Sudhir Venkatesh’s second work of popular ethnography – the sort of sociological study, he glosses modestly, that involves observing individuals then writing down what they do – is a study both of a changing aspect of New York, and a changing aspect of himself.
His thesis is this: unlike in other cities, immigrants wanting to make it big in New York – to transcend traditional barriers and improve their lot, licitly or otherwise – need to learn to “float”. The drug-dealer who wants to graduate to selling cocaine to wealthy upper-middle class clients needs to find a way to “float” into that milieu, via contacts, brokers, connections in new worlds. Those who cannot work their way through, past, over these barriers will fail; a would-be high class escort unable to “appreciate good food [or] discuss politics and the opera” with clients will never achieve her aim.
Wasn’t it possible that the whole vast global city was actually knit together by the invisible threads of the underground economy?
What emerges is a fascinating story of a kind of ultra-loose secret network – a gift economy in which individuals working “off the books” will look out for each other. The old hierarchies, in which a top-class restaurant depends for its functioning on people whose weekly wage wouldn’t cover dinner there (and who won’t get anything if the restaurant fails), are not as rigidly stratified for these immigrants – these “clerks, cab drivers, cleaners, nannies, bus boys and so on”.
And prostitutes, obviously. This is a book full of escorts, madams, hookers and call-girls – of “professional” sex workers and of students who top up their income with a little sex work. And Venkatesh, despite what should be his professional detachment, is, one woman tells him, the same as any other man: he swiftly develops a King Arthur complex and wants to rescue and protect these women. Just how much he’s like other men is brought home to him not just when a “john” he’s interviewed arranges a meeting with other men in which they relate Venkatesh’s interest in their activities to his own marital unhappiness, but on a second occasion when this man, Martin, invites him out again. Over drinks, Martin informs Venkatesh that he’s taken his advice and intends to confess to his wife that he uses prostitutes – and that his wife is on her way to the bar where they are now. Venkatesh, appalled, makes his excuses.
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He’s an odd sociologist, and this is an odd book, though a thoroughly engrossing one. The process of its composition is laid bare; even one of his most conflicted characters can say to him, “‘You seem, um, not totally together.’” Reflecting this, Floating City has a more candid strapline in the US than in the UK: Stateside, it’s subtitled “A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York’s Underground Economy”; in the UK, with the vaguer, and vaguely more prurient, “Hustlers, Strivers, Dealers, Call Girls and Other Lives in Illicit New York” – with the “other life” most closely studied Venkatesh’s own. Almost all the way through the book he is torn, he makes clear, between an academic and a popular approach. “None of my academic colleagues would be interested”, he reminds us, more than halfway through the book, “in a single person’s experience, only those shared by the multitudes.” And while a work of “journalism” (a dirty word) concentrating on the fascinating stories of these individual is likely to find a broader readership, it will do his academic career no favours. (Happy ending alert: he finds a way to resolve this conundrum and do both. The reader benefits too; this exegesis of the social study reveals much more about sociological work than most “straight” studies would.)
His uncertainty, and his somewhat obsessive deconstruction of it, is the thematic throughline of a book which seems to write itself as you read. In a way it makes for a classic bait-and-switch: the story of the academic whose studies teach him as much about himself as about his subjects. This does provide the book with a rather neatly cinematic shape – but Venkatesh has this covered too, including a scene where a would-be film producer reads one of Floating City’s case studies and declares it ideal film material. It’s hard, on finishing this fascinating, occasionally hair-raising, sometimes very sad moving about “other” lives in the modern city, not to agree. C