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The Civility of Voyeurism

Photo courtesy of Manhattan Rare Book Co.

Back in March, I read Amor Towles’ debut novel, Rules of Civility – partially because the publisher was taking me to a dinner with the author, (full disclosure here) but once I read the first page – yes, it passed the ol’ first page test with flying colors – I was in.

Rules is a novel about a year in the life – 1938 to be precise – of young Katey Kontent, 25-year-old New York City secretary, struggling with identity and her place in the world. (I know, I know, yadda-yadda. Bear with me.) At a New Year’s Eve party, Katey and her friend Eve meet Tinker Grey, a handsome, gadabout, high-society-type straight out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald piece. Tinker’s friendship opens new doors for Katey and she floats through the upper echelons of NY society with ease, although always as more of a voyeur than an active participant. I know, it doesn’t fit in with my usual genres of whale books and crime novels, but Towles is a truly stellar talent. Without a trace of contrivance, he completely brings 1930’s NYC to life – the clothes, the restaurants, the bars, the dialogue, the smoking, drinking, dancing – everything, top to bottom. (It’s a little bit Mad Men for the 30’s.) To me, that’s what Rules is all about – it’s a view into a lost world of American life. Sure, 1938 proves to be a life changing year for little Katey Kontent, but Towles’ creation of the era is what has stuck with me as something special.

I always love seeing a complete era of Americana brought to life in the pages of a novel – even more impressive to see in a debut. (Towles is an investment banker by day, on top of it.) 1938 itself was in the middle a pretty fascinating time period of American history – the Depression was almost behind us, but World War II still loomed, unseen, over the horizon. What would that have felt like? Katey has a certain giddiness with having the oyster of the world before her at 25, but what would your “everyman” have been like, riding the subway to work every day, glad to have a job?

Which brings me back to the opening scenes of Rules – set forward in 1966, Katey and her husband are attending the Museum of Modern Art exposition of Walker Evans‘ voyeuristic NYC subway photographs, Many Are Called. Within the faces captured surreptitiously by Evans, Katey sees her old friend Tinker Grey and the flood gates of reminiscence open. As much as I loved the ensuing book, I was drawn to the use of Evans’ work, as he has been a favorite photographer of mine since my photography student days in icy upstate New York. (In fact, I own an original print of Evans’, as well as a well-worn copy of the book version of Many Are Called.)

In 1938, Evans began taking photographs of people on the subway with a camera hidden in his overcoat. (He shot through a buttonhole!) To me, the photos are as much about the vulnerability of the subjects as they’re an unprecedented glimpse into a bygone era. They are completely unposed and raw – the subjects are exactly as they were in life, they’re not gussied up for the camera, they’re not even aware of its existence. They are are lost in their own thoughts, daydreaming, chatting with friends, looking out the window, people-watching. There’s something amazing about looking at someone from 70 years ago as they people-watch…

Anyway, the images are a perfect complement to Amor’s novel, as they bring a visual element to his words and the era in which he set them. (This post is as much a plug for Walker Evans as it is for Amor Towles, I suppose.) Here are a few, courtesy of Yale University Press, who re-published Many Are Called in 2004.

And don’t forget to read Rules of Civility. Cheers.

Ah, the innocent era before the connotations of the “Hitler moustache.”
(Above) She’s always been one of my favorites. Shock? Awe? Disgust? Happiness?

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This entry was posted on August 8, 2011 by in Amor Towles, review, Walker Evans.
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