#tobyreads: Distant Cities and Haunted Narratives


For a split-second, let’s talk about cities in prose. Maybe they’re not far yet remain unfamiliar; maybe they’re on the other side of the world. Maybe they’re cities from which we’re separated by time; maybe they’re cities that never existed at all. These three books chronicle scenes and observations from all of the above; they’re works that provoke and get under your skin.

I’m a huge admirer of Lauren Beukes’s first two novels, Moxyland and Zoo City. The former was a kaleidoscopic look at a near future where technology and pervasive corporate influences have become even more pronounced than they are now; the latter a magic-realist noir that’s incredibly haunting, and features some indelibly creepy moments. Her followup, The Shining Girls, didn’t quite click with me as much, but her evocation of early-90s Chicago felt impressively alive. For Broken Monsters, she’s stayed in the vicinity and moved the timeframe up a few years: the setting is Detroit circa now, and the central characters are a disparate group of people, each with connections to an ongoing murder investigation.

Depending on how you approach Broken Monsters, it’s either a procedural with some hallucinatory elements, or a horror novel that underplays its most horrific elements. Thankfully, it manages to satisfy on both levels: the window it provides on Detroit creates a sense of a city in flux. Beukes is equally empathic towards the different communities she follows, from police to artists; the result is a surreal and sometimes terrifying work that plays out across a vast canvas.

Xu Zechen’s Running through Beijing tells a less ominous story, though there’s plenty of anxiety and dread to go around here as well. Dunhuang, the novel’s central character, is released from a short stay in prison as the novel opens; soon, he’s back working in various low-level illegal activities–selling bootleg DVDs, for the most part. It’s a moody book; told in a largely episodic fashion, it follows his interactions with a host of different people similarly living on the fringes of society in Beijing. As he navigates a series of complex emotional relationships, the narrative remains terse, full of memorable minor characters (a group of film students who rely on Dunhuang for regular deliveries) and a shifting environment (including sandstorms that periodically bombard the city).

If you’ve read anything from Warren Ellis, whether prose or comics, you’re probably aware that he’s a writer fond of big ideas. Cunning Plans, a new ebook-only collection, brings together several talks that he’s given over the past few years. And so there are looks at how fiction and technology inform one another; there are new perspectives given on the history of Britain and Los Angeles; there are musings on the future and of the idea of the future. And there’s plenty of space dedicated to what the notion of being “cunning” actually means. As an added bonus, you’ll probably walk away from it with a sizable list of books you’ll want to read. It’s hard to argue with that.

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