the city we know today.
None of which should obscure the fact that the book is just flat-out great fiction, with one of the most perfectly melancholy endings you will ever have the excruciating good fortune to suffer through. It will, in other words, break your heart in the end, just as New York inevitably will.