Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
This week, we’re reading N.K. Jemisin’s “The City Born Great,” first published on Tor.com in September 2016. Spoilers ahead.
“I’d been hearing breathing all my life. I thought everyone could.”
Unnamed narrator sings the city. New York City, that is, his home though he is homeless. We meet the young black hustler atop a roof from which he calls to the city in long-breathed yowls like a cat’s. And the city sings back, “something both distant and intimate… basso deep. Sort of coy.” He hears something else, too, maybe police sirens or maybe “a dissonant gathering growl.”
In an upscale cafe, narrator eats breakfast, courtesy of a man named Paulo. Paulo doesn’t eat; as always, he smokes, drinks coffee and talks. His accent, “sibilant and nasal,” pleases narrator; his appearance puzzles, for Paulo feels much older than he looks. Paulo asks if narrator’s heard the breathing yet. Paulo’s heard it all his life, but he didn’t believe until Hong dragged him into the reeking sewers to see “the growing roots, the budding teeth.” Anyway, narrator needs to listen for the breathing—it’s important.
After Paulo leaves, narrator lingers, people-watching and head-composing a poem. A cop comes in; to escape the “monster’s” notice, narrator imagines mirrors rotating around his head, hiding him. This time the trick seems to work.
Narrator paints the city, spray cans in both hands. He paints roofs with mouths only the airborne can see. It’s a compulsion he doesn’t understand, except that he needs “to open up this throat.” Finishing one mouth, he hears a sigh, feels “a big, heavy gust of moist air.” He jumps and whoops with inexplicable joy. Either Paulo wasn’t kidding him, or he’s nuts.
First thing Paulo says next time they meet is that the city’s breathing easier—even without training, narrator’s doing a good job. Fine, narrator thinks, but what he needs now is a place to sleep. He scratches his belly, pulling up his shirt to display his abs. Paulo catches on, first looks amused, then sober. If narrator doesn’t learn what he can teach, this city will die as Atlantis did. Or be stillborn, a shell that needs to start again from scratch. Either way, narrator will die with the failed birth. Narrator’s the catalyst for strength—or destruction.
It beats narrator why Paulo thinks a kid like him could be the subject of omens. But “Tell me what to do,” he says. Ah, Paulo says, good, you want to live. Narrator: It’s not about that. He’ll die one day, but until then he’ll “sing and paint and dance and fuck and cry the city” because it’s his.
Satisfied, Paulo gives narrator his first lesson. Great cities are living beings. They’re born, they mature and die. They “make a weight on the world, a tear in the fabric of reality.” When the tear gets deep enough, it forms a pocket connected by a thin thread to… whatever cities are made of. Narrator’s to be the city’s “midwife,” but remember: Things are lying in wait to “chase down the sweet new life and swallow its guts while it screams.” He needs to keep watch for the harbingers of the enemy.
Narrator flops on Paolo’s couch and dreams of “a dark place beneath heavy cold waves where something stirs with a slithery sound and uncoils.” It comes toward the mouth of the Hudson from far south. His protector in dream is “a sprawling jewel with filth-encrusted facets” that “stinks of dark coffee… the bruised grass of a futebol pitch… traffic… familiar cigarette smoke.”
Narrator wakes and goes into Paulo’s bedroom, where he whispers: “Sao Paulo.” He gets in bed with the man, gives him “a reason to let me back in later.” He leaves then, spends an uneventful day until he notices two cops watching him. Shadows pool and curl under their feet. Their images warp, though only narrator notices.
He heads away, fake-casual. The cops pursue, ground shaking “with their leaden footfalls.” He hides in an alley. The city squirms around him, and the cops appear, now with “too many arms, too many legs, too many eyes.” He flees. The “Megacop” gains on him. At last he leads it across the “utter batshittery that is FDR Drive.” Narrator survives. Megacop gets crushed, as if the Drive’s an artery coursing with white blood cells that sense infection.
It’s time. Narrator halts on a bridge over the Central Park Lake, in “labor.” The Enemy taints the city. “Old, old evil,” it drags itself from darkness toward “the defiance that is me, toward the burgeoning wholeness that is my city.” Water mains burst. Bridges crumble. A massive tentacle that no one else can see smashes down on New York Harbor; everyone feels the quake in Brooklyn. Narrator feels every resident’s death like his own, but he stands firm and births New York. He battles the Enemy with all the might of the city’s boroughs and banishes It, for a while.
