If you’ve already seen The Wire, Lorrie Moore‘s excellent essay on the show in the New York Review of Books won’t tell you much you haven’t already heard or read about it. The essay’s appeal is solely that of a smart, top-shelf writer giving her attention to a show that does a lot to get a smart writer’s brain working, and she gets a few great lines in: “Lance Reddick plays Lieutenant Daniels as a princely African-American Spock aboard the starship Baltimore” nails it. (The only apparent reason for the NYRB to take on The Wire now, even though it ended its run in 2008, is the appearance late last year of a collection of scholarly essays about the show, though there’s little evidence in the essay that Moore read more than the table of contents.) But if there’s anybody’s left who needs convincing of the novelistic qualities of the show, the essay should help settle matters. The show, she suggests, isn’t just “novelistic,” but a forceful attempt to expand what we consider “novelistic” today in terms of who gets to be written about in literary fiction:
The use of Baltimore as a millennial tapestry, in fact, might be seen as a quiet rebuke to its own great living novelists, Anne Tyler and John Barth, both of whose exquisitely styled prose could be accused of having turned its back on the deep inner workings of the city that executive producer David Simon, a former Baltimore reporter, and producer Ed Burns, a former Baltimore schoolteacher and cop, have excavated with such daring and success. (“Where in Leave-It-to-Beaver-Land are you taking me?” asks The Wire‘s homeless police informant Bubbles, when driven out to a leafy, upscale neighborhood; the words are novelist and screenwriter Richard Price’s and never mind that this aging cultural reference is unlikely to have actually spilled forth from this character; the remark does nicely).
This shades close to Walter Benn Michaels‘ fuming about how American literature hasn’t produced a great novel about the income gap. But Moore doesn’t dwell on the show’s politics within literature, just its power as a narrative—how it is, as she writes, “arguably biblical, Dantesque, and (Masterpiece Theatre be damned) more downstairs than upstairs.”