As a New Yorker by choice, rather than birthright, I’ve always had mixed feelings about the city’s somewhat incessant need to define its residents as either “natives” or “transplants.” Which isn’t to say that I don’t respect the unique blend of street savvy and odor tolerance that it takes to actually grow up in the Big Apple, but rather feel that the city is—must be, really—a byproduct of its residents in their entirety, not merely those who happen have owned Upper West Side co-ops since the late 1970s.
Still, as a dutiful transplant, I’d like to think that I’ve made a decent effort to avail myself of all that New York has to offer, not only in the sense of museums and landmarks, but also in history and culture. Of course New York’s more famous progeny—Woody Allen comes to mind, as do the Rockefellers and Roosevelts after whom the entire city seems to be named—maintain reputations steeped in NYC charm even as their exports reach the country as a whole. But there are a whole host of other people—from politicians to playwrights to restaurant proprietors—about whom a Maryland native like myself can be lambasted for not knowing, should they come up in conversation this side of the GW Bridge. To this day, not a month passes without my stumbling into some social faux pas whereby I reveal that I’ve never heard of Robert Moses, learned about Ed Koch or read anything by Gay Talese (for the record, only the last of these is still true.)
Anyway, I bring all this up because I have a sneaking suspicion that Fran Lebowitz is one such person—a suspicion at least partially confirmed by a friend’s only lightly condescending chuckle when I asked whether he’d heard of her. An essayist whose work covers such diverse topics as apartment hunting, social etiquette and the importance of sleep, Lebowitz—even when not explicitly focused on New York City—is just the sort of person that only seems to exist here, in part because Iowans probably can’t relate to being frustrated with the quality of 4 a.m. takeout. Lebowitz is an unapologetic New Yorker, the kind whose entire oeuvre is an incidental precursor to #firstworldproblems.
And yet, even though I pilloried Nora Ephron for her latest collection of essays—whose purview seemed to include only semi-sarcastic griping over inconveniences as dumb as a restaurant’s choice of pepper—The Fran Lebowitz Reader, which is in many ways similar to I Remember Nothing, made me extremely happy. Not only is Lebowitz the kind of grumpy woman whose somewhat selfish worldviews I can get behind, but she has reassured me that I am truly a cantankerous old New Yorker at heart, just here for the late-night Mexican food and an opportunity to scowl at tourists.
(For the record, it is tempting to assume that Lebowitz’s discontent is a product of her age, the way Nora Ephron’s seem to be, but the majority of these essays were written when Lebowitz was in her 20s and 30s. Which just goes to show that it’s never too early to embrace one’s irritability.)
I have about a zillion favorite quotes to post at a later date (tomorrow) but suffice it to say that Lebowitz covers all the requisite topics for a curmudgeon. She’s adamant in her dislike of other people, her disdain for the pretentiously artistic and her affable frustration with the constant obligation to write. She’s also clearly (and sometimes annoyingly) of the financial means to have certain #firstworld stances, like the general avoidance of public transportation and the proclivity to dine out for most meals. But for whatever reason (perhaps because Ephron was writing in 2010, whereas most of The Fran Lebowitz Reader—a combination of Lebowitz’s Metropolitan Life and Social Studies—was written in the 70s and 80s) Lebowitz’s griping comes across as only facetiously self-absorbed.
Indeed, Lebowitz doesn’t seem to take much of anything—let alone herself—too seriously. She’s prone to double entendre, loves puns and more than once addresses a topic or complaint through an absurd hypothetical (one essay, for example, takes on the subject of stage mothers by imagining a world where there are equally driven maternal figures for other careers: architecture mothers, talk show host mothers, mortician mothers, etc.) She is also a short writer—most of the essays are under five pages—which has the effect of making her seem in tune with the triviality of some of her grievances.
Look, if you’re going to pen complaints from an apartment in Greenwich Village (however modest it may be by New York standards), those complaints are only funny if you understand their relative lack of merit. By which I mean that the hilarity of people like Larry David isn’t that they don’t know they’re being assholes. It’s that they do know it, and don’t care. I think to some degree that very brand of comedy, if it didn’t originate in New York, is at least emblematic of the people who thrive here. There’s a fine line between petty inconvenience and actual hardship; a good humorist just knows how to exploit it.
TITLE: The Fran Lebowitz Reader
AUTHOR: Fran Lebowitz
PAGES: 333 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Metropolitan Life, Social Studies
SORTA LIKE: Nora Ephron meets Larry David meets Woody Allen
FIRST LINE: “Fran Lebowitz still lives in New York City, as she does not believe that she would be allowed to live anywhere else.”