Welcome back to Reading the Weird, in which we get girl cooties all over weird fiction, cosmic horror, and Lovecraftiana—from its historical roots through its most recent branches.
This week, we continue N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became with the 2nd Interruption and Chapter 4. The novel was first published in March 2020. Spoilers ahead!
“Have to watch that. When I’m frustrated, I speak too much truth.”
As a “sharp-toothed favela rat,” before he became his city, Paulo had an uncanny sense of direction. Here in NYC, far from home, he feels disoriented, “backward, upside down.” He needs Google Maps to guide him to Inwood Hill Park, where he senses the Enemy most strongly.
His “sense of wrongness” leads him to the Tulip Tree Monument. The briny whiff of battle taints the air. The scattered money, he realizes, was used as a “construct” to focus the city’s power. The city won, but the Enemy left its mark. Twenty people mill around, chattering to the air or darkened phones. Most are white people. All wear white. Paulo snaps a photo, and the people all turn to look at him. He affects defensive nonchalance, lighting a cigarette. The white people’s eyes unfocus, and he’s able to leave alone.
In his photo, the people’s faces are distorted. Behind each head is an additional distortion, “indistinct, just a warping of the air.” He can’t make out what it indicates. Yet. At a neighborhood restaurant, he texts the photo to the international number he called earlier, with the message: It’s boroughs. There will be five of them. And I’m going to need your help.
Chapter Four: Boogie-Down Bronca and the Bathroom Stall of Doom
Bronca works at the Bronx Art Center. She confronts her colleague Yijing in the Center’s bathroom decorated by one of her own murals, “an abstract profusion of colors and shapes, photorealistic in places and airily watercoloresque in others.” Yijing left Bronca’s name off the grant application Bronca wrote. Grant committees want artists with a “broader reach”: wall space in Manhattan galleries rather than just a gallery in her home borough, teaching jobs beyond a community college. Artists who are relevant, unlike seventyish Bronca.
Bronca and Yijing exchange curses, Yijing in Mandarin, Bronca in Munsee, the language of the “Wolf” subtribe of the Lenape. Director Jess interrupts them, asking for Bronca’s help with a new artist’s group applying to the Center. A big donor backs them, but their work is – worse than merely incompetent. Bronca’s surprised to hear anger, affront and disgust under Jess’s professional tone.
Left alone after Yijing escapes, Bronca hears a soft female voice address her from one of three closed toilet stalls. The woman quotes from Yeats’s “Second Coming,” then laughs so infectiously that Bronca smiles and apologizes for subjecting Stall Woman to the argument. With the Lauren-Bacall huskiness Bronca’s loved since she was “a baby dyke,” Stall Woman says Yijing doesn’t show proper respect for her elders.
When Bronca asks if they’ve met, the woman quotes more Yeats. Assuming she’s one of Yijing’s “pretentious little NYU friends,” Bronca quotes right back. The contest ends with Stall Woman’s “The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” How Bronca’s “people” venerate innocence: ignorance of how life works!
Bronca can’t see any feet inside the stalls. One door pops open. No one inside. Stall Woman says she’s gotten a “foothold” on the city, the world, maybe even Bronca. The second door opens with horror-movie slowness. No one inside. And Bronca can see nothing through the gaps in the last enclosure except blank whiteness.
She challenges Stall Woman to “quit fucking around and just say what you mean.” Stall Woman replies that she wishes Bronca’s “kind” weren’t so inflexible and dangerous. She likes us! And wouldn’t Bronca like to survive to the impending end, along with her son and grandchild-to-be? Wouldn’t she like the Center to remain when “all else has been flattened into nothingness?” Stall Woman can make these things happen.
Bronca’s unnerved, but doesn’t appreciate threats. She challenges Stall Woman to talk face-to-face. Stall Woman declines, in a voice that grows hollow, as if emanating from some “vast, vaulted space.” As Bronca’s rage peaks, she feels an earthquake-like ripple, “a stretching…a snapping-into, like a puzzle piece finding its place. A becoming.” She remembers how her child-self kicked in the knee of a would-be molester. How she did the same to a police informant at Stonewall. How she stood alongside her brothers and sisters in the American Indian Movement. All these times she was part of something bigger. And now she feels as big as–the whole Bronx.
She approaches the stall, which opens onto a glimpse of a white tunnel, a white room, “an indistinct geometric shape that seems to be…pulsing irregularly.” She kicks the door in. It blurs into “an impossible number [of doors] wending away into infinity.” Stall Woman shrieks, and then silence, an empty stall, and “a hundred thousand years of knowledge” falling into Bronca’s mind.
