Dear Miss Metropolitan
(Henry Holt and Co., 2021)
What remained after my reading of Carolyn Ferrell’s first offering since Don’t Erase Me (1997) was something like the memory of having spent a number of hours poring over a complicated tapestry. Scenes stood out as details of a larger canvas, and there was a vague impression of the thread that bound it all together—what Henry James once called the figure in the carpet. But of course this isn’t a carpet or tapestry. Rather, it’s a street mural that stretches across the entire face of a city block in Queens.
Entering into this book is like leaping into a pool either a little too hot or a little too cold—it’s bracing at first, but then you adapt and cannot imagine any other pool. The story launches with copy, a newspaper article halfway through its proofing process, describing a horrific crime: three “victim-girls” abducted in Queens, held in a “house of horrors” on an otherwise quiet street, subjected to rape, asphyxiation, and “general torture” for upwards of a decade. Their escape launches a decades-long media frenzy, which includes the newspaper article you’re reading, and perhaps the actual book that employs it as prologue.
Readers of Dear Miss Metropolitan are meant to arrive at a certain point, I believe, when the situation begins to seem a bit familiar (though book reviews may spill the beans for them…). Most will recall the Ariel Castro kidnappings, circa 2013, which given Trump and the pandemic might just as well be prehistory. Some will feel compelled to Google the case to measure the extent to which Ferrell draws on reality, and indeed, a critical study could and probably will occupy itself with the story’s departures from real life, particularly in regard to a child that results from the above-mentioned sexual assaults. For our purposes, suffice it to say that a true crime has been uprooted in time and place. Any additional concern with what’s real and what’s not misses the point of a book that aims at—and becomes—the animating, unflinching epic poem of Queens, NY.
There are numerous characters: Fern and Gwin are the first victim-girls, and they are soon joined by Jesenia, a kind of warped old sister figure who is trapped with them until she gives birth. The mystery of Jesenia’s subsequent disappearance, along with her ultimate fate, fuels the book’s plot. In addition to the victim-girls, we visit the perspectives of various neighbors of the horror house (including the titular advice columnist who “covers” the event because she lives nearby), detectives, reporters, media figures, and the aforementioned child who is the issue of the crimes, once she has grown up to creative writing aspirations that mirror what one imagines the impetus of the novel to have been.
An unavoidable association: Ferrell, like the young women who serve as her characters, disappeared after an auspicious start. It’s been 24 years since the appearance of her story collection, which included a piece later selected for The Best American Short Stories of the Century, and more recently a story that George Saunders listed among tales likely to stand the test of time.
What happened? Where has she been?
It would be crass to liken a writer who sinks into a deep think for a quarter century to women who were tortured for a decade—if not for the fact that Dear Miss Metropolitan similarly observes that Fern and Gwin emerged from circumstances (abusive step-fathers, neglectful mothers) that are different from their confinement only by matters of degree. Before a reader can question this, the book’s meta-conscience asks whether such an observation is cliché—“I was not your everyday survivor. I was nobody’s stereotype,” says Fern—and proceeds to set its sights higher, to an indictment of the media-crazed pop culture world in which the crimes were committed. Throughout, Ferrell plucks like a guitar string the ostensible line that separates fiction from nonfiction—the aforementioned would-be writer observes that “though I’m currently studying to be a novelist, the blood flowing through my veins is FACT.”
Like most good books, Dear Miss Metropolitan defies easy summary. Any attempt to document the events—stretching from the victim-girls’ early lives to the year 2039, as they reflect on lives lived in the glare of perpetual media scrutiny—rudely disassembles a fractured and frenetic structure that describes the characters’ ongoing temporal dislocation. The book is jarring in subject matter and delivery, and I will make no attempt to make it less so.
Ferrell’s prose has a patter and a pulse, which is to say it is language that has been truly composed. Sometimes we listen in on distilled minds, voices offering inner monologues or answering questionnaires, and on occasion the writing is like the whole of a culture, approximated in words. Pop culture and media—of which the victim-girls will become yet another artifact—are ubiquitous exactly to the extent that their families are absent. There is a pervasive lament for men to be decent, or at least present.
Dick Wolf’s Law & Order, and its many spinoffs, may be said to have launched the stripped-from-the-headlines genre—with a purposeful nod to Joyce Carol Oates. With persistent references to Law & Order throughout the book—characters expressing unyielding loyalty to the show, even as their lives threaten to become an episode of it—Dear Miss Metropolitan is both an example of the genre and a commentary on it.
Local revelations of personal religion come from Prince. A sense of justice is handed down by Judge Judy. Law & Order tells New Yorkers where their lives fit inside the eight million media-shaped narratives of the naked city.
Wolf’s original featured clips of everyday New Yorkers, brief vignettes that invariably led to the discovery of the crime that instantly eclipsed those same lives. The next 58 minutes was a rapid-fire history of the months or years it took for justice to be either delivered or aborted.
Ferrell inverts the formula, and expands the scope. Details of the crime and the villain, called Boss Man, along with the investigation, are presented almost with reluctance. They do not need to be repeated here. For the most part the story stays with the denizens of the borough, which is portrayed not as though it is in a city in a state in a country, but rather like a civilization nestled inside an inhabitable moon of Jupiter. Ferrell’s Queens is as discreet as Baldwin’s Harlem, and her book is about trauma in the same way Baldwin wrote about bitterness—there is the trauma and the bitterness that lingers in individual minds, and there is also the embittered, traumatized culture.
Although most of Dear Miss Metropolitan is told in the voices of the victim-girls (Fern is as close as we get to a protagonist), it’s a reporter—the same reporter whose half-edited feature sets the story in motion—who provides what the book offers by way of a thesis. Narratively cubist, Ferrell keeps the reader oriented with periodic flat statements of fact, and here we find a direct mission statement clipped from the reporter’s application materials to graduate school, where she plans to investigate the disappearance of Jesenia, the missing victim-girl:
Historically, we’ve believed that our simultaneous waves of liberation would carry us through to a new day. Instead, racial discrimination, violence against women, human trafficking, forced marriage, date rape, and all manner of misogyny have tamed those waves.
What is the purpose of the fictionalization of an event, after what has appeared on the “record,” in print, and on screen? The record is what happened, the fictionalization is how and why it happened. The broken minds behind broken times. Writers are not reporters, but observers tasked with making sense of disturbing events, expanding the web of what and who might be at fault, even if the web winds up ensnaring those who put the event on the record in the first place. Ferrell is this kind of writer, and the web she weaves ensnares all for scrutiny and examination, perhaps even herself.
In breadth and skill, insight and innovation, Dear Miss Metropolitan takes its place alongside Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 among the most profound works of literature to have emerged from crimes so horrific they became international sensations. Years in the making, emerging from a mind transformed by decades in a chrysalis, the book leaves one heaving a glorious sigh, feeling that it was well worth the wait, and harboring a secret hope that the next cocoon will crack more quickly.