Book Review: Masculinity in Contemporary New York Fiction by Peter Ferry

Ferry, Peter, Masculinity in Contemporary New York Fiction (London: Routledge, 2015) Pp.182  $140/£85

9781138016040Peter Ferry opens Masculinity in Contemporary New York Fiction with a bold and lengthy excursion into autobiography. Declaring that ‘New York City is the greatest city in the world,’ (1) Ferry tells us about the huge influence the place has had on his life, from his childhood love of Ghostbusters to conducting research in New York Public Library. For those expecting critical detachment, Ferry’s tone in these early pages will grate (‘if it is good enough for Jerry Seinfeld, then it was good enough for me!’ (5)) This initially gauche approach however soon gives way to an informed and largely successful study.

Ferry weaves his exploration of masculinity in the works of Paul Auster, Bret Easton Elllis’ American Psycho, and Donamerican-psycho-book DeLillo’s Cosmopolis around the figure of the flâneur. All three writers for Ferry not only demonstrate ‘the sustained significance of the flâneur as a tool for examining the social construction of masculinity,’ (28) but also its efficacy in their ‘writing [of] counter-hegemonic alternatives for the New York City male.’ (34) Indeed Ferry is committed throughout to locating progressive images of masculinity. Though he often leaves the politics of this endeavour troublingly implicit, Ferry’s readings of Auster, Ellis and DeLillo are nevertheless astute, and bring a fresh perspective to how each writer presents masculinity in the context of New York City’s unique socio-cultural milieus.

Paul Gavarni, Le Flâneur, 1842

Paul Gavarni, Le Flâneur, 1842

Ferry sets up his study with a detailed account of the history of the flâneur. Chapter Two, ‘Writing Manhattan, Writing Masculinity,’ deftly and concisely traces this figure from Baudelaire, Benjamin, Poe, to Dickens, before reading E.B. White’s Here is New York (1949) as a ‘classic piece of flâneurial writing on the city.’ (19) Things get more complicated in the contemporary period however after postmodernist critiques of the flâneur’s supposed objectivity, and feminist interrogations of the persona’s masculine privilege. Ferry answers these charges by stressing how, in writings by Auster, Ellis and DeLillo, the flâneur displays a self-reflexive attitude towards masculinity, which is ‘shaped within the urban arena by the various discourses at play,’ (34) but of which ‘he does not exist outside.’ (28)

Walking the city is in fact a transformative practice in Ferry’s estimation, as clear in his interpretation of Auster’s various father characters. By ‘walking the streets of Manhattan as a form of self-reflection’ (71), these men progress toward ‘counter-hegemonic models of fatherhood.’ (71) Ferry is also unafraid of reading against the critical grain, suggesting for instance that ‘it is too simple to shatter Patrick Batemen and read him as a fragmented subject.’ (78) Rather Ellis’s titular psycho is ‘experiencing the severe social realities of the pressure…of New York Wall Street manhood.’ (78) Well-versed in current debates and with a keen eye for detail, Ferry’s close readings are a highlight of this study, and they thoroughly establish masculinity as a major concern for the writers under consideration.

The book struggles however to mobilise these readings in support of a convincing argument. This is not because Ferry lacks an overarching purpose, but because he leaves his key terms under-theorized. Without a more rigorous account of what constitutes ‘counter-hegemonic’ masculinity, for example, Ferry is often at risk of eliding his readings’ political reverberations. To argue that Auster proposes ‘the benefits of adopting counter-hegemonic practices of active and engaged fatherhood’ (71) is revealing in this regard. Being a good dad may be ‘subversive’ (a term that Ferry uses a lot) in relation to the apparently ‘archetypal role’ (71) of absentee American fatherhood, but it also dovetails neatly with conservative notions that every successful family needs a heteronormative father.

cosmopolis_uk_firstFerry’s implicit treatment of key terms is also a problem when it comes to his idea of ‘gendering’ the text. Commenting on previous analyses of DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, Ferry argues that ‘a more useful reading can found if we gender the novel…[to highlight how] DeLillo is writing…a counter-hegemonic narrative.’ (138) If DeLillo is providing ‘a critique of the global hegemonic male’, (139) then why do we need to ‘gender’ the text to understand it? Ferry’s methodology here is in danger of becoming self-fulfilling, retroactively justifying a critically ‘gendered’ reading in light of DeLillo’s own supposed dissident treatment of masculinity. Ferry does not help himself by forgoing a conclusion to the book, which may have been a good place to clarify what his ‘gendered’ readings have aimed for.

Masculinity in Contemporary New York Fiction then would benefit from a more interrogative account of just what is at stake in Auster, Ellis and DeLillo’s depictions of masculinity. Nonetheless, this gap does not fatally detract from what remains, overall, a well-executed study. Ferry communicates his ideas with an admirable verve and conviction, and his skills as a close reader, of both literary texts and existing critical commentary, make this book a compelling read. By establishing the flâneur as a major tool with which these New York City writers and texts explore masculinity, Ferry sets impressive ground for future explorations of gender and urban experience in contemporary literature.

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About Edward Jackson

Edward Jackson holds a PhD in English from the University of Birmingham. He is the author of David Foster Wallace’s Toxic Sexuality: Hideousness, Neoliberalism, Spermatics (Bloomsbury Academic, 2020).
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