Welcome to Camp ToB 2020, the summer reading program from the Tournament of Books. This summer, we’re reading six works of fiction from 2020—two books per month, two weeks per book—that the ToB fandom chose by popular vote. Each week we read half of one novel and talk it out on Wednesdays, joined in the booth by a member of the Commentariat—our Activity Leaders, in Camp parlance—to discuss our progress. At the close of each month you’ll decide which of the two books advances to our end-of-summer championship, where you’ll pick one of our three finalists to win an automatic berth in the 2021 Tournament of Books.
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Rosecrans Baldwin: Friends, we’re going through an unprecedented period, and I’m glad we’re going through it together. And what a book to discuss at this time! Here’s a plot summary based on the publisher’s description:
In Manhattan, a young grad student gets off the train and realizes he doesn’t remember who he is, where he’s from, or even his own name. But he can sense the beating heart of the city, see its history, and feel its power. In the Bronx, a Lenape gallery director discovers strange graffiti scattered throughout the city, so beautiful and powerful it’s as if the paint is literally calling to her. In Brooklyn, a politician and mother finds she can hear the songs of her city, pulsing to the beat of her Louboutin heels. And they’re not the only ones. Every great city has a soul. Some are ancient as myths, and others are as new and destructive as children. New York? She’s got six.
That’s pretty abstract, actually. Because what we’ve really got is about 400 pages of speculative fantasy by a three-time Hugo Award-winning author about an American city under attack from a mysterious pandemic and violent systemic racism—and, well, not to minimize anything, it’s kind of hard to pick a piece of fiction that would feel less fantastical at the moment.
This week I’m happy to say we’re joined by Activity Leader Catherine Phelan. Catherine, can you introduce yourself a little bit to everyone at Camp?
Catherine Phelan: Sure thing! I’m a writer and editor living in Brooklyn who grew up in Massachusetts. Like so many other Tournament of Book readers and writers, I grew up reading just about anything and everything, from getting in trouble for reading my mom’s Nora Roberts books too young to stealing my older brother’s school books before he could crack them open. Currently, I am desperately missing lazy summer afternoons in Prospect Park with a book and iced coffee in hand.
Rosecrans: I think a lot of readers, wherever they are, may find common ground. Well, you live in New York City, you're an editor and writer, and you told me earlier you read sci-fi and fantasy as well as literary fiction—I imagine this novel checked a lot of boxes for you as a reader before you even started.
Catherine: My hopes were very high for this in general. I’m a fan of Jemisin’s work, who I discovered in 2013 thanks to Mark Reads. I’ve gulped down her books since, and have been so pleased to see her work become a powerhouse over the last few years. I’ll admit a hint of… not-quite-trepidation at moving into a setting that is as real as present-day New York, but it seems that Jemisin brings the fantastical wherever she goes.
Rosecrans: Cities are often more than just setting in a lot of books, but here New York is actually a character, in fact a supergroup. What did you think?
Catherine: I think one of the smartest things Jemisin does here is introduce Manny as our first real borough buddy. His lack of memory allows him to be a total audience stand-in as we’re introduced to a New York City that, even for those of us who have lived here for years or generations, is off-kilter. I also admire the clear tonal distinctions between characters—as we shift from characters, chapter-to-chapter, there’s a subtle but significant shift in how Jemisin is writing their encounters with the world.
Rosecrans: Right—each avatar has their own inflection, so to speak, based both on their biography as well as their borough.
Catherine: I was a bit bummed to find that we weren’t spending as much time in Brooklyn’s head as we got from Manny, Padmini, and Bronca. Perhaps we’ll get more of Brooklyn in the second half, though. I’m also enjoying the Marvelesque superhero team-up we’ve got boiling—I think we’re seeing Jemisin’s work on Far Sector peek through here.
As far as favorites, I’m finding Padmini and Bronca a lot of fun to pal around with. I’d love for Bronca to muss my hair gently and approvingly! Who has stuck out to you so far?
Rosecrans: OK, I’ll be honest and say… none of them. As a former New Yorker, and someone who loves New York and New York City history, I really wanted to like this book, but I’m struggling. It’s complicated. I enjoyed the opening with São Paulo, and much of the Manhattan chapter that followed, but that’s when certain aspects of the storytelling started to push me away. There’s so much exposition—characters walking us through little lectures that aren’t all that surprising or interesting. And for a novel about one of the world’s great metropolises under attack, there’s not much plot or tension to pull me through, and the first half has been so burdened by introductions. Also, I wish our intergalactic baddie was less Bond villain-esque? I guess I had high expectations that aren’t being met—which is my problem, not the book’s—though as I try to meet the novel halfway, I feel like it’s not giving much back.
Catherine: Mm, I can totally see that. To be honest, I’m still holding my breath a bit. In some ways, where it stands now, this introduction is leaving me feeling like the book is spinning out its wheels to make sure it can fill out sequels. I’m hoping that what we’ve been given shifts quickly into more plot and less “meet the team” roundup.
The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin
In Manhattan, a young grad student gets off the train and realizes he doesn't remember who he is, where he's from, or even his own name. But he can sense the beating heart of the city, see its history, and feel its power. In the Bronx, a Lenape gallery director discovers strange graffiti scattered throughout the city, so beautiful and powerful it's as if the paint is literally calling to her. In Brooklyn, a politician and mother finds she can hear the songs of her city, pulsing to the beat of her Louboutin heels. And they're not the only ones. Every great city has a soul. Some are ancient as myths, and others are as new and destructive as children. New York? She's got six.
