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 Chapter 14: The Gauntlet of Second Avenue. The novel was first published in March 2020. Spoilers ahead!
“Dread works best in complete silence.”
Chapter 14: The Gauntlet of Second Avenue
Bronca, Brooklyn, Padmini and Hong are en route to Staten Island to find its borough-avatar. Padmini and Hong hang over a map, trying to pinpoint the place where Hong found Paulo, Brooklyn calls her daughter. Sensing from her tone that this is a saying goodbye maybe for the last time conversation, Bronca keeps quiet. Peace doesn’t outlast the call’s end. Bronca steps in it by assuming Brooklyn’s husband must have been a dealer or banger who died from drugs, what with the rap MC Free used to put out. It was cancer, Brooklyn says, and here she only white people thought everything in rap was real.
Bronca can’t resist countering that MC Free’s homophobic lyrics sounded real enough, and no, Brooklyn’s later apologies and contributions to gay causes don’t make up for the damage from her earlier casual hatred. Brooklyn, wearily slipping out of her “politician” voice, admits Bronca has a point. Bronca admits to her prejudices. Uneasy detente is restored.
Bronca’s GPS warns of delays on the FDR Drive. There’s a spontaneous demonstration by the “Proud Men of NYC,” angry young white guys who aren’t going to take the feminist liberal bullshit anymore. Totally coincidentally, this requires the Staten Island mission to find a more convoluted route. Hong is reminded of how similar “bad luck” killed New Orleans. City avatars less fiercely opposed usually have good luck.
They reroute to Second Avenue in Spanish Harlem. Where the neighborhood’s idiosyncratic bodegas and shops dominate, things look normal. But Starbucks exudes white tendrils like animal fur, morphing into a vast-mouthed inhuman face. Bronca swerves away. Hong tells them they need a defensive construct, just as another Starbucks flings its otherworldly white-feathered self into Second Avenue. The next Starbucks sports porcupine spikes, while a Dunkin’ Donuts is all corkscrewing wires and an Au Bon Pain has “a silky white chin curtain.” All these places have succumbed to extradimensional “possession,” Hong explains, because they dilute the city’s uniqueness.
Bronca channels her fury into driving “like a motherfucking New Yorker.” She rockets up Second Avenue, swerving through traffic and cutting off other vehicles. Brooklyn by cussing out infuriated drivers; together, they create an energy that protects them from collisions, cops and even a snake-Starbucks that impotently bashes its teeth against their chassis.
They reach the East River and pass the wreckage of the Williamsburg Bridge. Something “white and heaving and organic” seems to fill the river, towering over the single standing pylon. Its sickly green-white radiance hurts Bronca’s eyes.
Before entering Brooklyn, Bronca switches places with avatar-Brooklyn. The rest of the ride is uneventful. From the crest of the Verrazano, they spot more weird white structures on Staten Island; on the island itself, they begin to sense its borough-avatar. It’s a connection not altogether different from the one they have with the primary avatar – it’s like they have lodestones in their heads, one end pointing toward City Hall, the other toward the middle of SI and an area called Heartland Village.
Their unease deepens the deeper they get into Staten Island’s “territory.” A stretch of hilly woodland brings them to a neat little street of suburban houses. A white tower rears from the one house’s lawn. As they get out of the car and approach, the tower spawns white vines that solidify into a “human-sized tangle.” It resolves into the Woman in White. This time she sports a shaggy white mane, booty shorts and tank top that make her look like “an evil midcareer Joni Mitchell.” Nor is she alone: “Huge, attenuated, spindly shadows” sway in the hedges and lawns around her. Things barely seen in peripheral vision hoot and crack and vibrate. None of it is right, Hong says. The Enemy has never taken human form before, or spoken.
The borough-avatars are yanked into the other place, where they are cities. Hong Kong looms at their backs, but Manhattan is more visible even though distant. Staten Island is close but oddly “subdued in size and shine” here within her own borders. One last city stands between the boroughs and Staten Island, bigger than the rest of them combined, monstrously alien in its skew-angled buildings, “suppurating” organisms and unnaturally bright, perfect whiteness. It’s a city from nowhere in their universe, and it’s also the Woman.
