Book Review: Lost and Found, Stories from New York

A review of a new anthology from the Web site Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood

Too often, it seems, we hear of publications abandoning their print runs for a Web-only presence. Lost and Found: Stories from New York inverts that trend. Here, the Internet encouraged the stories that now populate a physical book. And not just any book. At nearly 900 pages, Lost and Found is a bible of short stories, easily crowding out other volumes on the nightstand.

This is the second anthology of work that originally appeared on the Web site Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood. Thomas Beller created the site in 2000 as an outlet for work after so many of the publications he contributed to shuttered (including the New York Times City section). As an afterthought, he says, he added a button that said “Tell Mr. Beller a Story.” And the stories poured in, from novices and Pulitzer Prize winners, from journalists and fiction writers. Jonathan Ames, Alicia Erian, Madison Smartt Bell, Mike Wallace–this book culls contributions from over a hundred contributors, including Beller himself.

In his introduction, Beller explains the dilemma of organizing such a book. Should he arrange the stories by neighborhood? By theme? In the end, it was Charles Babbage who inspired Beller to leave the work in random order. Babbage was the inventor of the first computer, which he dubbed the “Difference Machine.” The name struck Beller as ironic. “It’s true the Internet has opened incredible possibilities for communication among people who would never otherwise meet, but if there’s one thing computers and the Internet do efficiently it is group people together. It’s a sameness machine.”

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Cities, conversely, defy that kind of sameness. The random ordering is an honest approach to a book about New York. It mimics the peripatetic city experience itself, where you move in and out of new environments, catching random snippets of conversation here on the subway, there on the sidewalk. Beller amplifies these vignettes, offering up what feels like intimate conversation between old friends. We are the eavesdropper hearing the innermost dialogues of passersby and we cannot control what we hear. It is a distillation of all that unfolds: love, heartbreak, birth, death, fear, racism, salvation, boredom, and those singular moments that so eloquently define a place.

Take Amy Brill’s account of traversing Manhattan to Brooklyn during the 2003 blackout. She comes home to find “ten hardy souls drinking wine, eating a meal from the grill,” and she joins them, grateful for food and community after so many hours traveling in the dark. The neighbor’s children are camped out on mattresses in the backyard. Brill writes:

I wonder if this is a night they will remember for the low hum of grownup voices at a table, or the sticky way their skin will feel when they wake. If they’ll remember that the light they quit fighting when their eyes got too heavy wasn’t coming from the TV or the movie screen or the video game or the computer or even the lanterns strung out along a wire all around the yard. I wonder if they’ll remember that the last light they saw this night in Brooklyn was the sweet orange glow of a full August moon.

Lost and Found can be jarring, making you feel happy at one turn, uncomfortable at the next. It is unsettling in places, serendipitous in others. It is, like the city itself, a glorious mashup of life.

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