The City We Became a Big Disappointment

The City We Became (2020)
By N. K. Jemisin
Hachette Book Group, 488 pages.
★ ★

The City We Became isn’t the worst book I’ve read in 2020, but it’s the most disappointing. N. K. Jemisin is a Hugo Award-winning science fiction writer and I had heard great things about her new novel. Alas, The City We Became is a great concept in search of more exposition.

The premise is that great cities like New York need human avatars to awaken them. Jemisin’s universe is the multiverse. Some scientific postulates hold forth the possibility that parallel universes with alternate histories exist alongside our own. Of course, until somebody or something breaks a barrier between our world and an alt.Earth, one can neither prove nor disprove such a hypothesis. In Jemisin’s novel, such a breach occurs.

From the outset Jemisin’s novel drifts onto turf that is more the stuff of comic books and graphic novels than hard science or, indeed, a lot of science fiction. Her New York City seems familiar but not quite, which begs the question of whether the city under siege is itself in a parallel universe. A bit of help might have made what follows more intelligible.

The novel opens with a young multiracial man arriving to New York City for the first time, his intention being to enter Columbia. The moment he gets off the train at Penn Station, he collapses and cannot remember his name. Intuitively, he makes his way across a city under stress; something has just destroyed the Williamsburg Bridge. He jumps into a Checker Cab, that’s actually a special events prop, but its driver, Madison, and “Manny,” as the visitor calls himself, are among the few that can see feathery tendrils rising through the concrete. Manny has to fend them off twice before his calling comes into sharper focus.

Manny learns from a man named São Paulo and claiming to be that city’s avatar, that New York is under assault by The Enemy and that he is the avatar of Manhattan. He must find the avatars of the other four boroughs and collectively awaken New York’s prime avatar, who lies in a deep supernatural coma somewhere in New York. Ok, what is this, some kind of J.R. R. Tolkien “one ring to rule them all” scenario? Each avatar must come to realization that they must give up the notion that a normal life is possible; in fact, their human existence might need to be sacrificed.

Jemisin assembles an interesting group. Brooklyn Thomason, who is black, is former rapper queen MC Free, but now a city councilwoman with a 14-year-old daughter and a disabled father. Dr. Bronca Sidnavoy, a Native American art gallery director, is the Bronx. Her colleagues–including an Asian and a Jewish woman–call her “Old B” because she’s almost 70, but like her borough is full of fight and attitude. Her colleague Veneza, who is Portuguese and African American, is another non-avatar who can see The Enemy. Queens is Padmini Prakash, a Tamil immigrant graduate student math geek, who is pretty much Bronca’s opposite–a shy woman who acts only when absolutely necessary. The holdout is Aislyn Houlihan–Aislyn is sometimes pronounced to rhyme with island–whom The Enemy courts in the guise of a woman in white, when she can hold onto the form. Score another borrowed concept; think Odo from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Aislyn is a 30-year-old Irish American daddy’s girl so full of neuroses that she has never visited Manhattan and often parrots of her cop father’s bigotry.

So, we have five good avatars, including the prime. Three are queer (prime, Manny, Bronca), one is Native, one is Tamil, two are black, and one multiracial. Manny’s intended roommate is transgender and the other two city avatars that appear are non-white. None of Bronca’s work staff is WASP. Jesmin overplays her hand. A racist art collective that threatens Bronca and Brooklyn displays as white, as is “Dr. White,” the same Enemy that befriends Staten Aislyn. Maybe just a little heavy-handed n’est pas? Even without mentioning a white neo-Nazi, there is a sense of Jesmin trying way too hard to tick PC boxes and demonize straight whites. Staten Island is indeed 75% white, but Jesmin conveniently overlooks the fact that half of Brooklynites identify as white and the largest group in Queens claims to be white.* Still another bit of logic-stretching is that two of the five boroughs are represented by those who don’t really know the city, including Manhattan (which is 65% white). I like that Jesmin confronts us with the demographic reality that New York’s soul is marked by diversity; I am not, however, a fan of racial demonization of any sort.

The Enemy, we learn, is actually R’lyeh, from an H. P. Lovecraft short story. It is made manifest as viral tendrils that clandestinely infect New York, but we’re not talking COVID-19. The City We Became moves toward a beat-the-clock conclusion that is, depending on your perspective, either cool or a Williamsburg Bridge too far. Should one need to know a Lovecraft short story to “get” The Enemy? For the record, R’lyeh is the prison of the multi-tendrilled Cthulhu; both he and R’lyeh residents are generally depicted as green. Jesmin’s novel put me in mind of those graphic novels that are mostly artwork and assume readers are familiar with background details. Brush up on your Lovecraft, or you will find Jesmin’s characters all dressed up with no place to go. I wanted to care about this novel more than I did.

Rob Weir

* Race in America is complicated by the fact that more than half of Latinos, the nation’s largest “racial’ minority, identify as white.

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