Paulo approaches, admiration in his eyes for the “bright light and bluster” of an avatar that narrator’s become. “Congratulations,” he says, and narrator grins. He’ll never be afraid again.
Fifty years later: Narrator watches a Los Angeles sunset. “The person is coming who will make it… thrive in the ancient way… or not.” He’ll guide that person, stand witness, his own inseverable city beside him.
New York is ready, “filthy and fierce,” and so they go forth “to find this city’s singer, and hopefully to hear the greatness of its birthing song.”
What’s Cyclopean: The city that never sleeps has no patience with your “squamous eldritch bullshit.”
The Degenerate Dutch: As a black street kid, our narrator spends plenty of time being eyed suspiciously by the city’s upper crust and harassed by cops. But Paolo warns him that, to be the city’s midwife, he has to embody all those in the city: “White girl yoga. Indian man yoga. Stockbroker racquetball and schoolboy handball, ballet and merengue, union halls and SoHo galleries.” Narrator’s a bit dubious about the racquetball.
Mythos Making: The larval city is apparently the natural prey of the elder god.
Libronomicon: Narrator hides out in the New York Public Library and reads What to Expect When You’re Expecting a City Baby: NYC Edition. Also, perhaps less usefully, Birds of the Hudson Valley and a volume of municipal tax law.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Listening to the city breath, narrator reflects that “maybe my mama was right, and I ain’t never been right in the head.”
There are so many ways to play with the tropes of the Mythos. There’s the straightforward continuation: more of the same, for people who’ve read every cyclopean Lovecraft ever wrote and don’t want to be done reading new versions. There’s the riff: additions or attempts to add structure, some more well-advised than others. There’s the love letter, full of references and cameos. There’s the deconstruction, turning Lovecraft’s creations around on themselves to critique or comment or say something new.
Then there’s “The City Born Great.” Deconstruction comes closest, but Jemisin’s not so much twisting Lovecraft’s monsters as making them a stand-in for Lovecraft himself, and for the kind of bigotry that he carried. The kind that grows beyond itself into a predator, into a threat to cities and civilizations. Sure, it says, Lovecraft may have thought his heroes were defending civilization, but he had such a narrow definition, such a narrow understanding of what civilization is that he didn’t realize he was on the side of the monsters. So there’s Cthulhu, tentacles rising from the Atlantic over New York City, and embodied in the monstrous cops who try to keep the city’s power in check.
Victor LaValle does something vaguely similar in The Ballad of Black Tom, which manages to combine unflinching criticism of Lovecraft’s bigotry with genuine (if to me slightly inexplicable) fondness for “The Horror at Red Hook.”
Jemisin harbors no such fondness for the Lovecraftian source material, but this story is still a love letter, to the city Lovecraft hated and to everything he hated about it. To New York’s own aliveness, its cosmopolitan inclusion of every culture and class and language, the city itself as the thing beyond any one human’s comprehension. Our narrator is the one human who gets to transcend that, to understand the city in its full glory. And in order to do that, he has to not merely accept, but welcome, all the realities that make up the city. Even white girls in yoga classes. Even Wall Street, built on the bones of his ancestors. Even, powers help us all, the traffic on the Long Island Expressway.
That was my commute for half of grad school. I’ve gotta say, as a weapon against squamous eldritch bullshit, it beats the hell out of an elder sign.
I was never a fan of Long Island—but I’ve loved New York City ever since I was a kid visiting every summer. I remember lying awake on my granny’s floor in Queens, late at night, listening to the breath and heartbeat of the city, syncing with it, feeling like I didn’t need to sleep as long as I had that rhythm behind me. New York, huge and chaotic and smelly and safe as my monocultural-except-for-me hometown never could be. Jemisin’s New York is one I recognize; my only objection is to the idea that it was ever not awake.
But I’ll forgive that for the image of a homeless gay black kid midwifing the city to life with graffiti and cadged sandwiches, calling it up with full New Yorker attitude to stomp on anything that thinks it can digest something so huge and beautiful. Lovecraft’s literal fears come into their own to trounce his metaphorical ones. And when the waters rise, the cities rise to face them.