She welcomes them to their final confrontation and laughs as if sure she’s already won. Dismissing the visibly shaken Hong and other avatars as “smart amoebas”, the Woman introduces herself by name: R’lyeh. The word makes Bronca’s inner ears twitch and hair follicles crawl. Padmini’s eyes widen with recognition.
The Woman giggles and pantomimes blocking their way to the house. She won’t let them interfere with Staten Island, who’s chosen to do what’s right. And so let the rumble begin.
Beneath the boroughs and Hong, the ground vibrates with subterranean thunder. Bronx remembers the tower that consumed the Art Center, but for now this disturbance – this rumble – remains just sound.
Before them, the embodiment of R’lyeh grins and spreads her elegant white hands in invitation. “Come, then, City That Never Sleeps,” she challenges. “Let me show you what lurks in the empty spaces where nightmares dare not tread.”
This Week’s Metrics
Mind the Gap: There are two sorts of drivers in New York City: “Why would you ever drive in the city when the subway’s right there?” and cabbies (actual or spiritual). Bronca and Brooklyn invoke the power of the latter.
The Degenerate Dutch: Bronca blames Brooklyn (nee MC Free) for rapping approvingly about homophobic hate crimes. Never mind that “only white people believe everything they hear in rap is real”; those songs did real-life harm.
Meanwhile, a group who are totally not the Pr**d B*ys are blocking the route to Staten Island.
Wow. Holy cyclopean architecture, if you’re going to have a villainous reveal, that is the way to build up to it!
So much makes sense now. The Woman in White has mentioned being a construct, created by the entities from The Place With No Cities. It makes complete and utter sense that the type of construct they’d build to fight cities… is a city. A city like no other on the planet, because designed and powered by people who are seriously Not From Around Here. A city that isn’t at home in either reality, disgusting to her creators and inimical to the peers she was built to fight.
A city… with an avatar? Perhaps an avatar that lies beneath the ocean, dead and dreaming? Jemisin has glossed this book as “New York versus Cthulhu.” That may be a hair more literal than I realized. R’lyeh, stretching across the world, with tentacles literal and metaphorical bursting through the ground like towers and slapping down bridges.
All of which makes it terribly entertaining (emphasis on terror) that R’lyeh does want to monologue. A villainous monologue is performed for an audience – an audience whose response matters to you. You don’t gloat over an anthill. (And not only because the anthill is usually winning.) The bad guy plans a speech, makes the big reveal as dramatic as possible, because no other admiration or acknowledgement matters as much as the good guy’s. The Joker wants Batman to admit his cleverness, Lex Luthor wants Superman to admit that money beats strength, Magneto wants Professor X to admit he’s right.
And R’lyeh? R’lyeh wants The Big Apple to admit it’s been outwitted, and praise the non-Euclidean height of her towers. Sure, human extinction may be an unfortunate necessity. But she’s going to enjoy, for this brief pre-apocalyptic moment, being seen in a way her creators never could manage.
Cities, in this book, are both transcendently beautiful and inherently destructive. One wonders how many universes were sacrificed to make R’lyeh, in the hope that eventually no more realities might need to collapse. And one wonders what plans her creators have for after she’s won. Will she rule alone over a cleared-off Earth? Or will she become the final sacrifice when her utility is complete? One wonders if she knows.
Another wonder: what shapes the personality of a city that’s artificially-created to be awake? There are no years of history, no layers of story – unless the stories of Lovecraft and his ilk were artificially leveraged to make her. Stories of nameless cities and long-buried secrets, and stories of how terrible it is to live in modern cities. Are her tendriled puppets truly just convenient puppets, or are they the people whose anthropophobic narratives were used to shape her?
