Tuesday 25 May 2021

Urban Renewal

What a great time to read about a city loved by so many.
Three-time best novel
winner N.K. Jemisin's
latest book.
(Image via Goodreads)

For the past year, New York City has been inaccessible to travelers, tourists, and those seeking to commune with its genius loci (though, if Jemisin’s interpretation is correct, this is what the City would prefer). Hardcore urbanists from all over will get a particular thrill from a book like The City We Became, which invokes the boroughs as characters and evokes memories of wanders through their streets.

With a plot kicked off by a young homeless man discovering his destiny as the avatar of New York City, the story involves a larger-scale need to rally the Burroughs to defend urbanism against community-destroying White supremacy in the form of a Lovecraftian horror. This entity lashes out and seeks to destroy New York out of a fear of culturally-rich diverse communities. As with many Lovecraftian horrors, significant elements of the unknown and unknowable are left to the reader’s imagination.

Jemisin’s talent for creating characters we care about surviving and surpassing structural barriers took center stage. Every new superhero needs an origin story and this story provides this by expanding on the creative city hero concept Jemisin introduced in the original short story “The City Born Great.” While a minor quibble, the cameo character Bel seems more Aussie than British to us and no one in our book club remembers seeing a pound sterling note in about three decades. More decisively, the nod to her sensitivity readers in the acknowledgements was appreciated, however some members of the book club felt the characters were reductive and that the narrative occasionally relied on telling the readers rather than showing the heroic status of the protagonists.

This is a novel that is subtly intertextual, paying homage to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and subverting the works of H.P. Lovecraft. In fact, the allusions to Lovecraft are so integral to the text that the occasional forays into Lovecraftian prose became distracting to at least one of our members. Those who dislike the way Lovecraft wrote may find some of the prose difficult. 

But despite being steeped in the ideas behind famous fantasy works, The City We Became sometimes
Given how much this novel is in conversation with
both the city of New York, and the works of H.P. 
Lovecraft, it is worth noting how Lovecraft had
an irrational dislike of New York. 
(Image via NPR)

seems more aligned with the narrative traditions of magical realism; it sometimes isn’t clear where the metaphor ends and what portions of the story are supposed to be read literally. Readers who lean towards more literary novels will likely enjoy this more than those who seek out pulp adventures.

As expected, and true to Jemisin’s style, there's a satisfying through line in The City We Became that illuminates a determinative cultural construction. The divisiveness that we've all seen play out in the US over the past decade or so is simplified to an “urban vs rural” or “white vs non-white” dichotomy in this novel, and we suspect it will play an important role in the next two books. The fact that this tension was not resolved with an unbelievable love-in between the Burroughs (a few of us were dreading that type of ending), and the recognition that spatial and cultural practices, not necessarily political boundaries, provide the glue for urban gestalt provided a graceful end to a fantasy novel focused on character development.

Fantastical stories expect some level of abandon by readers, and for the most part that was easy to do with this book. We were a bit tripped up by a few easy-outs, however, including a pep talk that reminded us of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret and a few convenient but sticky plot holes filled in by bystanders inexplicably unable to see things or eagerly accepting dubious explanations. American exceptionalism also peeked around a few corners (The repetitious refrain: “this time is different / never happened in the other cities”) but this will likely support the book finding its audience.

Given Jemisin’s well-earned following and the timely depiction of a much-loved survivor city, we are glad to see The City We Became on this year’s Hugo short list.

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