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.


The Aftermath is Uneven, but Better than Advertised

The Aftermath (2019)
Directed by James Kent
Fox Searchlight Pictures, 108 minutes, R (brief nudity)

The Aftermath, a British post-World War II romantic drama, is based on the namesake novel by Rhidian Brook. The title holds a double meaning. First, it is set in the firebombed ruins of Hamburg, Germany, immediately after the war; second, it also deals with the emotional aftershock of personal loss.

Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) arrives in the British sector at a time in which thousands of Hamburg residents are homeless and combing through rubble looking for loved ones, food, and possessions. The city is also a hotbed of Werwolf activity, it being the Nazis’ answer to the underground–a movement formed in late 1944 to foment resistance to occupiers via assassination and terror.

Morgan is ensconced in digs he’d never come close to in Ye Olde England. The sleek and well-appointed estate of modernist architect Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) has been seized for Clarke’s use as a headquarters. Morgan sends for his wife Rachel (Keira Knightley) to join him and things sour from the start. She does not understand why he’d bring her to a city of death and destruction, hates Germans, and is contemptuous of Lubert and his oh-so-utterly-unlike-England house. She wants Lubert, his teenaged daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann), and their housekeeper sent to the relocation camps.

Morgan, though, is an idealist who wants to help Germany rebuild. He tries to befriend locals and has bonded with Lubert, whose wife was killed in the bombing of the city. Morgan understands (though he hasn’t come to grips with) loss, as his and Rachel’s son Michael was killed during the Blitz of London. He’d like to allow the family to stay, as there is plenty of room and Lubert is amenable to staying in the attic. Try telling that to a 14-year-old who viscerally dislikes the English as much as most of them hate Germans. Increasingly she skips school to help dig out the city and falls under the sway of Albert, a young Werwolf firebrand. Other English officers and friends warn Morgan that he is naïve and that sentiment grows as Werwolf killings increase. He is determined, though, to apply the velvet glove rather than an iron fist.

Perhaps Morgan should have been warned against leaving his wife at home with a stud like Alexander Skarsgård! Rachel’s attitudes shift and a dangerous liaison develops. The Aftermath shifts from Hamburg to reconciling passion, reason, and grief. It’s a good story that’s competently told, though one usually expects more than just competence in a film and this one is no exception. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the movie, yet it feels flat and over-mannered. It is difficult to present emotionally gutted characters in a convincing manner–especially when it’s so obvious that libidos aren’t even in the same book, let alone on the same page, as their brains. Perhaps the novel developed these themes better, but Rachel’s turnabout is too sudden and Lubert’s icy distancing melts like some one fired up a blowtorch. One also wonders why desperate Hamburg residents hadn’t confiscated parts of his estate.

Oddly, the characters who remain emotionally shut down the longest are the most convincing. Thiemann strikes a fine balance between defiance and vulnerability–just as one expects from someone in their early teens. Clarke, who looks like a bit like a young Colm Meany in this film, also stays in character until it makes sense to shift. His demeanor of hard work and dedication is compensatory, but it makes sense. I suspect that director James Kent and the screenplay of James Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse are more to blame for gaps in the performances of Skårsgard and Knightley, though I always find myself thinking two things in Keira Knightley films: (a) She’s a poor man’s Natalie Portman, and (b) she should be tied to a table and force-fed a sandwich.

Critics savaged The Aftermath, though I give it a qualified thumb’s up. It brings to life grainy black and white photos of Germany in the days in which the war is over, but smoke still rises from the ruins and peace remains fragile. Its foreshortened look at wartime loss notwithstanding, it also gives us a glance at how individuals clear out the wreckage of personal trauma. It’s often the case that those blocks are harder to move than the walls and foundations of ruined buildings. The Aftermath could have been a better film than it was, but its faults don’t warrant its critical beat-down.

Rob Weir


Marriage Story: Overlooked

Marriage Story (2019)
Directed and written by Noah Baumbach
Netflix, 137 minutes, R (for no good reason!)
★★★ ½

Marriage Story is moving, sharply written, and well-acted by its principals: Scarlett Johannson and Adam Driver. If only the secondary cast had been up to snuff, this film would have made waves instead of a puddle.

