A City Dreaming

city-dreamingWhile I was reading Daniel Polansky’s latest, the novel A City Dreaming, I thought, I’ve never read something like this before. Episodic, dark and yet edged with a humour that makes you snort with laughter, the book is unlike anything I’ve come across recently in the SFF genre. Only later did I realize ‘Hey, isn’t this somewhat like Hitchhiker’s Guide meets The Magicians?’ That only served to raise my appreciation for the book. Being compared to Guide is, after all, a status that many authors would be proud to reach.

Set in New York City, A City Dreaming is easy enough to describe, in one sense. It follows the (mis)adventures of the mysterious M, a magician, or wizard, or…I’m not sure how he would describe himself, really. He’s in ‘good with the Management’, the mysterious forces that seem to regulate the ebb and flow of magic in this universe. He has a bunch of friends, from the gender bending Boy to Anglophile Pakistani Stockdale, all of whom are part of the same ‘Management’-friendly group. But rivalries divide the magicians, as can be expected in any fantasy book, with Manhattan ruled by the distant, beautiful-so-long-as-you-don’t-look-too-closely White Queen, Celisa, and Brooklyn overseen by the warm, maternal Red Queen, Abilene. While most magicians have to pick one side or the other, M somehow balances relations between the two, attending parties in a Park Avenue apartment while also tramping through the hipster neighbourhoods of Brooklyn. He’s a man about the town, our M, and he’d like to keep it that way, only the Queens, for whatever reason, seem to be trying to pin him down as they gear up for some sort of showdown.

This is urban fantasy at its best. Polansky conjures a dark, edgy New York, populating it with spectres and monsters and magical peoples, who flit in and out of the loosely strung together episodes of M’s time in the city, and yet leave an indelible impression on the reader. A character who shows up in Chapter 2 may not come back until three quarters of the way through the book, but something about the way Polansky writes makes sure you don’t forget him or her, or need refreshing. M seems to get into increasingly absurd adventures, from having to save a friend from ‘river pirates’, to getting high on a drug that puts a literal god in your body, to exorcising a ‘haunted’ house in a Brooklyn neihgbourhood, and though Polansky writes it all with the sort of ironic humour that Grossman commands so well in the Magicians trilogy, you can’t help but get sucked in. It’s a magical Portlandia, with M coming across people who might be well at home in a parody of a Humans of New York Facebook page, but here, despite that underlying humour, you can’t help but root for these characters, or wonder what they’re going to get up to.

It takes something to balance that seeming detachment along with intensive worldbuilding, and life-changing stakes, and the author’s own attitude is mirrored by his character, M. Though he’d seem to like nothing more than to disappear into a (preferably) calm and placid existence, maybe livened up by the odd woman or three, M is dragged time and again into the war zone, having to rescue friends from their own problems, or the City from the perils that routinely stalk it. He saves the world on more than one occasion in the book (that’s hardly a spoiler in fantasy, right?), and does so with a sort of ‘oh well, here we go again’ nonchalance that could have made him, int he hands of a lesser writer, an annoying or boring character. But despite his obvious skill and talent, you never stop caring about M, never write him or his friends off as people who will ‘always’ win; every time they face a trial, you care, despite the fact that everything about M seems to declare that you really shouldn’t, that this is just another day at the office for him.

I’d recommend A City Dreaming wholeheartedly. It’s deftly written, it’s hilarious, and it takes you on a journey through a crazy city, from its darkest basements to its glittering penthouses. There’s no doubt that Polansky loves the New York he’s built, and it shines forth, three (if not more) dimensional and so ‘real’, despite the magic and mysteries that bubble at its base. The writing is beautiful, the adventures original, the book as a whole a trippy, dreamy experience. Besides, how could you not want to read something in which the hero saves the world from a plague of artisanal coffee shops?

An Empire State of Mind

It’s easy to find blogposts and listicles about how important it is to travel in your 20’s. The writers of these posts say inspiring things about how travel builds perspective, travel doesn’t have to be the provence of the rich, travel brings you face to face with people and situations you would never expect. I’ve seen so many of these, some of them with agendas more clearly discernible than others (for instance, there’s one about how girls should travel in their 20’s rather than get married. I have a problem with posts like these simply because they seem to judge those who do choose to get married in their 20’s, which I find a little discomfiting. People should be able to get married whenever the hell they want, and that includes in their 20’s), but rants aside, they all make this one point: travel broadens horizons, and really, you should do it.

