The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

Read September 2020
Recommended for fans of NYC, Jemisin
 ★     ★    1/2

Surprisingly underwhelming for me. Admittedly, I’m not a huge new-adult fan, and this has ‘coming-of-age’ plot line all over. I was also surprised that there was a strong Lovecraftian vibe going on here–add this to the growing body of work subverting Lovecraft’s (white) universe. So perhaps there were a couple flavors that were not intriguing to my reading preferences. On the other side, I like N.K. Jemisin, and one of her books is in my top twenty list. I’m also fond of NYC in its many varieties (notice the nyc shelf?). In other words, I entered this with baggage, although not of the preconception kind. What did I find?

I found an experience that verges on indescribable. Oh, I can tell you what happened: I put it down, I picked it up. I read a narrative from the first character, did other things, made myself go back for the second and realized, eureka-like, that this “absorb the city” was gonna be a thing. Oh yes–Jemisin was being very leitmotif and infintesimally advancing the plot while repeating it with a new character each time. Oh boy. I actually took the time out to learn how to use the ‘scan’ function in my Kindle so that I could start flipping through a bunch of pages to see how long she followed this formula.

The characters didn’t clarify my ambivalence any. They felt familiar, only with over the top stereotypes. NYC, a homeless young brown-skinned gay man. Manny, our cold-blooded amnesiac Manhattanite of questionable ethnicity and gay leanings. Brooklyn, Black woman, who has re-invented herself, is taking care of the family, and being a successful leader. Queen, a new generation of emigrant, making her home in a tenement, building community and being a caretaker. Bronx, an aging artistic socially conscious lesbian Native. And must we? Oh yes, we must: Staten Island, the alienated white-skinned daughter of a police officer.

What was surprisingly interesting to me was personification of the Lovecraftian Beyond. I ended up enjoying it as a character a lot more than I would have expected, especially as a person who naturally roots for good and order. But despite attempts to humanize Brooklyn and Bronx (the history of the others gets short shift, honestly), I ended up disappointed in Jemisin for complete lack of subtlety in messaging.

There are some moments of humor which leavened the repetitiveness. There’s the modern friend trying to be supportive: “Jesus, B. So, I mean, it’s awesome that, uh, you’re a city? Congratulations! I want to be accepting of this new stage in your identity formation.”There’s also a little bit of authorial commentary: “They don’t notice because they are unironically playing Marco Polo, yelling at each other in a mix of Mandarin and English and splashing wildly to get away from each other.”

But the most frequent humor is the classic NYC area in-joke/side-eye: “Well, I mean, just the sight of something awful and incomprehensible isn’t going to send me off frothing at the mouth,” Veneza says. It’s nonchalant, but there is a shaken note to her voice nonetheless. ‘I’m from Jersey.'” The in-jokes actually prove the most tiring, because it’s trying to pay homage to the network of cultural influences and stereotypes of each borough–sort 0f–by relying mostly on a stereotype on top of stereotype. Not that some don’t ring true, but a lot of times it feels self-conscious and tired.

This stereotyping of the NYC attitude misses because in my opinion, it isn’t just the city’s cultural history catch-phrases, but the fact that it is an intersectional point between so many cultures that makes the city great. She creates beautifully solid examples, such as the history with the rock in Central Park, and the kids in the backyard swimming pool in Queens. So maybe its just when she’s being overt (oh man, the art gallery; so self-conscious) that it fails.

This simplicity in messaging makes it feel younger than it should. It ended up reminding me of José Older’s Shadowshaper, and of the two, I think Shadowshaper was more interesting, at least because of the magic.

What was right? I still love Jemisin’s way with words. I love her diversity of characters, and the combination of thinking and emotion we receive from them. I actually liked the turning away of one of the characters, but you know what might have been more powerful?

(spoiler) A person of color saying, “No, I’ve been too hurt for too long,” and believing in separation, perhaps like Malcolm X. I would have been interested in how to write our way through that kind of pain, instead of the simplicity of the white person continuing to choose small-minded ‘safety’ (end spoiler).

What was wrong? The plot was facile, the characters were surprisingly so, and despite the quality writing and NYC setting, it just never grabbed my heart. Disappointing from someone of her caliber.

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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10 Responses to The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

  1. I have read two of her novels and while I admire the imagination, I was not moved. They are smart but I remember nothing because they did not touch me at all. She is widely celebrated but though I recognize her skill . . . I wish I loved her stories.

  2. Andreas says:

    And that’s when I thought that she just couldn’t produce something less than a five star novel. Well, good riddance, I’ll skip that one.

  3. cathepsut says:

    Phew, I am glad I am not the only one who didn‘t like this so much. It has a YA or New Adult feel? THat would explain, why I maybe didn’t. Coming-of-age isn‘t my thing either. I honestly didn‘t pick up on that though, when struggling through the audio…

    • thebookgator says:

      Well, the classic “accept the gift you have been given” feels like a offshoot of ‘coming of age,’ no matter what the age 🙂 but it is very evident to me in Staten Island and Queens, who are both literally young and forming their own identities. You know, they all have to change the expectations they had for their life, accept the new stuff, etc. Manny was a convenient blank slate, of course, so he was young in that way.

  4. Melora says:

    Excellent review. This book keeps coming up in my recommendations, so I especially appreciate knowing that it would likely disappoint me.

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