Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

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Lillian Boxfish is pretty hip for an old lady in a mink coat. A poet who used to be the highest-paid adwoman in the business, Lillian hates the suburbs, has hated them her whole life, which has spanned the first eighty-four years of the twentieth century. She appreciates rap (more on that below). She is both elegant and a voice of the people, as at ease with bartenders and security guards as she is with the owner of that old Italian place around the corner. She’s friends with a young photographer who lives in a former cookie factory that will eventually play underworld to Lillian’s mock-heroic journey through Manhattan on New Year’s Eve, 1984.

The factory bears the mark of Lillian’s nemesis: the Oreo cookie, a half a package of which Lillian accidentally scarfed while talking to her son on the phone. The Oreo, which ruined her appetite and thus her plans for an early dinner at Grimaldi’s, sets Lillian off on a 10.4-mile odyssey from 36th St. to Lower Manhattan and back. On her walk, she reflects on the changing city, her career (successful), and her marriage (unsuccessful).

10.4 miles, you ask? That’s what the map on the inside cover says. The map, which seems innocuous enough, is an important orienting device for the narrative. Its gesture at navigational accuracy gives the novel an interactive quality that compels readers to extend Lillian’s knowledge of the city, to discover what has become of the landmarks of Lillian’s 1984 journey. Lillian, whose tenure in Manhattan predates that of the Empire State Building, knows all about what the blocks between midtown and Lower Manhattan used to look like. What she doesn’t know is that that abandoned factory that once manufactured her enemy has since become the Chelsea Market, across the street from the old Port Authority building that is now a Google “corporate campus.” The map on the inside cover makes the novel, which might otherwise seem like a quasi-nostalgic 80s trip along the lines of Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor (2009), seem contemporaneous with our Googled earth.

The tension between Lillian’s city-as-palimpsest perspective and the reader’s twenty-first-century prolepsis comes to a head when Lillian gets to the site of the World Trade Center. The block, once called “Radio Row,” was where proto-tech geeks scavenged for parts for the new broadcasting modulation system known as “radio.” Considering how this onetime cutting-edge technology has since become obsolete, Lillian muses:

If some latter-day [Robert] Moses ever displaces them [the towers]—the current tenants’ arcane shifting of cash and commodities someday rendered as quaint as the radio scrappers’ labor … then I suppose I would feel their absence much as I do that of other already absent parts of my city. Dully but not quite fully gone. A pair of phantom limbs.

This passage is Rooney at her best, endowing her narrator with historical knowledge in a way that allows meditation on loss while also setting into relief the movement of history. In such moments, Lillian’s thoughts on the changing skyline become an occasion both to imagine what’s next and to reassess what’s gone.

The specter of what’s missing looms large in the novel. A recurring metaphor is that of a crane that “creates then erases itself from the skyline.” Lillian first heard the metaphor from Bennie, a beau trying to impress her on a fire escape in 1933. It was Bennie’s summary of Lillian’s job as an adwoman at R. H. Macy’s. Lillian later uses the metaphor to describe her parenting style and to condone a medical procedure that should appall her but that she credits, in part, for her longevity.

The problem with the metaphor is that Lillian Boxfish is no crane. She’s the skyline, the novel’s one consistent, adapting presence. In chapters that alternate between her walk and her sixty-plus-year reign in Manhattan, Lillian becomes hyper-present—sometimes to the point of eclipsing the social issues at the margins of her walk. There’s good reason why the novel isn’t more social-realist than it is: Rooney was motivated to write it when she learned about real-life poet and adwoman, Margaret Fishback. In an Acknowledgments section, Rooney calls Fishback “part of a whole forgotten generation of pre-Mad Men advertising women.” It’s the Fishbacks of the world who have been erased from the skyline. Rooney creates Boxfish in part to correct that erasure.

That Lillian is an act of historical recovery, that she is built out of archival research, distinguishes Rooney’s novel from other recent, quasi-canonical retrospective novels about New York. Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude (2003), Column McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (2009), Teju Cole’s Open City (2011), and Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (2013) are all at least somewhat semi-autobiographical. But that trend is changing. More recent retro-NYC novels—such as Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire (2015), Sari Wilson’s Girl Through Glass (2016), and now Rooney’s—are products not of memory so much as of research.

What’s interesting about reading these researched novels is watching how novelists choose to deploy the archive of available information. When one writes about a time and place that doesn’t coincide with one’s own life, one builds a world from a chosen epicenter rather than from lived experience. For Hallberg, the epicenter is the blackout of 1977. For Wilson, it is the surge of Balanchine ballet in New York in the 1970s. For Rooney, the epicenter is Margaret Fishback. Boxfish’s perspective on the city is filtered through Rooney’s commitment to animating the archive.

Which makes for some awkward interactions, like the one between Lillian and hip-hop. Because she is a connoisseur of the cutting edge, one who feels “[n]ostalgia for what’s new,” it’s no surprise that Lillian is drawn to hip-hop. But it’s odd that that Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” (1979), a lyric from which serves as the novel’s epigraph, is Lillian’s siren song, the tune she hears often while walking. Wasn’t “Beat Street Breakdown,” or at least “White Lines,” the hot jam of late-1984?

Pop-culture pedantry aside, Lillian’s ear for rap is tone deaf. She says that rap is “where the verbosity that I and my clever friends prized in our youth has gone to reside,” which I think means that Dorothy Parker was the first rapper. Her rap problem is part of a bourgeois bubble that never quite pops, that gets reinforced by the kinds of current affairs that Lillian knows. While dining with fellow New Yorkers (at Delmonico’s), Lillian talks about an article she read “[a]bout gentrification of all things.” That Lillian reads articles about gentrification but none about Michael Stewart or Eleanor Bumpurs is telling.

Lillian’s bubble does get poked near the end of the novel, in an interaction that acknowledges the existence of the Bronx and of Lillian’s midtown myopia but that results in Lillian trading her mink coat for what her friend Skip the limo driver calls a “b-boy jacket.” It’s not that I think Rooney should have made Lillian an anachronistically woke ally, but I do find the reckoning she receives for trying to Columbus hip-hop a bit unsatisfying. And that it results in her absorbing into her wardrobe a piece of hip-hop culture only proves that an interaction that could have drawn Lillian out of her own orbit only enriches her ability to continue to be herself.

But that kind of persistence—that refusal to be anything but herself—is what we love about Lillian Boxfish. It’s what her walks have always been about. Lillian believes that walking “has done no less than save my life.” She understands the value of unplanned urban interaction:

If one knocks oneself out of one’s routine—and in so doing knocks others gently out of theirs—then one can now and again create these momentary opportunities to be better than one is.

The point of such unplanned breaks in routine is never quite civic, always more about the survival of the self than of the city. As Lillian admits, “When I finally left home, my aim was not to bring succor to the oppressed, but rather to find adventure in the wilds of Manhattan.” Walking through these wilds during dangerous times, she has taken to reciting a mantra that reasserts her claim to Manhattan Island: “The city is a city … But it is also a house. This city is my house. I live in this city, and this part is being remodeled. … It is still my house.”

Which is to say that Lillian’s walk domesticates the wilds of Manhattan.

Jason Arthur wrote Violet America: Regional Cosmopolitanism in U.S. Fiction Since the Great Depression (University of Iowa Press, 2013). His essays on contemporary American literature have appeared in Modern Fiction Studies and College Literature. More from this author →