It’s natural the city chooses Bronca, the eldest borough, to bear that knowledge. She understands that the five must help each other, but she has her own life. She doesn’t want to fight an interdimensional war!
She leaves the bathroom, muttering that the other boroughs can look out for themselves, as the Bronx has always done. In the last stall, behind the toilet, “a stubby, not-quite-invisible white nodule twitches fitfully, then settles down to bide its time.”
This Week’s Metrics
The Degenerate Dutch: Paolo may be helping New York come to birth, but that doesn’t mean he appreciates its history of turning “a beautiful forested island into a reeking parking lot and glorified shopping mall.”
Bronca is a queer, Lenape elder who rioted at Stonewall and has fought for indigenous rights. She’s not about to take crap from spatiotemporal anomalies in the bathroom.
Libronomicon: The Woman in White quotes Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” rather too cheerfully.
Weirdbuilding: The Woman in White tries to tempt Bronca with the old joke about Cthulhu eating his followers last. And also insists that “one must respect elders”. As in elder gods?
Outside my weekly dose of the weird, I’m currently reading Ed Yong’s An Immense World, a delightful overview of the wild, weird, and varied senses experienced by the other animals that share our world. It’s a good reminder that we do, in fact, live surrounded by imperceptible-to-us truths. Without even getting into extradimensional incursions, the universe is full of things beyond our ken: inhuman colors and sounds, the faint electrical aura of other life forms, the heat of our fellow mammals, the magnetic fields that give every spot on Earth a unique fingerprint.
Cities, it turns out, also have a different umlaut than individual humans. Paulo’s lost his childhood directional sense, but gained senses for wind and seasons and other cities—and for the Enemy. That last feels magnetic in its own right: flowing in lines between poles. It’s appropriate, given that the Enemy is an incursion from another space, that it should violate Earth’s directional markers, and appear as separate set of forces pushing between our own.
Switch truths, and the Woman in White’s incursion is one of gentrification. Her “footholds” wander the most recent battle site murmuring about low rents and complaining about “their” loud music. Convenient tools, or reflections of her conviction that human survival is inimical to other realities? I’m calling “both.” Human prejudices are a great way to turn us against each other—why should eldritch prejudices be any more accurate?
I’m curious how many others of her kind the Woman in White represents. Does she have back-up, like New York? Is she a solo knight, sent to protect realities that approve but don’t aid her work? Or is she alone in the belief that her kind and cities are playing a zero-sum game? I don’t know if the answer would provide much comfort, given that one elder god is plenty to have to face down, but I do hope that some of the big universe out there gets as far as “uncaring.”
With Manny and Brooklyn, we’ve seen her ability to throw down and fight. With Aislyn, we’ve seen her ability to play the silver-tongued devil, whispering doubt and temptation and getting hooks in even a Borough’s deepest vulnerabilities. This week, though, we see her limits. Tired from her battles and the effort of passing as human, she’s hiding in a bathroom stall and trying to get in one more temptation while she recoups her energy. We’ve all been there, right?
The temptation fails, because Bronca is the polar opposite of Aislyn. A queer and indigenous elder, she’s experienced in fighting back and sure of her identity. It’s enough to keep her from falling prey to the Woman in either sense. It’s not, however, enough to give her endless capacity. Given her strengths, it’s no surprise that the city chooses her for its memory—but with 100,000 years of newly-downloaded history in her head, she rejects the job just as Brooklyn tried to. Everyone’s overwhelmed, and that doesn’t change when one more freaking thing is an interdimensional war. Not to mention that for all their differences, she feels the Bronx’s isolation just as Aislyn feels Staten Island’s. She’s just been told that Bronx-steeped art is “irrelevant” to the rest of the city and the rest of the world—why give a hand to neighbors who’ve never cared?
And yet, “all I ever wanted was to give meaning to the world.” How long is she likely to hold to that claim that she’s done with the fight, when battles are dances and “steel-toed boots dwell permanently in her soul”?
That Jemisin titles her Paulo-POV chapterlets “Interruptions” is drolly apt. “Interruption” is a sharper word than, say, “Interlude,” acknowledging that the reader could resent being jerked from the main action for some “Meanwhile back at the ranch.” “Meanwhile” passages, however, don’t have to be tedious exercises in “As you need to know right now, Bob.” First, they must deliver timely information. Second, they should deliver it through prose and content as engaging as the main-action sections. Third, they should remain brief – if they’re properly engaging and go on too long, they can usurp the centrality of the main action. Jemisin’s “Interruptions” have been exemplary and so not interruptions at all in my experience. I still smile at her calling them that, and I wink right back.
