Camp ToB 2020

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Week Two: The City We Became

It’s DNFs versus TBRs this week at Camp ToB, as we wrap up N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became.

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: Welcome back, everyone, to Camp ToB 2020, Quarantine Edition. This week, we’re wrapping up The City We Became, a big urban fantasy about (in part) a mysterious pandemic and systemic racism at the same time that cities and towns around the world, battling a mysterious pandemic, are seeing mass protests about (in part) systemic racism. We’re joined today by Chris Stults. Chris, please tell us a little about yourself.

Chris Stults: I work as a film curator at a multidisciplinary contemporary arts center in Columbus, Ohio, so I spend much of my time thinking about film and working with filmmakers. But I was an English major, and reading is my first love. I lost the habit of reading for quite a while, but I've returned to books with a vengeance, especially since the 2016 election, and reading is one of the primary things that's helped to keep me sane(ish).

Rosecrans: How would you describe yourself as a reader?

Chris: I try to be omnivorous in what I read. And I’ve discovered some great things through the Tournament of Books. I was really rooting for Mary Toft; or the Rabbit Queen this year—a book I might not have encountered without the Tournament—but it had a real tough bracket. I only recently discovered the ToB, through the So Many Damn Books podcast, and the 2019 Tournament was my first. But I’ve been able to be a completist for both of the past two years (except for one DNF that will remain nameless) and made dents in the longlists too. So even though I’m new, I quickly realized how the Tournament scratches some nerdy, compulsive itch for me.

Rosecrans: We love to hear that. So, to start, give us an idea of what your experience was like by the time you reached the halfway point of The City We Became.

Chris: I was ready for the book to kick into gear by the halfway point. It became clear pretty early on that we were going to assemble the Avengers—oops, I mean boroughs—and it took the whole first half of the book to reach that point. I liked the intuitive sense that each character had to use to figure out their roles, so that they were as in the dark as we are. And many of the peripheral details worked for me. But overall the plotting just felt like lining up the chess pieces into all the places they needed to be. Also, the overlap between the characters and the real-world geography felt a bit too limiting and 1:1. Even though this caused parts of the book to feel like it was marking time, the worldview of the book had me totally on board and engaged with the possibilities of where things could be heading. And it was refreshing to read such a pointedly intersectional book.

Rosecrans: Yeah, I would agree on both points, about both the intersectionality and that feeling of marking time.

Chris: The most memorable section for me was Bronca’s frustrustrations with trying to run the art center in the Bronx. Bronca’s the book’s best character and it’s partially because the novel took the time to really build a sense of her daily life in the way it didn’t with many of the other characters. Everything harmonized for me in that section in ways that rarely happened in the rest of the book. Real-world concerns like keeping a nonprofit afloat, how to maintain integrity by balancing the needs of the community and the desires of the board, gentrification, and white supremacy fused with the supernatural and interdimensional issues in harmonious ways. Plus, a welcome eye-rolling at the cult of Lovecraft added an element of literary criticism that almost had me cheering.

Rosecrans: Out of curiosity, how familiar were you with Lovecraft? I’ve only read a story or two, though I loved Victor LaValle’s Lovecraft novella The Ballad of Black Tom. In fact, three summers ago, Victor really helped us understand the Lovecraft nuance found in the novel The Night Ocean.

Chris: I haven’t read much Lovecraft either, but the few stories I’ve read made it clear they were Not For Me. Michael Chabon once wrote that “Lovecraft’s style is the despair of the lover of Lovecraft, at once shrill and vague, clotted, pedantic, hysterical, and sometimes out-and-out bad.” And Chabon is a fan of Lovecraft! Not to mention the racist worldview that Jemisin thankfully critiques. I’m glad you mentioned the LaValle books as he’s a writer I’ve really wanted to read, so I’ll bump him up in my epic TBR list. (Same with China Miéville, who was mentioned last week by the Commentariat.) I’m much more interested in folks who have redirected Lovecraft’s sensibility in other directions, especially if they can be playful about it. Certain films by John Carpenter or Sam Raimi are great examples.

 

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: We talked last week about all the things this novel seems to be trying to accomplish, some more persuasively than others—a fantasy epic, an allegory about race, a Lovecraft critique. By the time you finished the last page, how did it sit with you?

Chris: It’s funny because even though the characterizations never developed much for me, and the plotting remained primarily on a chess-piece level, I found myself thinking fondly of the book as it wrapped up. I find Marvel movies pretty tedious and, as was discussed last week, that team-building formula informed too much of the structure of the novel and its characters, which rarely developed beyond a few defining traits. The characterization of the borough heroes rarely read as real people to me and once the world-building was in place, there weren’t too many surprises. And after a pretty methodically paced buildup, the ending just kinda happened (although this might not be a bad thing because the final boss showdown can be one of the most rote and uninspired parts of these types of stories). But despite all this, I love the ideas at the heart of the book and wanted to carry these ideas of intersectional alliances fighting against white supremacy and developers out in the real world. And it turns out that’s what’s happening right now! The trunk of the story and its mechanics might not have won me over but the more eccentric limbs that branch out of it gave it its character and appeal.

