A City Dreaming by Daniel Polansky
M is a drifter with a sharp tongue, few scruples, and limited magical ability, who would prefer drinking artisanal beer to involving himself in the politics of the city. Alas, in the infinite nexus of the universe which is New York, trouble is a hard thing to avoid, and when a rivalry between the city’s two queens threatens to turn to all out war, M finds himself thrust in thrust in the unfamiliar position of hero. Now, to keep the apocalypse from descending on the Big Apple, he’ll have to call in every favor, waste every charm, and blow every spell he’s ever acquired – he might even have to get out of bed before noon.
Enter a world of Wall Street wolves, slumming scenesters, desperate artists, drug-induced divinities, pocket steam-punk universes, hipster zombies, and phantom subway lines. Because the city never sleeps, but is always dreaming.
What makes a city a city? Is it just a matter of some smart urban planning, a large population and a little bit of luck, or is there something more to it? Is there an intangible element that shapes a community? What if there were people responsible for making sure that that this power kept flowing? What if those people had abilities, let’s call it magic for want of a better word? What if they had a tendency to squabble amongst themselves…a lot A City Dreaming by Daniel Polansky asks those very questions. The city in question – New York.
M is a truly enigmatic creation. He’s been around for a long time. He’s travelled everywhere and has seen the best and worst that humanity has to offer. After years of globe-trotting, he finds himself back in New York, being part of the magical counter culture that exists throughout the city. M may sometimes come across as little more than a louche party boy, but you see hints that in the deep dark depths of his soul he is honourable and always tries to do the right thing.
Our hero, though he would likely never admit to that honorific, flourishes in a constant state of now. The past and the future just don’t really factor into his world view so he chooses to ignore them for the most part. A vast chunk of the novel is episodic in nature and this is the perfect way to learn more about the world that M inhabits. I was impressed that each chapter reads like a self-contained single short story but when viewed together they combine to be part of an overarching whole. This is razor sharp, wickedly intelligent writing.
There is some wonderfully quotable dialogue between the characters. M’s social circle are a hugely diverse bunch. M veers from snarky to disinterested and back again with ease. Only the ennui of the truly long lived can produce such barbed comments. My favourite moments however occur when M attempts to untangle the human condition and what it all actually means.
Infinity overlaps to such a degree as to make the outcome of any event essentially a matter of perspective.
Hands down my favourite chapter of the book involves M versus the alarming increase of independent coffee shops appearing in his neighbourhood. Turns out, interdimensional beings are just obsessed with the perfect cup of java as the rest of us. Now that I think about it, this caffeine related tangent also goes a long way to explaining the existence of hipsters.
M, his friends, acquaintances and enemies, embody so many different things. Daniel Polanksy weaves thoughtful bon-mots throughout the ever flowing narrative. He picks apart his characters and he picks apart the elements that make a city what it is, the good and the bad are explored in depth. From the Mass Transit Authority and its labyrinthine subway system, to the city’s green spaces and the industrial districts. Millionaires and powerbrokers rub shoulders with the dispossessed and homeless. New York shines, it is a microcosm of humanity. All life is here and much more besides. Just imagine, millions of lives all clamouring for the right just to exist. It’s insightful stuff alright.
It is highly likely that some will find Daniel Polansky’s literary wordsmithery perhaps a bit too surreal, a bit too odd for their taste. Personally, I adored every single word. The ebb and flow of The Big Apple is the perfect location to follow a character who appears to just drift through his life. New York is as much a character in this novel as M is. This is top notch stuff that melted my brain in a whole host of wonderful ways. The further you journey into M’s world the darker things become. I was working under the assumption that I was reading urban fantasy novel, but there are flashes of the darkest horror that remind me of Clive Barker’s early work. In all honesty, it is almost impossible to adequately categorise this book. There is so much going on, and more than enough ambiguity about the events themselves. I suspect different readers are going to have different interpretations of just exactly what is going on.
I have an admission to make, I’ve never had the opportunity to visit New York. I’m a terrible traveller, but this book makes me want to go there. Daniel Polansky’s vision of the city is just so damned evocative. Prior to this novel, there have only ever been two other occasions where an author has managed to pique my interest so vividly*
I’ll be honest, I felt mentally drained after reading A City Dreaming. I wanted to go lie down in a darkened room with a cold compress atop my brow. There are just so many beautifully expressed ideas and concepts I needed to ruminate over. There was that other part of me though, who wanted nothing more than to head right back to page one and start again all over again. This the sort of fiction I love to discover. Everyone needs to read this so I can talk to them at length about how it made me feel. I actively want to know what other people think. I hope this book prompts all manner of debate. I’ve read some of Daniel Polansky’s other novels. I’ll happily admit that I enjoyed them, they were entertaining. A City Dreaming beats every single one of those hands down. I foresee awards in the future. Polansky has offered us just the tiniest glimpse of something wonderful. Long may it continue.
Normally my musical suggestions to accompany a novel tends to lean towards the soundtrack/non-vocal end of the spectrum but there is an exception for every rule. For this singular work of fiction I’m breaking with tradition. A City Dreaming can best be enjoyed whilst listening to Who Can I Be Now? [1974-1976] by David Bowie played on random. As Aladdin Sane once told us – New York’s a go-go, and everything tastes right. If that doesn’t sum up this book in a single lyric, I don’t think anything can.
I’m willing to bet that for many readers A City Dreaming is going to be quite different from anything else they have ever read before. My advice – persevere, ponder and ultimately enjoy. Fiction like this comes along far too infrequently. This is a great book that deserves to be hugely successful. I rather suspect Daniel Polansky’s latest is in the running for my book of the year.
A City Dreaming is published by Hodder & Stoughton and is available from 6th October. Highly recommended. Please tell me that there will be more? There had better be more, no one likes to see a grown man cry. It ain’t pretty.
*The other books were The Watchers by Jon Steele and The Age of Misrule by Mark Chadbourn in case you’re curious.