Triburbian State of Mind: Author Karl Taro ‘87 on the Inescapable Suburbia of NYC

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The modern history of Tribeca through the eyes of New Yorkers can be summed up by an almost aphoristic anecdote about how one writer settled into the neighborhood in the late 2000s: “We bought this loft from a puppeteer, but I doubt we’re going to sell it back to a puppeteer.”

The writer is Karl Taro Greenfeld, who has spent much of his adult life abroad in his native Japan, and in Hong Kong where he worked as a journalist after graduating from Sarah Lawrence in 1987. Triburbia, Greenfeld’s first novel after five books (“My publisher wants to call it a novel, so it’s a novel. That’s what it says on the cover, anyway,” he quips), traces the multi-layered lives and relationships of a clique of middle-aged Tribeca denizens.

At the story’s center is a group of fathers who habitually have breakfast together after dropping their kids off at school — one of the very few things in the novel indisputably based on real life. (Fun fact: the idea of dads having coffee as a foil to moms having cosmos was a “thing” enough that the Times was ON IT at one point). However, it quickly becomes clear that the breakfast club is merely a convenient framing device, and deceptively so. “It’s not as much a guy book as it can seem…” Greenfeld explains.

The novel is organized by chapters titled after the addresses of the characters’ abodes, but the subtext of “65 Hudson” or “113 North Moore” is closer to terms one might find in a psychology textbook than on Curbed NY. In fact, Tribeca recedes into the background as we become closer to each character and their layers of careers, statuses, relationships, and other social signifiers peel off. Triburbia patiently deconstructs the intricacies and power dynamics of marriage, family, and community.

But as dire as the subject may be, its presentation is never dull. On the occasion of Triburbia’s launch, Greenfeld gave a short reading at the Tribeca Barnes and Noble, which earned waves of laughter from the audience as he read from a new book-in-progress. An excerpt about a stoned father being called to school because his son had touched a girl inappropriately was the best example of Greenfeld’s prose: unironically snarky, empathetic while brutally honest, with insights so biting that you wonder how many hearts he has ripped out for the sake of close character study.

JC: What drew you to living in Tribeca in the first place?

KTG: We moved back from Hong Kong, and I think it was my wife’s idea because she had heard that the local public school was a good public school. A lot of the decisions were made with the kids in mind. I don’t know why we concluded that this was a good public school, or who made that observation or wrote that survey, but that was one of the reasons that we looked into the area. This is the first time that we’ve ever made a decision on where we live based on something like quality of the school.

What other neighborhoods in the city have you lived in?
I always lived in the Village. After Sarah Lawrence, I lived on 11th St., then I moved to Japan, lived in Tokyo for a long time, moved back and went to Columbia for a while, but still lived in the Village. It was always within this narrow band of the city. This is probably the first place I’ve lived in Manhattan outside of the Village, which is weird.

What did you like about the Village?
What I like about New York is that there is still enough of a mass of media industry and people, so print and books and magazines and journalism still feel like they are viable businesses. I like it here because there are more writers and people in my field who I can talk to. More importantly, I can feel like I’m in a field, instead of if you live outside of New York, you’re like the only person doing that. I like the feeling of being part of a community. Other than that, I’m not an enthusiastic believer that you have to live in New York City. In fact, I don’t see why you have to.

No matter what life you look for in America, once you have kids, once you own real estate, [you’re] trapped in a web of life, you end up basically embodying this kind of suburban life that you thought (say when you went to a place like Sarah Lawrence) you were rejecting. It just doesn’t look suburban.

What you’ve done in Triburbia—and it cannot be more obvious than the title—is comparing Tribeca to a suburb. Having lived in actual suburbs, what kind of differences or similarities are there between the dynamics of a “suburb” within a city and an actual suburb?
This is sort of the point I’m trying to make with Triburbia. You have all these people—like me, I guess—who come here and want to believe that you’re still some kind of artistic, creative, bohemian person, but you also want to live in a nice area with nice schools and a big living space. They come to Tribeca and view themselves as being a certain creative type, but then, in a strange way, despite the urban setting and the somewhat glamorous idea of what Tribeca is, they end up having values and lives that are very much equivalent to John Cheever’s suburbia. You end up with your parents’ suburban value and your parents’ suburban lifestyle.

