In his debut novel, Dan Kois vividly conjures the lost New York of 1991.
Early on in Vintage Contemporaries, an exceptionally warm-hearted new novel by Slate columnist Dan Kois, two women who are both named Emily start to become friends.
“If we were characters in a story,” says one of the Emilys, “it would be pretty confusing that we were both named Emily.”
The other Emily, our point-of-view character, immediately volunteers to be Emmy. The first Emily renames her Em instead.
In this tiny, quirky moment, Kois packs enormous amounts of information. There’s Em’s self-effacement, her eagerness to please, her willingness to reshape her identity around whatever seems stronger than she is. There’s Emily’s cool assertiveness, her sense of self, her willingness to take it as a matter of course that whichever Emily has to pick up a nickname, it’s certainly not going to be her. The breezy metafictional wink of if we were characters in a story establishes that this is a world of people who read, and who are going to think about how their lives resemble the lives they read about.
Most importantly, the fact that the Emilys share a name points to the emotional core of this novel. Theirs is one of those friendships so deep and so intense that the lines between identities become porous, and one self bleeds into another. There are moments in Vintage Contemporaries where, despite their opposed personalities, you’re not exactly sure which Emily you’re reading about at any given moment.
The two Emilys meet in the much-mythologized East Village of the early 1990s: the era of scrappy community squats in abandoned buildings, of the Act Up campaign, of starving artists who could still afford Manhattan rent. They’re both just out of college. Em has come to New York to become a writer and finds herself working at a literary agency, struggling to get her head around the realities of publishing. Em is developing a site-specific production of Medea on the Brooklyn Bridge, which she refers to, fait accompli, as her breakout piece.
In a breezy 316 pages, Kois follows the Emilys back and forth across time, from their early ’90s meet-cute through the slow dissolution of their friendship to their reunion as fully-fledged grownups in 2005. Lurking in the 14 years between the two sections is a gentle melancholy: for the relationships that fell apart with time, for the dreams that were never achieved, for the New York that was lost as those East Village rents skyrocketed.
Vintage Contemporaries does not linger in its sadness. Part of the argument of this novel is that books about happiness are as worth celebrating as books about tragically beautiful people having tragically unhappy sex and all the other trendy topics du jour, and so while it mourns its lost city, it never wallows in grief. Instead, with uncool Em as our protagonist, it mounts a convincing case for such uncool causes as good taste over fashionable taste, editing as creative craft work, and smart novels where everything matters only as much as it ever matters in life.
In many ways, Vintage Contemporaries is a love letter to the ethos of Laurie Colwin, a writer of what she used to call “domestic sensualism:” books about basically decent people trying their best at life, often failing, and eating beautifully described food in the process. Colwin died in 1992, but she and her smart and elegant domestic novels (plus cultishly beloved food memoirs) are enjoying a belated renaissance, having been reissued in trendy new editions in 2021. Vintage Contemporaries makes it clear that the Colwinessaince is long overdue, and that it aspires to follow in her very human-scaled footsteps. In this, it mostly succeeds.
That’s not to say there aren’t clumsy moments. A plotline about the office sexual politics of 2005 comes off as slightly clunky, an attempt to play with the gap between Em’s 2005 perspective and the reader’s presumed 2023 mores that works better in theory than in execution.
Much stronger is the story of Em’s great creative project, which turns out to be not writing her own book but helping someone else make hers better. As an agent’s assistant in 1991, Em stumbles across a Colwin-like writer of small, lovely, cheerful novels who has been consigned to the euphemistic marketing category of women’s fiction and there ignored. She’s at first bewildered by the books, considering them middlebrow and domestic and easy to ignore, but she finds herself compelled by them almost in spite of herself.
In 2005, Em finds her writer friend experiencing an unexpected renaissance, having become the pet project of a highly fashionable literary young man. Everyone, it seems, now sees what Em had to work to see in 1991: that cheerful books about women’s domestic lives are worthy of sustained aesthetic attention. But it takes Em’s editorial eye to make those books as good as they can possibly be.
Vintage Contemporaries is, of course, biased when it comes to this argument. This is a lovely and mostly cheerful novel about women and their domestic and professional struggles: it is the kind of book its characters champion. In its sweetness and the delicacy of its approach, its shining array of well-chosen telling details, it more than makes its case.