The Modern American Urban Novel promises to provide "a fresh perspective on the city novel" by focusing upon nature—images of parks, of "animals, insects, birds, flowers, plants, trees, and water," and of scenes set under stars and clouds or filtered through sunlight, moonlight, rain, or snow. Although the study concedes the presence of artifactual structures in city fiction—streets, apartment houses, factories, office buildings—it concentrates upon the writer's use of nature to achieve a variety of literary effects. Some are surprisingly comic or ironic and subversive, and others social, religious, metaphysical, aesthetic.
The novels discussed are Manhattan Transfer, Studs Lonigan, Call It Sleep, The Dollmaker, The Assistant, The Pawnbroker, and Mr. Sammler's Planet. Each receives a minutely close reading in which images are systematically arranged, quoted, and discussed—parks that punctuate the long narrative of decline in Studs Lonigan; flowers and trees that blend thematically with transcendence in Call It Sleep, "the tragedy of change" in The Dollmaker, and "the pain of suffering" in The Assistant; animals that transmogrify the human figures of Mr. Sammler's Planet. The close readings support the study's contention that "[n]ature continues to be one of the richest sources for the creative imagination, and the modern urban novelist is no exception."
Thus, like James Machor's Pastoral Cities, a recent study unnoted here, The Modern American Urban Novel successfully shows city fiction infused with nature images and metaphors. At the same time, it raises an unavoidable question: has its "fresh perspective" pointed to significantly new readings? For example, the impressionistic technique that Goldstein makes central to his analysis of Mahattan Transfer has already been described by earlier Dos Passos critics. And, as Goldstein notes, critics have already argued over the enigmatic ending of Call It Sleep, a profoundly moving but mysterious conclusion that Goldstein sees as transcendent rather than despairing. (Roth himself said that his ending signified the death of an artist, a view that the final sentence would seem to confirm.) Other questions this study raises concern its principle of selection, which has resulted in a choice of texts that are well-known and fairly homogeneous. What if the study had included minority writers and more women; contextualized each novel more broadly; included other cities, like Los Angeles? Would it then have discerned influences, developments, or unexpected differences? And what if it had challenged Emerson's assumption, with which it begins, that nature denotes "essences unchanged by man"? Unchanged? Perhaps the most urgent question, however, is what does "interior structure" mean? Described as giving "interior form to external narrative," it requires a reader to discern the inside and outside of a novel, a puzzling assignment. Its synonym is "texture," the product of an interweaving of "the disparate elements of the novel." Interesting and fresh as this study is, it would be enhanced by some more disparate elements of its own. [End Page 760]