There’s apparently a novel on its way, and I for one can’t wait to read it.
By now we should all be comfortable with nameless narrators, if only because we’ve encountered them so many times. Lovecraft was arguably more fond of the nameless than the unnameable. In some cases I think his narrators wanted to distance themselves from their own narratives, either to protect their reputations or their sanity—they still often fail on the sanity part. In other cases I think his unnaming the narrator tints him with a frightening universality—this happened to ME, and since YOU the reader am “I” for the duration, it also happens to YOU. On some subconscious level. Just for the duration. Don’t worry and stop reading first person fiction, it’s okay, you’ll be fine. Probably.
N.K. Jemisin, too, has good reasons for keeping her narrator nameless. Along with situational invisibility, anonymity’s become one of his defenses, both against a hostile world and his own memories. Does it still fit, the name his parents gave him? And does he need a name until he can claim his true one? Which would be York, if we go by the model of Sao Paulo = Paulo (and Hong Kong = Hong.) “York” makes me think of Shakespeare, though—he’s always one of those nobles hanging around the title character, right? Or, with surprising appropriateness, “York” figures in the opening lines of Richard III:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds, that lowered upon our house,
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Jemisin’s “York” is certainly the “sun” (son) of New York who brings it to summery fruition as a born-city; he’s the one who puts the Enemy (Cthulhu) back in “the deep bosom of the ocean” (aka R’lyeh). Will, you prophet you.
Admission: Shakespeare wasn’t the first poet I thought of while reading “City Born Great.” First, and less coincidental, was Walt Whitman. To open his epic Leaves, he declares, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself.” York-to-be opens with “I sing the city.” Which is himself, down to the profane disparagement of his next line: “Fucking city.” He also celebrates himself in the definition of “living” he gives Paulo: “But I’ll sing and paint and dance and fuck and cry the city before I’m done, because it’s mine.” And he is its. Is it. Or as Whitman writes:
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
Whitman didn’t cease singing America to life, working on Leaves of Grass right up to the 1892 “deathbed” edition. Doubtless York will do the same for his city and live to be way older than he looks, never ceasing until New York itself does. Also like Whitman, he’ll continue defeating the ancient enemy of disintegration with avalanching lists of the Specifics that make up the One: a hip-check from the BQE, a backhand from Inwood Park, an elbow from the South Bronx, a curb stomp from Queens and the salt-to-the-wounds of a bus ride to Laguardia.
And I bet Whitman would have admired the scream-of-consciousness rap that’s all York’s own as he belts across FDR Drive, all “one lane silver car two lanes horns horns horns three lanes SEMI WHAT’S A FUCKING SEMI DOING ON THE FDR…”
Jemisin’s linguistic virtuosity aside, I’d have to love this story for its premise. Can we love, or hate, or love-hate a place the way we can a person? Let’s make the place a city. Can it develop the complex integrity of a single living creature? “City Born Great” says hell yeah. Over varying periods of gestation, cities expand their footprints and their populations and their cultures; in gaining physical mass and intellectual capital, they also gain a sort of psychic or interdimensional weight that can connect them to Ideal Citihood—what cities are ultimately made of, as York translates Paulo’s “cryptic shit.” However, a city needs a midwife and then an avatar. Furthermore, the midwife-avatar must embody both the best and the worst of the city, its aspirations and creative force, its dirt and darkness. Hence York is a perfect candidate. He’s experienced every indignity and cruelty the city can muster. He’s still sought out the museums and the libraries; he’s still made himself a poet and artist, determined to sing and paint and dance his city until it kills him.
Except the city doesn’t kill him. He pulls it into life and becomes it, immortal until it’s not anymore. Never afraid, never lonely.
What a deal, for all the birth pangs and avatar-duties attached. I wish York good luck on his mentoring mission out west, and good luck too to—Angel? Angela? Angelique?
Ah, Angelique. I have a soft spot for that name from my Dark Shadows days, and wouldn’t an Angelique Bouchard Collins do just fine in LA?
Next week we’ll read Adrian Tchaikovsky’s “Donald,” in the intriguingly named The Private Lives of Elder Things collection.
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. She has several stories, neo-Lovecraftian and otherwise, available on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Patreon, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.