This week’s “Interruption” enriches our understanding of city-avatars through Paulo’s succinct “maunderings” on his favela childhood, on how his native sense of direction changed when he became the embodiment of Sao Paulo, and on the limitations that distance from his homeground impose on his powers. He retains the crucial ability to sense extramundane intrusion. A seasoned avatar, he understands the Enemy in ways newbie Manny cannot. Two things are dangerously different about this particular intrusion. Paulo’s sense of it has increased since the birth of Avatar-NYC, when it should have decreased. Also beyond his experience is how the intrusion has multiple, wide-flung poles. The white-clad gathering’s another new phenomenon, though he recognizes it as the Enemy’s work. Wisely enough, Paulo calls his international contact for backup, and to note he’s figured out how many subavatars to expect. The battle-clearing is littered with currency. Knowing “the nature of Manhattan,” Paulo associates these power-focusers with that borough. Ergo, boroughs are the sub-avatars. Ergo, there are five of them.
Fourth of the boroughs we’ve met so far is the Bronx, aka Bronca. She’s a Native American (Lenape); a lesbian; a long-time social activist; an artist proficient in abstraction, photorealism, the “airily watercoloresque,” and graffiti-style. She seems to be the administrative backbone of the Bronx Art Center. All this, and – pushing seventy, she’s still an ass-kicker.
All this, and – she’s tired, with a son and pending grandchild and her delayed retirement to worry about. With pretentious little upstaters making her feel artistically irrelevant. Making her ask if this is how her career ends, “with a whimper instead of a bang” Bronca’s an aficionado of apocalyptic poetry. Above she’s paraphrasing the last line of Eliot’s “Hollow Men,” and she can quote “The Second Coming” with the best of them.
Or the worst of them. As the Woman in White did with (Staten) Aislyn, Stall Woman has read enough of Bronca’s mind to open their conversation with “Turning and turning in the widening gyre…” Hell yeah, Bronca replies, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” But does Bronca want to accept Stall Woman’s offer of surviving with selected loved ones to see what rough beast will slouch towards Bethlehem to be born?
Rough or sleek, I bet that beast will be white. The Enemy is all about whiteness, down to the decor of her “parlor,” as Bronca glimpses it in the bathroom stall. Jemisin joins the pantheon of writers who have clothed their supreme horrors in white, despite its positive associations as the amalgamation of all colors, expressive of innocence, celebration and God’s own couture. Wait, isn’t black the obvious color for evil, as in bad cowboys’ hats and the uncaring extrastellar void? What about the pestilent yellow associated with a certain King? What about the red of copiously spilled blood and Poe’s Masque-going Death? What about the hideous fuchsia which is so often used to approximate a Color Out of Space?
Yet against all chromatic contenders, white holds its literary own. Matthew 23:27 warns that within “whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward,” there are “dead men’s bones, and all uncleanness.” Machen has his “White People” and his “White Powder.” The Worm in Stoker’s “Lair” is White. Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym ends as the narrator’s boat is current-borne into the milk-white sea surrounding the South Pole, into which pours a misty white cataract, which parts to reveal a huge white figure, THE END. Lovecraft shudders at many white abominations, including Mountains of Madness’s “white, aeon-dead world of the ultimate south” and the “primal white jelly” which may be Danforth’s shattering glimpse of the dreaded protoshoggoth. There’s a similar “mountainous white bulk” lurking in the Louisiana swamp where a Cthulhu cult worships.
Then there’s Melville and Moby-Dick. In Chapter 42, “The Whiteness of the Whale,” Ishmael ponders the crucial question of why white things can be so much scarier than their less pallid counterparts. For our purposes, perhaps the closest he gets is this:
“But not yet have we…learned why [whiteness]…is at once the most meaning symbol of spiritual things, nay, the very veil of the Christian’s Deity; and yet should be as it is, the intensifying agent in things the most appalling to mankind.
“Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way?”
Could be, Herman. I was stabbed with the thought that Bronca was about to be annihilated by the whiteness within the Bathroom Stall of Doom. Fortunately the Bronx has survived to fight another day, that is, if it can only give a damn about fighting after a lifetime of hard knocks from the other boroughs and beyond.
Bronca, Bronca, you know you won’t be able to resist a good ass-kicking.
We’ve barely discussed the creepiness of the Woman in White’s sneaky little floral growths. They too have their ancestors: join us next week for H. G. Wells’s “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid.”
Ruthanna Emrys’s A Half-Built Garden comes out July 26th. She is also the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is available from Lethe Press. You can find some of her fiction, weird and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is 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.