No one would dispute that cities like New York have personalities of their own, but for African-American fantasy writer N.K. Jemisin, it’s more than a metaphor. In “The City We Became,” New York City is coming to life, embodied in six avatars (who are also real people): one for each borough, and one more to represent the city as a whole.
Jemisin’s novel is really a paean to the city of New York in all its diversity, its rough spots and its idiosyncrasies. Each borough is its own person — Manhattan (“Manny”) is a hard-edged former enforcer of no determinate race, and he’s forgotten where he came from, even though he just arrived. The Bronx (Bronca Siwanoy) is a progressive gallery owner, a descendant of the Lenape people, who were the original inhabitants of the area. Brooklyn Thomason is a Black, middle-aged lesbian politician; she used to be a rapper, but now is on the city council. Queens is Padmini Prakash, — ethnically Tamil — a genius who can change reality with her mathematical formulas. None of them really like or trust each other, but they know they have to get along.
And then there’s suburban Staten Island, represented by Aislyn Houlihan, a young white woman given to panic attacks. Her father is a cop. She’s never actually been off the island and fears the rest of the city. Somehow, these five have to find each other, learn to work together and then track down and wake up the sleeping homeless graffiti artist who represents the city as a whole. They find help and power when they link with the people who represent “authentic” New York, such as Madison, a white woman who transports them around the city in a retro Checkers Cab. They also get help from the avatar of Sao Paulo, Brazil, who has shown up in town to help New York come to life.
Each of the avatars also has a life, most with a family that they want to protect. A thin subplot involves how they come to terms with their sudden transformation into superheroes.
Of course, there’s opposition. The somewhat silly plot revolves around an attack by a Lovecraftian “Woman in White,” whose multidimensional mission is to prevent cities from being born, using strange monsters and white fungal tentacles that infect the city and destroy its uniqueness. The tentacles particularly infest places like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, because places like that could be anywhere on the planet and therefore are already undermining the city’s character.
The Woman in White has been preparing for the fight to keep the city from being born, using a nonprofit (The Better New York Foundation) to buy up apartment buildings and other properties that are the quintessence of New York living and turn them into gentrified condos, as well as funding alt-right white male artists to create hypnotic paintings that embody racist stereotypes. They offer millions of dollars to Bronca to show their work, arguing unpersuasively that the work is actually satirizing those stereotypes, and then trash her gallery when she won’t agree.
The ultimate goal is to destroy New York, and the Woman in White even has a plausible rationale. She claims that when cities become conscious entities, they punch holes in the fabric of space and time, destroying whole universes and the people living in them. In other words, she’s just trying to save lives. Her solution is to replace New York with a perfect city — specifically H.P. Lovecraft’s R’lyeh — destroying Earth in the process.
But the real fun of the book isn’t in the plot so much as the evocative, poetic language Jemisin uses to describe the city, likening the cars on the FDR freeway to blood cells pumping through the veins of the metropolis, or the way she effectively uses stereotypes, as when Bronca, faced with a blocked freeway and menacing white tentacles on every side, decides to “drive like a New Yorker” and heads down a city street at 70 miles per hour, scattering cars to each side, in her mission to get to Staten Island and convince Aislyn to join them.
That works about as well as you’d think – Aislyn wants nothing to do with the rest of New York. But without her, how can they bring the city as a whole out of its slumber? In a surprise denouement, the answer lies with Bronca’s mixed-race assistant Vaneza, who is from Jersey City, just across the Hudson River. However, the end of the novel is only the beginning – Staten Island ends up in some kind of twilight zone that’s going to have to be addressed.
“The City We Became” may sound like a collection of in-jokes, but Jemisin does a good job of using them in a way that even somebody who doesn’t know New York will understand. She playfully and humorously deploys the political memes all around us — involving race, gender, and class — in a positive way.
Her laughter invites us all in, no matter who we are or where we’re from.
Read more in the Aug. 19-25, 2020 issue.