Christian Pan’s “City of Desire” is Haunting, Hot, and Heartbreaking
Early in the twentieth century, T.S. Eliot wrote, “Let us go then, you and I, through certain half-deserted streets, [through] [t]he muttering retreats[o]f restless nights in one-night cheap hotels [a]nd sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells.” His poem, “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock,” captured the lonely, smoky grime of London where his protagonist, Prufrock, recounted a life of missed connections, indecision, regret, and melancholy.
Christian Pan, evokes these same themes in his collection of short stories, City of Desire. Set in New York in the gritty 1980s, his characters walk past the same “lonely men in shirt sleeves, leaning out of windows” that Prufrock did, even though the continent has changed, and seventy years have passed. It speaks to the universality of the human experience Pan has brought richly to life.
The reader feels like a voyeur, looking into apartment windows from the snowy street below, imagining the lives lived in those rows and rows of rooms. To read City of Desire is to find oneself in a bar where booze and smoke make the air thick, where everyone is trying to hustle for sex or money or love. Pan shines a light on what the observer often misses — that no one tells the truth, that nothing is as it seems, that we’re all using each other, just to feel a little less lost.
Each of the five stories bristles with sex, but Pan gives it to us as he gives us the city — anonymous, morally ambivalent, opportunistic, a little dangerous but worth the hassle all the same. Ingrid, the main character in the first story, “Everything I Remember is Gone,” describes her first experience in the city as a dancer trying to make it. Though she lived in a tiny apartment without much furniture, ate almost nothing, and worked and rehearsed every day of the week, she recalled it as “the best summer of [her] life.” Sex is messy and complicated, but there is nothing like it.
The characters Pan pens are flawed and imperfect, though as the main character in “Red” repeatedly stresses, they are all trying their best to appear like “a good guy” or woman, even though they aren’t. Sex loosens the mask, and when it ends, many of the characters feel the need for isolation where they can unravel into themselves.
In the last story, “Dorothy,” the most poignant of the collection, the main character is young, naïve, and finding his way in a new city. After sex, he wants something beyond the physical: a more satisfying conclusion, a connection, an opportunity for intimacy. When he sees Dorothy one more time on campus, he calls out her name, but the look she gave him makes him suspect “that was not her name, had never been her name, and by my voicing it — here in broad daylight, in public, in front of others — that I was breaking some kind of unspoken agreement. Shattering the last vestiges of the spell, like raindrops drying on the glass and the steel.” More than memorizing a map or showing his new roommates a great place for pizza, this is the essential lesson he must learn about the city. No one is who they say they are, and everyone is only out for themselves.
In many of Pan’s stories, there is a hint of desperation that can lead to trouble if not contained. It’s the kind of desperation that is born of a failure to connect. People come to New York City to be someone, a dancer, an intellectual, an actor, an artist. Dreams don’t always come true. Not all of us can be Michelangelo, made immortal, our mark etched in stone. Most of us are Prufrock, lost, alone, destined to be forgotten, and just trying to pretend at our greatness long enough to get laid.
Christian Pan’s City of Desire is an excellent collection, one that resonated in a way that won’t easily be shaken. It is not a one-handed read; it is too melancholy, too beautiful, too artful to be used in that way. Though the erotic notes are there, it is the characters that excite and resound. In its unflinching gaze, the reader will find parts of themselves. Though the world has changed since the 80s, the rich, noisy, cacophonous experience of trying to connect with another human being is entirely the same.
Despite the colorful characters, it is the city that forces itself to the forefront of the imagination. It runs through each of the stories, providing the backdrop, setting, and context. Pan’s depiction of New York City is one of the book's strongest features. Though it’s sold romantically as a place where every dream can be realized, we are made to realize that is only what we project onto it. It is as it always has been — the endless, uncaring, lonely city, “like a garden of metal knives.”
“New York fucking City, baby.”