The Perfectly Just City: Mark Helprin’s “Winter’s Tale” (1983)

And I can think of no other book that is more definitively dreampunk than this one, not just in concept and subject matter but in execution. While reading it, there almost seems to be a deliberate haze surrounding the words, images, and characters, as if one is peering through a wall of clouds, some of the most wonderful, awe-inspiring, terrible, beautiful events appearing in flashes only to be obscured by the next wave of misty white before even more dazzling imagery appears. The book has some actual magic–the aforementioned flying horse, telekinesis, time travel, resurrection, potential visitations from heavenly figures of no specific religious origin but which call to mind pagan traditions just as strongly as Judaeo-Christian ones to the point that the best word to describe the novel might be “cosmic”–but more often than not, it simply feels magical.

There is a deliberate quaintness and out-of-time-ness to the prose that cannot be explained merely by the fact that, having been written in 1983 (when I was three years old), Helprin could not have foreseen such everyday, prevalent parts of modern early 21st century society such as cell phones and the Internet. The New York City that Helprin creates does not exist in any time but its own, to the point that even the sections that take place in the late 1990s (which was the future at the time) feel as if they are happening in the far-distant past. Among countless examples, Hardesty’s cross-country journey seems as if it would be more at home in the 1920s or 1930s (people always seem to be traveling by train and boat in this novel, rarely ever by airplane, as if it isn’t even an option), as do the descriptions of the battling newspapers, The Sun and The Ghost. It’s as if, in the alternate world of his novel, the spirit and ghosts of the late 19th/early 20th century America into which New York City was truly born never really left.

At the same time, even in the mists of cloud wall, Helprin nails our New York City. He could not have known what the end of the millennium would bring, and so he creates an alternate New York City, that is in some ways idealized and yet at the same time harshly accurate. He describes the city as a monster that could devour the unsuspecting person up whole, and he is right; he also describes the city as a glowing superlative of justice and beauty, and he is right. Who else but a lover and connoisseur of New York City would be able to so accurately predict the complete rebirth that could occur after a major, apocalyptic crisis? While the city did not completely set ablaze on the eve of the millennium, as Helprin predicts, the aftermath of the catastrophic events of September 11th, 2001 is uncannily alive in Helprin’s words:

‘I’ll tell you why, Governor’…[the mayor] returned, his words rising all over the place. ‘The city’s not going to burn forever. We’re going to rebuild it. By summer, you’ll see, it will become something that you’ve never dreamed of. Do you know what else? If this fire stops at night, we’ll begin to rebuild on the next morning. If it stops in the morning, we’ll begin to rebuild in the afternoon. When that happens, I want all the arsonists to be dead, and I want anyone who even entertains the idea of lighting a match to be able to remember what happened to the people who started the fire.’

‘I’ll believe what you said about rebuilding,’ the governor said, ‘when I see it.’

‘You’ll see it. We’re the quickest rebuilders in the world-we don’t talk as fast as we do for nothing. As much as the fire takes from us, we’ll take from it. We’ll pretend it’s a tourist.’

This passage is indescribably brilliant, not only in its hilarious punchline, but in the absolute truth behind every statement. Uncannily, every part of Helprin’s passage occurred to the letter, including the attitude regarding the “arsonists.” The last line, of course, is wrapped in good ol’ New Yawk City resolve and ballsiness. Prager admits that the city is a bastard, but a beautiful creation, too.

On a brief aside, my two favorite sections of the book are the entire first part, which reads like a self-contained novella, with a heartbreaking, uplifting, transcendent love story that never fails to spill a few tears from my eyes, and the tragicomic story of Hardesty Marratta’s journey to New York City, including his hilariously frustrating time spent with the unfortunately named, mountain-climbing dwarf, Jesse Honey. His calm assuredness that he is the smartest, most athletic, and most capable man in the world, despite his diminutive side, missing appendages, and complete inability to bring any plan to successful completion all screaming that he is not any of the above, is not only oddly inspiring but outrageously comical.

In my mind, Winter’s Tale is one of those all-encompassing texts in which one can find everything: the meaning of life, 42, and all that jazz. I see it as not one novel but a multitude of novellas, short stories, and asides all commenting on the central themes of justice, love, death and rebirth, swirling all the characters into a wintry whirlwind that takes them all spinning in unforeseen directions and turns, every single of which comes together masterfully in its breathtaking, heartbreaking, staggering, ingenious conclusion. In Winter’s Tale, Helprin captures New York City, as a living, breathing, moving character better than in any novel I have ever read, whilst completely captivating me with his perfect command of the English language and deeply clever turns-of-phrase.

In short, for me, Winter’s Tale is the perfect novel.

Author: Robert Berg

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