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Forget all those pandemic novels people have been praising for their prescience in the age of COVID-19: For uncanny relevance, no fictional crisis rivals the showdown in N.K. Jemisin’s new urban fantasy The City We Became. A valentine to New York City, The City We Became depicts a metropolis under attack by a malevolent, infectious invader, aided and abetted by the stubborn fears and self-defeating prejudices of those who mistrust the city’s polyglot nature. No doubt when she was writing it Jemisin thought of the novel as a reflection of city life under the Trump regime, but damned if she didn’t anticipate how the seemingly maximized tensions of just a few months ago could be raised even higher and sharpened to a lethal point.
The City We Became is both an expansion of “The City Born Great”—one of the best stories in Jemisin’s 2018 collection, How Long ’til Black Future Month?—and a riposte to the 1925 H.P. Lovecraft story “The Horror at Red Hook,” a notorious explosion of racist disgust. It’s also a sophisticated exercise in contemporary allegory (and I’m not one to use that term lightly). What it isn’t, at least not consistently, is a crackerjack piece of storytelling. Jemisin’s premise is so savory and persuasive that it sometimes doesn’t matter that she hasn’t found a narrative style worthy of both. The city she sings fizzes so joyously through the veins of this novel that anyone mourning the New York before COVID-19 will likely find The City We Became equally sustaining and elegiac, a tribute to a city that may never fully return to us. Maybe that’s enough.
In “The City Born Great”—which, in adapted form, appears as a prologue to The City We Became—a cheeky black street kid learns that he has become the personification of New York. As an older man and sometime trick named Paulo explains it to him, at a moment of critical mass, a great city achieves a life of its own, a pocket formed in the fabric of reality:
And in that pocket the many parts of the city begin to multiply and differentiate. Its sewers extend into places where there is no need for water. Its slums grow teeth; its art centers, claws. Ordinary things within it, traffic and construction and stuff like that, start to have a rhythm like a heartbeat, if you record their sounds and play them back fast. The city… quickens.
A full throttle paean to New York, this prologue levitates on the velocity of its nameless narrator’s guttersnipe lyricism. “I’ll starve to death someday,” he announces, “or freeze some winter night, or catch something that rots me away until the hospitals have to take me, even without money or an address. But I’ll sing and paint and dance and fuck and cry the city before I’m done, because it’s mine. It’s fucking mine.”
Paulo—who turns out to be the personification of São Paulo, in town to help New York through this crucial transition—informs him that once the process is complete, he will be both himself and a powerful manifestation of the city, able to channel its spirit but susceptible to attacks on its integrity. Also, while his new allegorical identity is burgeoning, he’ll be vulnerable to a predator that wants to consume “the sweet new life” he represents and destroy the city’s soul. That’s what happened to New Orleans, with Hurricane Katrina, and Port-au-Prince, with the 2010 earthquake; both events only looked like natural disasters. In fact, they amounted to the triumph of a city-hating entity from another dimension, one that bears a strong resemblance to Lovecraft’s elder gods.
New York does battle with this entity, which takes the form of cops, naturally. He lures its emissaries into traffic on FDR Drive: “one lane silver car two lanes horns horns horns three lanes SEMI WHAT’S A FUCKING SEMI DOING ON THE FDR IT’S TOO TALL YOU STUPID UPSTATE HICK screaming four lanes GREEN TAXI screaming Smart Car hahaha cute five lanes moving truck six lanes and the blue Lexus actually brushes up against my clothes as it blares past screaming screaming screaming…” He bombards “the Enemy” in metaphysical combat with “a one-two punch of Long Island radiation and Gowanus toxic waste … and to stretch out its pain, I salt these wounds with the memory of a bus ride to LaGuardia and back.” The primary real-world casualty in this battle—which New York wins but barely—is the Williamsburg Bridge, which collapses under the weight of giant tentacle.
The rest of The City We Became recounts the similar awakenings of the avatars of the city’s five boroughs: Manhattan (a racially ambiguous newcomer with a shady past and a sharp wardrobe), Brooklyn (a black former hip-hop MC turned elegant city councilwoman), the Bronx (an aging Lenape lesbian who runs an arts center), Queens (a South Asian immigrant and math whiz), and Staten Island, depicted as an agoraphobic Irish American dominated by her bigoted NYPD dad. Each character gives Jemisin the opportunity to elaborate on the personality of that particular borough, with scrappy Bronca, descended from the indigenous inhabitants of the area—a battle-weary but still game veteran of countless underdog struggles—the standout. While it’s bemusing that not one of the five boroughs is represented by a Jew, for the most part this makes for a thrilling conceit, full of imaginative promise.
Unfortunately, the plot Jemisin uses to explore this world is fairly generic and overly in debt to cinematic precedents like superhero films. Each borough gets a bit of origin story and is called upon to join the team so that the assembled five can wake up the original avatar for the entire city, their leader, who like Sleeping Beauty is conked out in a hidden corner of the city, recovering from that epic battle on the FDR. Only together, under the leadership of New York’s primary personification, can they find the strength to battle the Big Bad that threatens to annihilate the city—or even worse, the entire universe, etc. Jemisin forges some fruitful links to contemporary politics: A significant challenge involves persuading Staten Island to be less fearful and suspicious of anyone who isn’t from Staten Island, and the Enemy enlists such useful idiots as guys who make YouTube videos about how oppressed white men are. But the anemic predictability of the storyline doesn’t do justice to the splendor of Jemisin’s setup.
The City We Became also shows some signs of genre confusion. Science fiction and epic fantasy typically have lots of explaining to do, laying out the working of unfamiliar lands and histories, convincing their readers with the sheer breadth of the author’s imagined world. In this novel, Jemisin has created a premise closer to an urban fairy tale, a form that thrives on mystery and omission; its wonders are simply there, the richness of its metaphors blossoming in what’s unsaid. This is a tricky narrative mode, one that requires the storyteller to have faith in her audience’s ability to find meaning in a story’s symbols even when she doesn’t spell that meaning out—in fact, because she doesn’t spell it out.
Fantasy has in common with poetry the ability to summon the numinous using only the humblest materials of the physical world. Jemisin certainly can do this: When Queens realizes that she has become the embodiment of her borough, she experiences “a sudden and intense rightness, shivering through the trees of her building’s backyard and thrumming up through the old frame house’s foundation. Dust puffs through cracks in the walls. She inhales the faint scent of mildew and rat droppings, and it’s disgusting, but it’s right.” Nevertheless, Jemisin too often lets herself get bogged down in unnecessary exposition and transitions; characters are constantly explaining that knowledge has simply popped into their heads, that they just had a feeling that they ought to do this or that, go here or there. It’s as if Jemisin were under orders to spell out their every motivation to a dim-witted movie studio executive. I found myself wishing that she’d trusted more in the spell she’s cast, in magic as a manifestation of our deepest wishes and fears, rather than a coherent, explicable system.
Still, the spell never entirely dissipates in The City We Became, partly because we seem to be living through an alternate ending for the novel—one in which the avatars of boroughs and the city failed to fight off their assailant and the soul of New York hangs in the balance. (It only looks like a natural disaster.) The hallmark of great fantasy is that it feels true even when you know it isn’t, and The City We Became does that, especially right now.