Book description excerpted from publisher’s summary and edited for length.
Rosecrans: This book certainly seems to be trying to be a lot of things at the same time—an allegory about white supremacy; a superhero cinema romp crossed with The Warriors; an H.P. Lovecraft critique (our second Camp ToB Lovecraft book!) tucked inside a tribute to the five boroughs. Not to mention a broadside aimed at shaming every white man with a man-bun. Broadly speaking, what’s working for you, what’s coming up short?
Catherine: The structure of what we’ve read so far has basically been an overture to the novel itself in many ways. As we’ve both mentioned, there’s a heavy dose of Avengers-style team building—track down each newly empowered person (entity? being?) and bring them together to bring down the big bad. It’s a bit hard to gauge how that aspect will land. We’re halfway through and we’re still missing half the team! I do think these introductions have been compelling, although, again, I would love a deeper sense of Brooklyn.
I’m also struggling a bit with Staten Island’s Aislyn. At first I wished her racism was of a subtler sort, one that wouldn’t let white women like me off the hook with how virulent and specific her racist thoughts were. Then, as more and more videos of white women attempting to use the police as a cudgel against black people are emerging in recent days, I’m finding myself more in tune with the book’s goals here. Where do you land?
Rosecrans: It’s been a painful, heartbreaking couple weeks and that’s all taking place as we pass 100,000 deaths in the United States from the coronavirus. I know I’m experiencing layers of sadness, anger, and shock. Reading this novel at the same time, I’ve probably found it more distracting than anything—fiction works as escape for me right now. Here’s a question: do you read this novel differently because it’s sold as fantasy?
Catherine: That is a hard question to answer! Especially since in so many ways it is, as we’ve discussed, so specifically working within superhero tropes—which at this point to me are almost their own genre. The difficulties you’ve alluded to are almost always the part that is less than stellar about multi-hero superhero stories in general. An author has to work hard to create a convincing set of characters, give them enough to do before they get to the real battle, all while ensuring that the stakes are high enough for the reader to engage fully.
I would say I’m cutting the narrative a bit of a break thanks to its genre, and because I can so clearly see the trope being drawn out. I’m hopeful that after our “Interruption” we’ll see a solid shift from characterization to plot.
On a more totally positive side, I’m loving the multiverse explanation of the Woman in White’s powers—maybe it’s something about totally imprinting on Fringe as a teen, but I truly cannot say no to a sci-fi world where the choices of one universe echo into another. We got a brief run-down from Bronca, but I’d be shocked if the second half of the book and the rest of the trilogy don’t dig into that.
Rosecrans: Yet another way the book syncs with the present moment is how the monster’s juju spreads from person to person like a virus, turning the entire city into a contagion. Does this resonate for you?
Catherine: Ha—any chance Jemisin has some sort of time machine? The irony of reading this while New York is under active viral threat aside, there’s a lot to be said for how the monster’s spread is clearly linked to and thinking about how hate spreads in the age of social media. It feels so trite to say, and yet, as the president attempts to litigate himself out of fact-checking, there’s no way around the fact that history will look back at our moment as one of communication gone haywire and sour.
With 4Chan Manbun man, the book makes the connection (and a Lovecraft rebuttal) explicit, although we have yet to see the monster/nodules/virus travel via phone. Perhaps a second half prediction?
Rosecrans: I like it. So, by the end of the first half, we’ve met our supergroup of avengers, and some battle royale seems inevitable, probably involving a racist cop on Staten Island, possibly some manbunned white supremacists. What are your hopes for the second half?
Catherine: I’m ready for some action. The skirmishes we’ve seen between Manny and the Woman in White and Bronca and Manbun have been a taste of what’s coming, but I’m curious to see how Jemisin handles what seems to be a full-scale battle across the city. In film, something like this comes down to the editing—in literature it takes a deft touch to thread the needle of a complex battle. With six avatars plus a time-space bending villain, it should be an intense one!
I’m also interested to see how Jemisin deepens the characters of each of the avatars. With Manny starting to recover his memory and Aislyn’s current off-stage status, I’m expecting to see a more thorough exploration of these people, before they became more-than-human.
Rosecrans: Thank you, Catherine, for joining us as this week’s Activity Leader. Everybody else, let us know your thoughts in the comments, on any of the topics we discussed or anything else. Then we’ll see you back here next week for our wrap-up discussion of The City We Became.
The Camp ToB 2020 Calendar
- June 3: The City We Became through page 214 (finish chapter 7)
- June 10: The City We Became to the end
- June 17: Sharks in the Time of Saviors through page 191 (finish part 2)
- June 24: Sharks in the Time of Saviors to the end
- July 1: VACATION
- July 8: The Night Watchman through page 227
- July 15: The Night Watchman to the end
- July 22: Such a Fun Age through part two
- July 29: Such a Fun Age to the end
- Aug. 5: Writers & Lovers through page 165
- Aug. 12: Writers & Lovers to the end
- Aug. 19: Weather through page 99
- Aug. 26: Weather to the end
- Sept. 2: Announce summer champion