Maybe she’s built from all the things in human cities that aren’t really part of them, from the city-hating city-dwellers to the chain stores. Go to that newly-emerged Pacific island, and you’ll find the marble streets crowded with NIMBYs and bigots, and lined with Starbucks cafes.
Wow. To paraphrase T. S. Eliot: This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a Starbucks. Who’d have thought this purveyor of lattes and cake-pops, over-roasted beans and coffee-culture doodads, would lead the charge of the Enemy’s army? Not me. I was thinking more McDonald’s or Chick-fil-A. Although to paraphrase Robert Frost: But if it had to perish twice/I think that for destruction Starbucks is also great/And would suffice. The perishable “it” being our planet, and all its cities, born or not.
I was a little disappointed that none of the possessed Starbucks morphed into a two-tailed mermaid. On second thought, it’s heartening that the Woman in White respects trademarks. Maybe that final weary Fishbucks was her snide nod to the company?
The passage from the Bronx to Staten Island definitely rates as a Car Ride from Hell, for me not so much because of the Starbucks monsters as because of the tension among the boroughs and guest-avatar Hong. Bronca and Brooklyn, being the Bronx and Brooklyn, can’t help getting on each other’s last nerves. Padmini-Queens annoys the elder boroughs with her nerdy jokes and awkward efforts to help. Hong’s condescension and sarcasm nearly earn him a Bronca-assisted catapult into the street.
Where’s Manny-Manhattan when you could use his diplomatic and Road-Warrior skills? Bronca wishes he was along on the mission, but wait, he’s busy standing guard on the primary, or so we must hope at this point. Ultimately the other avatars’ hazardous chemistry explodes in the right direction. Bronca and Brooklyn, having exchanged sincerity for sniping, subside into a stabler truce. Later they co-power the construct that gets the mission through the Second Avenue gauntlet. Bronca defends Padmini against Hong, female-avatar solidarity trumping personal differences.
Then they arrive on Staten Island, and the unreal reality of their situation ends their bickering. And there’s nothing like a common Enemy to unite spatting factions. Particularly when the Enemy incarnates as “an evil midcareer Joni Mitchell” with a bunch of shadowy back-up dancers and a super-woofer under the stage.
The big darkly-delicious reveal comes when the Woman yanks the avatars into the dimension where their city-ness shows. Bronca recognizes herself and Hong and the other boroughs, including an unexpectedly subdued Staten Island, but between the mission-mates and SI is a city alien in the very angles of its structures. Thrown back into “peoplespace,” all of them realize that the Woman is a city, too. Hong is the worst off, shaken into reflexive denial by a truth beyond his philosophy. Bronca remains together enough to demand an explicit answer from the Woman: What is she, really?
The Woman’s “delighted” by the question, as if “she has waited whole ages of the world” to hear it. Really really, then, her name is R’lyeh.
As we might expect, Padmini is the borough who most viscerally appreciates the gravity of this revelation. As we might also expect, the Woman taunts this nerd who’s read her Lovecraft with another pop culture reference, pantomiming Gandalf’s staff-raised defiance of the Balrog on the Bridge of Khazad-dum. Ouch, that one’s got to hurt.
Didn’t the Woman a page or two earlier admit that she was the Villain of the Final Confrontation about to come down? She offered to Monologue, after all. The Really Really Truth, however, is that she believes herself the Hero who’s about to defeat the “pieces of this monstrous murdering city, pieces of shit.”
It’s the “City That Never Sleeps” versus…what? She Who Never Sleeps, either, because she knows the spaces where even nightmares fear to tread? Nightmares being too unreal to face ultimate reality?
Okay, I’m quitting now before I get too Opening-of-Hill-House-y and confuse myself to ultimate confuddlement! There are still critical turkey-leftovers to concoct.
Next week, an under-addressed problem with public transit is the edibility of the passengers. Join us for Erin Brown’s “A Brief and Hideous Scrawl.”
Ruthanna Emrys’s A Half-Built Garden is out! She is also the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. 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 on Mastodon as [email protected], 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.