I would describe myself as an indifferent traveler. I don’t really enjoy meeting new people all the time, neither do I need to throw myself into particularly ‘exciting’ and ‘new’ experiences in order to find my life enriching and fulfilling (I think I do well enough building and dispensing drama on my own—just ask any of my close friends). Certainly I enjoy seeing famous and touristy places, but my ambition does not include that oft cited by so many people: ‘I want to see the world’.

Having said all this, there are a few places I would like to visit, a short list of countries that includes, for various reasons, Peru, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Morocco, Canada and one particular city: New York.

top-of-the-rock-photo-ispI visited New York for a day in 2009. It was a there and back again trip, consisting of a hurried Chipotle lunch with cousins, a quick trip through the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art), three hours standing in line waiting for tickets to a Broadway show at Times Square, hurried gobbling of cheesecake, strolling through a little bit of Central Park—I remember rocks—and then rushing to Majestic Theatre, where I lost my heart to a singing Phantom and his Gothic tunes. We then took a night train back to the domestic haven of New Jersey, and New York and its treats were left behind.

This quick visit was enough to give me what I thought of as a ‘sense’ of the city, and the only word I could use to describe it was ‘life’. The moment I stepped out of Penn Station’s underground caverns and onto the street, I felt an almost electric thrill shoot through me. Here, I thought, is where I want to be. Ever since then I’ve dreamt of walking down fifth, sixth or seventh avenue, clutching a rapidly cooling coffee as I make my way to my skyscraper-housed office. This vision may or may not have been unduly influenced by The Devil Wears Prada movie. Given how much importance that movie and various other NY-based books/TV shows (cough Gossip Girl cough) have in my imagination, I wouldn’t be surprised.

28annehathawaygoldpurseoutfit

Totes going to be me some day.

I finally had the opportunity to stay in the Big Apple. I crashed at a close friend’s place on 125th and Broadway (like a true New Yorker, I have learned to locate places based on street and avenue number/name), very close to Columbia University. I took the Subway on my own—woohoo!—and travelled about Manhattan. I met a range of interesting people, old friends and new as the cliche goes, and undertook the grand mission known as ‘finding oneself’. I walked past humongous skyscrapers multiple times, looking up at the windows and wondering when I would sit inside and look out upon the commuters and tourists scurrying below. I stood outside the NewsCorp office for a full five minutes and plotted takeover, even messaged a partner in crime about how we would one day rule the publishing and television world from there. 

I have very small dreams, you see.

New York was everything I dreamed it would be. Granted, I spent only ten days there and didn’t actually have to brave rush hour crowds, eke out a living and pay a humongous rent, so my picture of the city is rather rose-tinted. But it felt, more than anything, like a bigger, more international version of Delhi, perhaps shinier and the teensiest bit safer, in some ways. In other ways, more dangerous.

Perhaps this, its Delhi-like feel, made me even more desperate to be seen as ‘part’ of the city, a true ‘local’. It’s impossible, at a glance, to tell who is from New York. It houses people from every race, every country probably, ever sort of social, economic and religious background. Given the smorgasbord of humanity, it’s easy enough to blend in, be perceived as someone completely at home here. I figured out the easiest way to pass off as a local, i.e, not a clueless tourist (which, whatever I say, I was) was to plaster a confident, vaguely arrogant expression on my face and just stride off in the direction I thought I was supposed to take. Luckily for me, my face assumes this expression almost by default, and even when I took the wrong exit from a subway, quick glances at the street corners enabled me to reroute myself properly.

Why was I so desperate to blend in? Perhaps I just wanted to extend the illusion of being part of the city, convince myself that yes, I am here and I will be here. If people validate this notion, all the better.

Did traveling to New York give me the much vaunted ‘perspective’? Yes. It taught me how very much I want to be seen as successful, creative, a force to be reckoned with—all images one associates, thanks to pop culture, with NYC. More than that, it showed me that I want to be all those things there. I want the skyscraper-housed office, the overpriced coffee, the snootiness of an Upper East or West side address. Impossible to get? Well, like Jay-Z said, ‘If I can make it here/I can make it anywhere’.

Challenge accepted. 

blair

Bring. It. On.