I don’t know that sci-fi/fantasy is a favorite genre, although there are plenty of books that I’ve loved from Ted Chiang to Octavia E. Butler. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season is one of the most extraordinary books of the last decade. As I mentioned, I’ve always found Lovecraft to exist on a spectrum that ranged from the risible to the reprehensible so I love Jemisin, as a black feminist, hijacking his inconography in service of a worldview that he would have abhorred. Exit the asocial, misanthropic, racist, loner male protagonists; enter the inclusive, intersectional spectrum of folks that communicate in order to work together in a world where gentrifiers and hedge funds are as villainous threats as tentacle monsters. Even if this example of the genre ultimately wasn’t my kind of thing, it’s real hard to argue with that approach!

One question for you—I know this is the first book of a planned trilogy. How did it work for you as the opening volume in a series?

Rosecrans: Well, I wish otherwise, but I don’t think I’m going to pick up the next volume. Even in the second half, when the plot finally took hold, I didn’t care much what happened and didn’t really connect with the characters beyond admiring their surface features; to be honest, if it weren’t for my role here at Camp, this would’ve been a DNF for me. As compared to last summer’s monster fantasy mindfuck Black Leopard, Red Wolf, which I read twice just to comprehend, found maddeningly compelling, and now can’t wait for part two. That said, I’ve added The Fifth Season to my bedside pile and look forward to it. I meant to ask, have you ever lived in New York City? Did the New York-ness of it all improve the story or distract from things?

Chris: I’ve never lived there, but I’ve probably visited the city more than anywhere else. There was a time when I visited annually (as much as three or four times a year) but now I’ll sometimes go years between visits. I’m pretty familiar with all the geographic and cultural issues and stereotypes at play. Even though I’ve never been to Staten Island, I know all the jokes. The book tapped into the lure and romance of New York that I’ve had much of my life. But the older I get, the more I’m drawn to other places and ways of life. There can sometimes be this exhausting provincialism in New York. As a midwesterner involved in the arts, I try to stay aware of cultural activities happening in my community, around the country, and around the globe. But I know so many lifelong New Yorkers who aren’t aware of any events that happen outside of the city.

Rosecrans: Absolutely, and as a former New York resident, I couldn’t agree more. For a supposed global capital, some residents are awfully inward-looking.

Chris: The book had some of that same myopia too (see those famous New Yorker cover maps). São Paulo is one of the most interesting, singular cities I’ve ever been to, and the character Paulo barely had any personality—while New York is so special that it, for the first time among any of the great cities, can only be embodied in multiple people. Maybe it’s partially because I read The Power Broker earlier this year and have been thinking about the horrors of a single person embodying a city, but the “great cities as people” aspect of the book was one of the thinnest for me.

Rosecrans: I think The Power Broker would be a great companion read here, or just a terrific follow-up. For Camp ToB, however, we’ve got other books to crack. Final question: What was it like for you to read this book in light of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, not to mention the global pandemic?

Chris: Based on my love for The Fifth Season and an attempt to discover what genre fiction interests me, I read this as soon as it came out. So I actually read it in the early stages of the pandemic. I started it immediately after finishing Fernanda Melchor’s extraordinary Hurricane Season, which will surely be one of my favorite books this year. It’s a brutal, devastating, and virtuosic study of systemic and internalized misogyny, and I think The City We Became felt lighter and less substantial than I wanted after Hurricane Season; I’m sure most things would be. I wonder if I would have appreciated it more now. Because I’m finding it real hard to read at the moment, and the way this book employs a breezy style to tell the story of a diverse group—mainly composed of people of color—banding together to fight a threat that wants to erase them—that might be a novel I’d be capable of reading at the moment.

On that note, if it’s OK to put in a plug here, I’d love to mention that I found out yesterday that there’s a new bookstore and writing center opening soon in Ohio that’s run by a black woman, and the proceeds go toward therapy and mental health resources for black women and girls. If folks are placing online book orders anytime soon, consider supporting Elizabeth’s Bookshop and Writing Centre.

Rosecrans: Thanks so much, Chris. All y’all, we’ll see you in the comments, then join us next week when we dig into the first half of Sharks in the Time of Saviors. Stay safe out there.

 

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
biopic

The Tournament of Books’ organizers Andrew Womack and Rosecrans Baldwin are TMN’s co-founders. Baldwin’s latest novel is The Last Kid Left. His next book, a work of creative nonfiction about the city-state of Los Angeles, is forthcoming in 2021 from MCD x FSG (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). More by The Tournament of Books Staff

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