Finding the Throbbing Heart of a City: The Municipalists by Seth Fried

The Municipalists, Seth Fried’s debut novel, is a futuristic noir that isn’t quite a noir; a bumpy buddy cop story where the cops are a career bureaucrat and computer program, and most of the outsized emotions belong to the computer program; a love letter to cities that actually looks at the ways cities are destroyed by systemic inequality.

It’s also deeply, constantly funny, and able to transform from a breezy page-turner into a serious exploration of class and trauma in a few well-turned sentences.

At first it seems like a wacky buddy cop book. The buttoned-down bureaucrat Henry Thompson is a proud member of United States Municipal Survey, traveling around the country to make improvements to city infrastructures. The Municipalists of the title are the people who hover behind the scenes like a sort of benevolent community theater version of Brazil: they actually want cities to be more efficient, healthier, and safer for all of their diverse inhabitants. The United States Municipal Survey is the massive hub that sends out region station masters, the people who preside over each city locally. This is the kind of position where increasing train efficiency and shaving a minute off an average rush hour commute time can not just make your career, but earn you a folk hero status that will be repeated to colleagues for years to come.

Henry thrives in this environment—up to a point. He is frighteningly good at all the minutia and t-crossing and i-dotting that needs to happen for his department to run well. He’s a born bureaucrat, and he loves filing paperwork. But as becomes clear in the opening pages of the book, he’s also still recovering from trauma in his childhood—or he’s not recovering. Not really. Henry has no friends. The other agents avoid him, mock him behind his back, sneer at his love of model trains. In a building stuffed with wonks, he is too much wonk.

This bureaucratic soul will get him in a lot of trouble over the course of the book, but it also saves his life a couple of times.

It’s clear that we’re in a slightly alternate U.S., but some places are the same: South Bend Indiana gets a mention; Detroit’s decline is based on a bureaucratic fight rather than the collapse of the American auto industry/institutional racism. But possibly the most important element of the AU is that D.C has been transformed into Suitland, Maryland, and New York City is now Metropolis, and is larger and better organized than this universe’s version of my fair home.

Described by the former poet laureate Anaya Davis as “the million-city city,” Metropolis is a clash of competing visions. Art deco skyscrapers dating back to the rise of the automobile stand alongside modern glass spires and sidescrapers that run along whole avenues. Buildings with programmable facades adjust themselves into pleasing shapes under the shadow cast by the knobbled steeple of a two-hundred-year-old cathedral.

The perfect grid of broad streets occasionally gives way to labyrinthine tangles where cobblestones still push up through the pavement, cramped streets winding through old neighborhoods of two-story brick buildings that tempt those passing through to imagine a thousand rainy afternoons in the 1800s or drunk sailors getting lost on some bleedingly hot summer night. These reveries are inevitably interrupted by the sudden sight of buildings stretching vertiginously overhead or by the powerful rush of air from a vent underfoot as an express bullet train races uptown.

Or at least it was better organized, on the surface, until the kidnapping of a beloved teen celebrity left the city reeling, only for people to be knocked truly punch-drunk by a series of terrorist attacks.

The attacks and the kidnapping might be related.

We’re soon taken all the way into sci-fi territory however when Henry gains a partner—a snarky AI called OWEN who is positively giddy about being sentient. He (he seems to prefer masculine pronouns) has access to pretty much all knowledge, an can project himself, via Henry’s tie clip, in any form he wants, and he flashes through an array of costumes and accessories over the course of his first case. He’s also an alcoholic (in a digital sort of way—at one point he vomits green code all over Henry’s shoes) which becomes more and more of an issue as the story goes on.

The banter between them is witty and quick, and Fried finds absurd humor in their case, as when they attempt a stake out at the Metropolis Museum of History (MetMoH)and receive an unexpected assist from one of the exhibits:

After entering the exhibit as museum guards, we found a nice location in one of the many bond spots of the museum’s surveillance cameras. Across from us was also a surprisingly graphic display of a moose giving birth, which was driving enough patrons away from our general area that we were able to get settled without anyone noticing.

Of course OWEN, being a computer program, doesn’t understand why groups of teens keep wandering by and cracking up, which leads to Henry having to explain the innate hilarity of moose vaginas to a certain type of person. OWEN is also a bit baffled by human behavior in general, as most of his education comes from the classic noir and Westerns that he was fed by his creator, mad computer genius Dr. Gustav Klaus. Unfortunately, he insists on applying hardboiled gumshoe solutions to their case, and Henry is very much not a hardboiled gumshoe.

Seth Fried has been writing fiction and humor for years now, with excellent short work popping up in McSweeney’sTin House, One Story, and The New Yorker—his Tin House story “Mendelssohn”, about a Raccoon of Unusual Size, was a particular favorite of mine. His 2011 short story collection, The Great Frustration, was wildly diverse. Now with The Municipalists he proves that he can orchestrate a tight, complicated plot, without ever losing touch with his characters. And maybe best of all he keeps his usual sharp humor, but never at the expense of heart. Henry’s pain is real, and so is his fraught friendship with OWEN. The motivations of the various terrorists and kidnappers in the book are nuanced and complex. There is no black and white here. Everyone has a point.

My one quibble here is that as a basically humorous novel that is also a noir riff, we get a lot of violence and action scenes, and Fried keeps an extremely light touch in those scenes. OWEN is obviously invulnerable, as a holographic AI, but Henry gets knocked around quite a bit, and I think there are points where Fried could have stayed in the violence and pain a bit longer to help the punches land, as it were. But that’s a very small note in the midst of an inventive and ultimately moving book.

At its heart, Fried’s book is about a very big topic indeed. What makes a city? Who is a city for? Is it for the rich who can shuttle between fancy penthouses and even-fancier cocktail lounges? Is it for the young, spiritually hungry student who wants to make their mark on the world by any means necessary? Is it for the poor and working class, the people who race between shifts at diners and shifts in cabs, the people who work 70-hour weeks to try to earn their way into a better school district? What is the City’s responsibility to its people? Why the hell do only rich people get to send their kids to good schools? Is a successful city defined by its gross income or its leisure or by the dollar signs on its real estate or its average commute times or by the happiness of its residents? And how is happiness even defined?

Like I said, there is a lot here. But Fried has also given us an endearing protagonist in Henry Thompson, and an all-time classic drunken AI, and if there’s any justice in the cities in this reality this will be the first book in a Municipalists-verse.

The Municipalists is available from Penguin Books.
Book cover: Penguin Books; Background photo: Ville Hyvönen. Modified from the original under CC BY-SA 2.0

Leah Schnelbach wants an AI sidekick, dammit. Or, maybe she should be the sidekick? Whatever. Come celebrate efficiency with her on Twitter!

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