An article in The New York Times not long ago certainly got people talking. Or rather, it got some people in two coastal American cities talking. The rest of the world? Not so much. “Los Angeles and Its Booming Creative Class Lures New Yorkers,” sighed the Gray Lady, and crankypants on both coasts waded into the woefully predictable fray. (“New Yorkers are obnoxious,” went one argument. “Angelenos talk about guacamole, like, all the time,” went the other. There. I just saved you from having to read the comments.)
In point of fact, most New Yorkers don’t spend a lot of time thinking about L.A., and when their thoughts do turn westward, it seems many of us are more or less fond of the place. It’s got fine weather, terrific food, engaging architecture, and more world-class cultural attractions than even Southern Californians themselves give it credit for. Aside from the traffic, the Dodgers, and the fact that it’s not New York, what’s not to like? The folks I know who live in L.A., meanwhile, feel pretty much the same way about Gotham. It’s a swell town to visit, but it’s not their town. And that’s all right: They like it that way.
What the Times article didn’t bother to point out is that creative types have been moving to L.A. from New York—and from everywhere else in the world—for a long, long time. After all, for much of the 20th century, and well into this one, Southern California has been where the money’s at. Movies, television, porn, video games (an industry projected to hit something like $80 billion in revenue by 2017)—most of the globe’s most popular and profitable entertainment offerings still have deep financial and creative ties to Hollywood, specifically, and to L.A. in general.
(The Bay Area, with its awkward, hyper-moneyed nerd culture inexorably scraping away at so much of that remarkable region’s traditional appeal, is part of another conversation entirely.)
Oddly enough, not long before the Times article appeared, I’d been mulling the dynamic of the creative spirit’s attraction to the big and the small screen as typified by one particular writer’s career. David Benioff is the co-creator and showrunner, along with D.B. Weiss, of HBO’s Game of Thrones. A native New Yorker, Benioff first showed up on most people's radar as the author of the fine 2002 novel, The 25th Hour. He also wrote the screenplay for Spike Lee’s strong adaptation of that book, so it’s not as if he resisted the Hollywood siren call for long. And why should he? If a young writer gets the opportunity to shape his own work for the movies, while working with a director of Lee’s unquestioned—if craggily uneven—talent, he’d be a fool not to jump at the chance. And Benioff is clearly no fool.
In subsequent years, Benioff has worked on a number of movies—some of them quite good (The Kite Runner), some of them promising but dreadful (X-Men Origins: Wolverine)—and TV shows, while also keeping up with his own fiction. His excellent 2004 story collection, When the Nines Roll Over, proved he was as deft with the tricky aspects of shorter narratives as he was with the classic demands of the novel.
But the best work Benioff has ever done, in any medium, remains his endlessly entertaining and, at times, deeply moving 2008 novel, City of Thieves.
Now, making a big deal about a decade-old novel by a guy who—let’s be honest—only a tiny percentage of pop-culture consumers have ever even heard of might, at first blush, seem kind of odd. But at a time when it’s increasingly difficult to go to any party, any bar, any ball game, anywhere, and not hear people raving about HBO’s Game of Thrones, debating whether the latest season lives up to earlier seasons even as they dive preposterously deep into the show to try to tease out (often delusion-fueled) clues about where the narrative might be headed—well, it gets a little stale. With all respect to Benioff’s and Weiss’s series, which is clearly one of the most impressive small-screen endeavors of the past 20 years, the show still falls short of the uniform brilliance of George R.R. Martin’s novels. The show is very good; Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books are, each and every one of them, great.
So why bring up City of Thieves at all? At the risk of singling out David Benioff’s best book as an emblem of what makes genuine literature more lasting than even a show as excellent as Game of Thrones (its first two seasons, anyway—then it started to stagger a bit), I’d argue that reading City of Thieves is a deeper, more satisfying experience than watching the HBO series. Anyone who’s never heard of the book should find it, and read it. Now.
The story Benioff tells in City of Thieves is relatively simple. In fact, it has the lineaments of a fable, and the author keeps his writing as understated (and, frequently, as unsettling) as a tale by the Brothers Grimm. The gist: During the barbarous, two-and-a-half-year Nazi siege of Leningrad, a Soviet colonel sends a Russian teen named Lev Beniov and a roguish Red Army deserter named Kolya on a mission: find a dozen eggs for the colonel’s daughter’s wedding cake.
To Benioff’s lasting credit, the small saga (the sagette?) that unfolds from that seemingly absurd premise is entirely gripping: Kosinski’s The Painted Bird comes to mind, as do works by Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, and, at times—especially in the book’s knife-sharp dark humor—Flannery O’Connor. This is a tall tale for grownups, replete with sex, poetry, mass starvation, a charming, quasi-reliable narrator, Jew-hunting Einsatzgruppen death squads, cannibalism, and countless brief, virtuosic bouts of comedy. Kathryn Stockett, the author of The Help, once called City of Thieves “the perfect novel”: That’s mighty praise, but it’s nevertheless true that the scale, the pacing, and above all the knowing, humane tone of the book feel, in the end, flawless.
Of course, comparing or contrasting a relatively slender novel about the Second World War—no matter how well it was received when first published—with a sweeping, massively complex HBO series about dynastic power struggles, dark witchery, and polar zombies in Westeros and Essos is not, strictly speaking, fair, and suggesting that one is “better” than the other might sound downright bumptious.
Art isn’t a competition, after all. Right?
That said, few pleasures can compete with buttonholing friends and strangers in order to laud imaginative works that have struck deep, deep chords in one’s own life—works that, for reasons as discreet and obscure as mist, have gone unremarked for so long by so many others.
No one can guarantee that Benioff’s City of Thieves will be read a hundred years from now. Hell, no one can guarantee that anything will be read a hundred years from now. But if any effort of Benioff’s survives into the 22nd century, I’d wager that it will not be the admittedly terrific HBO series to which he has devoted the last few years of his creative life, but will instead be the quieter, enduring, coming-of-age novel that he wrote in his 30s and that, all these years later, still feels wholly, bracingly new.