Adam Gopnik’s fans have endured an awful dry spell since 2000, when the longtime New Yorker essayist’s previous collection, Paris to the Moon, saw publication. His polished, observant prose made the recounted experience of living and raising a child in what is quite possibly the world’s most romanticized city resonant and even recognizable. Having spent the subsequent half-decade in New York, quite possibly the world’s second-most romanticized city, he’s put out a spiritual sequel – a new backdrop, a new character in the form of a small daughter – in Through the Children’s Gate.
As so many parents of students abroad discover, extended stays in France have long-term effects on the visitor, not all of them unequivocally positive. Gopnik’s penchant for building grand questions – and, occasionally, their answers – out of the rarely-examined stuff of everyday life, already humming along in his last project, hits top gear in his newest. Taking a cue from his continental colleagues, he’s enthusiastically embraced a host of shopworn devices: the startling contradiction, the majestic juxtaposition, the epic inference. This is not always to the good – the sociological blustering pioneered by genuinely French commentators is, disappointingly, not entirely absent – but, tempered by Gopnik’s characteristic restraint and uncertainty, it makes for a fascinating verbal lens through which to view existence in New York.
Indeed, if the well-traveled, Canadian-born Gopnik has a stylistic angle, it’s that of a uniquely international perspective on things uniquely New York. This might sound tiring, and sometimes it is, for instance when the author stretches four Thanksgiving pieces into increasingly desperate attempts to squeeze overarching meaning from events. Speculation about what might have been laid bare by the public’s reaction to September 11th feels obligatory. Ambitious meandering constitutes, luckily for the reader, the exception rather than the rule: moment after well-placed moment, rich reflection after unexpected truth attest that Gopnik really is good enough to pull off a new exploration of familiar ground.
At their best, the essays comment simultaneously upon the vagaries of parenthood and New York residence, all the while extrapolating to the universal human experience. Gopnik’s years with an eccentric octogenarian analyst make a fine slice of humor, but the recollection functions equally well as rumination on how life itself should be approached. Make no mistake, it takes real skill to build anything out of the ramblings of an old Freudian whose ultimate piece of advice is the suggestion that “life has many worthwhile aspects,” and Gopnik possesses it. Equally engaging are his thoughts and his transcription of others’ thoughts on the nature of learning, teaching and expertise, the best of which come in “Last of the Metrozoids”, a masterful account of art historian Kirk Varnedoe’s final months spent coaching young Luke Gopnik’s team of eight-year-old football players.
Luke’s presence – an older and, in a certain precocious pre-adolescent way, wiser one – remains nearly as important as in Paris to the Moon, helping to put Dad into perspective whenever a bout of convoluted contemplation entangles the elder Gopnik. Olivia, the young daughter, gets cast as a sort of lifestyle mirror, reflecting the supposed absurdities of the New York way through childhood mimicry. Alas, wife Martha reprises her part as a vaguely-defined character sketch, though she’s a welcome almost-foil to the author when big parenting decisions must be addressed, such as the one you make upon finding the beloved goldfish, a New York kid’s pet if there ever was one, floating.
One suspects, in any case, that the real main character is the quintessential bustling metropolis itself. The essence of this “protagonist” most clearly emerges, however, through mere humans. A handful of remarks on the design, history and appearance of the city appear as well – a few previously published articles of a more journalistic nature are wedged in, none of which sit particularly well alongside the rest of the material – but it’s in the words and actions of Gopnik, his friends and his family that New York comes through. Despite slow points and hitches, Through the Children’s Gate amounts to one of the most eloquent, refined accounts of parenting and New York life in recent memory; that so many have assumed those wells dry makes the whole venture a pleasant surprise.