The title is Marriage Story, but it’s really about divorce. That’s a topic director and writer Noah Baumbach has explored previously in The Squid and the Whale (2005), which was based in part on his parents’ divorce, and the current film echoes his own from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh (who gave the script a thumb’s up). We come in on what looks to be a lovefest, with Nicole (Johannson) and Charlie Barber (Driver) scribbling all the things they love and admire about the other. Except, it’s for a mediator.

The impending divorce is Nicole’s idea and (on the surface) it boils down to a single factor: New York or LA? Charlie is a hot theatre director in New York City. He has featured Nicole in his plays for over a decade, which resurrected her career. Outside of New York, most people remember her for a teenager role in which she bared her breasts in a trashy Porky’s-like movie. That was then, but when Nicole is offered a TV role, she yearns to be independent, leave New York, and move to Los Angeles, where her mother and sister live. Charlie’s work is in New York, though, and he has a Woody Allen-like devotion to the city. The two initially agree to part ways without lawyers, but the complicator is their adorable young son Henry. As you can imagine, this is a deal-breaker.

Even though Charlie loves Nicole’s mom and sister at least as much as she does, he is not an LA kind of guy. He flies west to see Henry, Nicole, and her family only to learn that Nicole has hired high-powered divorce lawyer Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern). He too needs to lawyer-up, or he might lose everything, including all custodial rights over Henry. (Forget the fact that he has stronger parenting skills than Nicole!) The proverbial fur flies and issues lingering below the surface emerge. Of course, the fastest route to losing a lot of things, including huge amounts of money, is to entrust the future to lawyers who tell you to fight or you’ll lose everything.

Johannson and Driver are superb, as you might expect of two of the finest actors of their generation. Johannson is, at one moment, a bribing mommy and the next, an ambitious ice queen. In a nice role reversal, Driver is the more vulnerable partner who cries easily, though he too can be driven over the edge. In short, what we have is an awkward divorce in which neither Nicole nor Charlie can be genuine, as they are cast into roles they must play before an avoidable tragedy burns itself out.  Baumbach’s dialogue is tight and shifts when needs be from tender to acidic. It’s mostly believable, though it must be said that New York theatre comes across as far weightier and “important” than Hollywood. It’s intellectual discussions and mixed drinks in dark-paneled bars versus poseurs and cocaine in the sunshine. Even the music is different: Sondheim versus a family cabaret.

Alas, misfired direction on Baumbach’s part mars the film. I’m a Laura Dern fan, but she’s pretty bad in this movie. She plays a high-priced divorce lawyer like a touchy-feely therapist with sharks’ teeth. We first see her in her office wearing a pair of Louboutin red heels, which she kicks off to climb onto a leather sofa to hug Nicole. This, mind you, during her initial consultation. This is unethical behavior; imagine the uproar if this had a been a male lawyer! Dern overacts throughout the film and when she goes up against Jay Martin (Ray Liotta) her performance wilts in comparison to Liotta’s surgical approach.

Nicole’s mother Sandra is played by Julie Hagerty, and Merritt Wever is sister Cassie.  Both are dreadful. Sandra is allegedly a former TV star, though she seems more like an Earth Mother from the food coop who happens to be living in a fancy home. Wever is a neurotic bundle of nerves for most of her screen time. Wallace Shawn makes a cameo as part of Charlie’s theatre company and he too is often over the top. On a sadder note, Alan Alda plays Bert Spitz, Charlie’s first lawyer. His Parkinson’s is very much on display, even to the point where he grabs his shaking right arm and pulls it down from the camera angle.

Still, the script, Johannson, and Driver are reasons aplenty to see Marriage Story. Inexplicably, though critics generally loved this film, it did nothing at the box office and returned less than 20 percent of its $18 million production costs. The film, like Charlie and Nicole, deserved a better fate.

Rob Weir