Americans have long had a complex relationship with their nation's largest city. Despite (or perhaps because of) New York City's central role in the financial, social, and cultural life of the nation, many have fantasized and depicted its destruction in print, on canvas, and on the silver screen. In this book Max Page examines nearly two centuries of works depicting New York destruction in an effort to draw out their social and cultural meaning. From it he divines commonalities that say much about our broader anxieties regarding modern society, anxieties that we project onto the city in disaster tale after disaster tale.
Page's examination is chronological, with all the strengths and weaknesses that come with this approach. In the nineteenth century, destruction typically took the form of some sort of natural disaster, a modern-day biblical cleansing that would wipe away the sins Americans already associated with Gotham. By the early twentieth century, some authors offered social criticisms as well as moral ones, as did W. E. B. Du Bois when he penned a short story that used the survival of a black man and a white woman to make a broader statement about racism. The destruction of the city was also sometimes accomplished at the hands of an foreign attacker, a useful way of making political points about preparedness and vulnerability. By the 1960s, the sense of urban crisis came to predominate in many depictions, suggesting that its destruction would come from within rather than without. Though the attacks of September 11 brought a temporary moratorium on such explorations, it was not long before the city was being flooded, frozen, and smashed once again, demonstrating that as long as New York remained America's premier metropolis it would be continued to be targeted by writers, artists, and film makers.
Broad ranging and generously supplemented with illustrations, Page's book is an interesting examination of the meaning behind fictional destruction of New York. The September 11 attacks loom large within his analysis as an intersection between life and the theme of the works in his study, suggesting just how much of our fixation on this day was rooted in the longstanding fixation he examines. Yet his focus is somewhat idiosyncratic, as he excludes many relevant works (such as Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka's novel Warday) while important historical events such as the burning of the city during the American Revolution -- seemingly relevant given the author's focus -- barely rate a mention. As a result the book ultimately proves to be something of a disappointment; while readers interested in New York City or disaster fiction with find points of interest in it, most will finish it wanting more than what Page offers, which is a shame given the promise of his topic.