01 February 2016

Two Tales of the City — Why We Came to the City Review

Like The Iliad, Kristopher Jansma’s new novel Why We Came to the City begins in media res. Homer’s work, and its sort-of-sequel, The Odyssey, feature a lot in the novel, both in direct references and in the structure of the novel, which is divided into two halves. The first half opens with a prologue in which an as yet unknown ‘we’ explain their reasons for coming to the city, the city, in this case, being New York (not Troy). But the prologue could almost be authored by any millennial New Yorker and it is only when the novel proper begins that we begin to understand who the titular ‘we’ are, why they came to the city and why they stayed.

Jansma’s novel tells the story of four twenty-somethings who met in Ithaca (named for Odysseus's own home) and have been trying to carve out lives in New York ever since. As the story begins, they arrive at an art gallery's holiday party in a fancy hotel where the cocktails are named for poems (“‘The Wasteland is pretty good,’ the bartender offered. ‘Got tea-infused bourbon in it.’”). Irene is an artist who also works as an assistant at the gallery, Sara — the 'mother' of the group is an editor, George — Sara's boyfriend — an astrophysicist, and Jacob a poet/hospital orderly. They are a close-knit group with few other good friends, but at the party, Irene meets William, a quiet classics major turned investment banker who attended Cornell with the others and who always envied their closeness. After a drunken night involving a hot tub, William is gradually accepted into the inner circle.

But before we can begin to get to know the friends properly, a routine doctor’s appointment turns into the start of a long and nightmarish journey as Irene is diagnosed with a rare cancer. Suddenly, everything the friends loved about the city and their struggles with their jobs, apartments and love lives become trivial as they rally to support their friend. Irene is at the centre of the novel, but the other characters all make various odysseys too — some literal journeys, others journeys of discovery as they try to find out who they really are and whom their loved ones are.

Why We Came to the City is keenly observed, moving and extremely engaging. New York City is arguably the main character, but the story of Irene and her four friends is rich, complex and beautifully written. At times, it is painful to read: the descriptions of Irene’s declining health are incredibly visceral (“Her skin had turned so white and bloodless that it no longer blended with her makeup. She looked like someone wearing an Irene mask made in a knock-off factory.”), and parts are heartbreaking, although never maudlin. That isn't to say that there aren't lighter moments, such as the Borders clerk who asks for Homer’s last name when Jacob is looking for a copy of The Odyssey and wonders if he means Homer Simpson.

The book reminded me a little of Claire Messud's excellent The Emperor's Children, and there are also some similarities to Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life — my favourite book of 2015. Both examine the relationship between four college friends who have made New York their home and who, variously, have tragedy buried in their past — and their future. Jansma’s work is more focused and, despite its constant references to ancient Greek epic poetry, is less epic in scope, although its themes of of love, identity, creativity and loyalty are ambitious and well depicted. Why We Came to the City ended exactly where it should have done, but still left me wanting more, just as a great novel should.

Disclaimer: Why We Came to the City will be published by Penguin/Viking on 16 February 2016. I received a pre-release copy via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.

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