In a strange way, it’s also saying, no matter what you do, you become a version of your parents. No matter what the external life looks [like], the internal value and the internal worries and all that are essentially universal. At least in [the] American middle class, suburban means universal. If Triburbia has any kind of socio-economic point, that might be it. No matter what life you look for in America, once you have kids, once you own real estate, [you’re] trapped in a web of life, you end up basically embodying this kind of suburban life that you thought (say when you went to a place like Sarah Lawrence) you were rejecting. It just doesn’t look suburban.

So what “Triburbia” ends up being is a state of life, a state of mind, or a value system rather than a physical location.
I think so, yeah. It has to do with the reckoning and coming of family. If, like me, you grow up thinking you’re going to be an artist, and that’s the primary driver of how you make your decisions, you don’t ever think kids, or family. I never did. So when that appears in your life, you find yourself suddenly, very quickly worrying about things like how good is the local school. Whereas the day before that—or what feels like the day before that—you’ve never even known where the local school is.

Once you have kids, kids have to be at school between these hours and these hours, so suddenly you are up in the morning at times you never would’ve been up before. Right there, you are suddenly going from being someone who is awake from 3 p.m. to 5 a.m., to being a person who’s awake from 7 a.m. to midnight, just like everyone else. Your kids force you into this conformity, in a sense, but you don’t have a choice. You either want your kids to go to school or you don’t. That’s one of the things the people in Triburbia have come to realize, that they are trapped in life in a way they never would’ve guessed when they set out to become a painter or a sculptor or a writer or whatever. They never imagine they would have to live bankers’ hours.

That seems to partially explain why there is a very satisfying rebellion coming from the characters, whether they are rebellious through thoughts, or actually acting out.
I think that’s right. There is a rebellion, and there is also a constant tension about whether people want to stay married or not, and how they are going to work it out. One of the things I wanted to explore was that every day, every marriage is a little different. One person has the upper hand one day, one person the upper hand on the next. That balance is always shifting and changing. In that sense, in these relationships, marriage is an act of will, and divorce is like an act of won’t. You make a decision every day. That dynamic of two people, what they are telling each other, what they are telling the world, how they deal with each other, and what they are admitting to themselves even, I find very interesting.

All the kids stories spoke out from there. Kids only see half of the story, of what’s being projected out. One of the things I tried to point out is [that] how these people behave can warp kids, too, and make kids a little bit weird.

Many of the chapters—and I find the same with some of your other short stories—read very autobiographically, like a memoir. But I remember that you often insisted in interviews that the characters are 100% fiction, in the sense that they are not based on any particularly persons in real life.
Stranger things have happened, but I can’t think of anything in the book that’s happened in real life. If you know a writer, and you know a whole circle of people in his life, it’s easy to say this is drawn from this person, etc. That’s just the way it is. But for me, it didn’t stem from that. I did have breakfast with the same group of guys, and that was one of the catalyzing ideas for the book. But everything about the lives felt made-up to me.

One of the questions raised is the line between fiction and non-fiction. Do you think people, or do you as a reader respond differently if you know something is fiction or nonfiction when you’re reading it?
I’ve wrestled with that, as a writer and a reader. I’ve never been sure. I think if the narrative is good enough, you’ll stop wondering what it is. If a narrative is so persuasive and the current is so strong that you are just riding it, it’s just a story…

The example I always give is Ryszard Kapuściński. Beautiful stories, but a lot of them turned out to be questionable. Yet the stories are so great that you never even stopped. Later, maybe you would start wondering, or a fact checker finds out this is wrong, that is wrong. But does it take away the actual escape and entertainment you got while reading that text? I don’t think it does. Maybe you feel some betrayal, but I think if you’re honest with yourself—“I really like reading that,” or “I had a great time”—then who cares later?

My understanding of the form of memoir is that it has to exist somewhere between fiction and nonfiction. And we all understand that. One person’s memory has to be flawed on a factual timeline. We accept that, but it’s also clear that we won’t accept too much. Like what Obama did in Dreams From My Father, he made composite characters to make it work, and we kind of accept that. Maybe we accept that because we expect politicians to play with facts. But then James Frey did some stuff and got into a lot of trouble for it. This is like the whole memoirist chapter in my book. He gets in trouble, but he’s always justifying himself by saying wait, all these other people do this stuff, but they don’t get in trouble. Why is there a double standard? Well, we’re on a slippery slope anyway, I don’t know where the line is. Then I just realize I don’t care if it’s fiction or non-fiction, it’s just someone telling a story.

Photo credit: Esmee Greenfeld

Jaime Chu is a junior who likes to talk about books, sometimes even with people. Bare-all memoir-in-progress at @j__mechu.

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