Emerald City Themes
by Jennifer Egan

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Emerald City Themes

New York City as a Utopia

The story is set in New York City, the "Emerald City" of the title. New York City is an “Emerald City” in the sense that it is a glittering, mythical, and magical place where everyone aspires to live. However, it is also “emerald” because green is the color of envy; it is depicted as a place of cutthroat competition. The story deals with a collection of people from other places: Rory is from Chicago, Stacey is from Cincinnati, and Charles is from Santa Cruz. All of these characters arrive at a location which they accept as the greatest city in the world and which Rory romanticizes from the first paragraph. Rory in particular is always trying to live up to the image of New York that he has imbibed from novels and films.

One of the high points of the story occurs when a group of fashion models are boasting about the far-flung locations in which they have worked. One of them is going to Tokyo, and another, Anouschka, starts to quiz Stacey, a less successful model, on where she has worked. Tokyo? Milan? London? Paris? When she finds that Stacey has been to none of these cities, Anouschka contemptuously asks where she has been, and Stacey replies that she has been to New York. This is received as a joke, but it soon reminds all of these characters from elsewhere that they are already in the greatest city of all.

Pretentiousness and Social Competition

Rory and Stacey are both desperate to be part of the fashionable group of "people who matter." Rory has the sense that these people are constantly elusive and that he is always just missing them, no matter where he goes. He goes to great lengths to acquire the right look, even choosing his drugs based on what is currently fashionable and trying to gain weight so he will have a paunch like that of his boss, the photographer Vesuvi, whom he regards as one of the people who matter.

Anouschka is the most pretentious of the models and the most concerned with social competition and putting others down. It is no accident that she is also one of the most successful and that Rory is impressed despite himself at the familiarity of her face from fashion photographs: "Never mind what you thought of Anouschka; she was that woman—you recognized her." Anouschka tells Rory that her father is a professor, boasts about her intelligence, and quizzes him on his reading. She is furious when he points out that War and Peace, which Rory has never read, was written by Tolstoy, not Dostoevsky. This incident connects with the story’s theme of deceptive appearances.

Deceptive Appearances

Rory's friend Charles offers a sardonic commentary on the unreal world of Rory and the models through his career as a "food stylist." Charles's job is to make food look as appetizing as possible for advertising purposes, but rendering the food photogenic also makes it inedible. For instance, when advertising breakfast cereals, Charles always uses glue instead of milk, because glue looks whiter and pours more slowly.

Rory's job as a photographer's assistant is generally to make women look as no women in the world actually do. In this sense, his task is the opposite of that of Charles, since he is not attempting verisimilitude or even beauty. Stacey, who is naturally pretty, is told when she applies for a job that she isn't ugly enough, since "beauty today is ugly beauty." The interviewer tells her that he wants "gorgeous, mythical monsters" rather than pretty girls. At the same time, Rory realizes from Anouschka's petulant behavior that she is not even a woman, let alone a "gorgeous, mythical monster"; she is still a child. As is the case with the girls he remembers from school, all her attempts at maturity and sophistication are as fake as the effects they create for her in the studio.