'Christodora' and the New York novel canon
Lately, I've wanted nothing more than to hunker down with a good ‘New York novel’. You the kind I mean: one of those long, emotional tales that ventures deep into the lives of its characters. Crucially, one of those characters is usually the New York metropolis itself – a being that the individuals in the story both live within and in reaction to.
There’s also an important intersection between the New York novel genre and the LGBTQI+ genre. Love it or hate it, Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 novel A Little Life, with its recitation of queer life in America, was influential on both. In fact, A Little Life so intensely affected me that it is perhaps singlehandedly responsible for awakening my adoration for stories set in New York (alongside Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail).
However, while A Little Life is a transformative text, its exploration of alienation has long been a part of the New York novel, ever since Jay Gatsby first stared across the water at the green light hanging at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock. Indeed, New York, with its relentless and overwhelming vitality, is the perfect setting to explore what it means to feel disconnected from that vitality – to feel outside of one’s self, of one’s own environment.
The intersection of all these things – New York, LGBTQI+ identity, and otherness – is explored by Tim Murphy in his 2016 debut novel, Christodora. Moving kaleidoscopically from the early 1980s into the near future, the novel follows an array of characters whose lives intertwine in the iconic East Village building, the Christodora. This includes Milly and Jared, a young and privileged couple with dreams of becoming great artists, and their neighbour, Hector Villanueva, a once a celebrated AIDS activist turned drug addict. Then there’s Ava, Milly’s manic-depressive mother, and Mateo, a young Latino boy and artistic prodigy that Milly and Jared adopt after Mateo’s mother dies of AIDS.
Murphy tells his tale without chronology, as he follows these characters over four decades, offering sporadic glimpses of particular moments in their lives. The result is disorienting, even jarring at times, but this feels appropriate for a novel that is predominately concerned with trauma and the abuse that humans subject themselves to in an attempt to counteract their pain.
The central trauma which Murphy grapples with is that of the AIDS crisis in New York, and indeed, Murphy’s ability to capture the entire arc of this crisis and the activism it inspired is what makes the novel so profound. In 1995, when combination therapy was invented, Hector suddenly finds his years of work and dedication to the cause are at an end, and so, anchored by exhaustion and supressed grief, he finds solace in crystal meth. It’s the same solace that Mateo, a teenager struggling to overcome the chasm between the world his adoptive parents have created and the world he feels he belongs to, finds years later in heroin.
Eventually, and maybe inevitably, Mateo finds Hector, and Murphy, a former addict himself, is remarkably adept at communicating the dual pleasure and misery that drugs offer. He is sympathetic to his characters without dismissing the havoc that addiction wreaks, and aptly illustrates drug use as a direct response to trauma and pain. Ultimately, Murphy emphasises the power of drugs to both banish and summon the past; memories of a life too painful to recall, yet too important to forget.
Much like A Little Life, Christodora is a difficult novel to summarise, because its complexities lie in the small details, the conversations between characters, and the moments of intense joy equalled by moments of intense despair. It’s challenging at times, but it’s also infused with a compassion that novels of its ilk sometimes lack. There’s tragedy here, sure, but it’s reinforced by an unflinching faith in our ability to bridge the divide between alienation and connection.