Genre Trouble: urban fantasy (the city as character)

My Brain Sister and Beta is currently reading my novella The Lost Pissarro. She had the following comments:

“One of the things I thought was cool: it keeps in the spirit of urban fantasy because Minneapolis is a character. If you’re from Minneapolis you can see these things, and it’s a shadow side of Minneapolis, what people in Minnesota never talk about it. I wish that more urban fantasy writers really took this approach, which is intelligent and different. I am as intrigued with Minneapolis as I am with Angie and what her journey is. urban fantasy as a genre has become so broad, but like any genre it gets saturated. it becomes ‘writing urban fantasy for dummies.’”

On thinking about this, I realize my specific lineage as a writer of urban fantasy is not American but Russian, not ‘genre’ but high-literary: Andrei Bely’s Petersburg, Alexander Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman, the shadow side of Petersburg; you see that too in Anna Akhmatova’s Poem without a Hero and Marina Tsvetaeva’s poems and essays about Moscow, including My Pushkin, in which the poet’s statue is a living presence in her childhood, more real than the poet’s own son, a family acquaintance.

There are many fictional/historical cities that have fascinated me:

  • Andrei Bely’s Petersburg, Pushkin’s version in The Bronze Horseman, Gogol and Dostoevsky and their ghost stories. Akhmatova’s Poem without a Hero. From another angle, Tsvetaeva’s Moscow, but particularly her version in the autobiographical essays in Earthly Signs and Captive Spirit, the fantastical Moscow of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita.
  • Minneapolis in Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, which I read after I had done my own version in ‘The Scottish Play, or Fire and Ice’, ‘Reincarnations of Miss Anne’, and ‘Shape-shifter’s Tale’. The artist (musician) characters in that tale seem very white to me; they have the bohemian freedom of the city in a way that Black, Native, or Asian American artists would not. The fantastic elements (the Courts of the Fae) are imported, and the book doesn’t touch down on the bones underfoot in the history of this key Upper Midwest city. I realize that I notice this because I came to it after extensive exposure to the work of Native writers from this and other regions, such as playwrights Marcie Rendon and Heid Erdrich, poets Jim Northrup and Joy Harjo, novelists Louise Erdrich, Michael Dorris, Linda Hogan, and Leslie Marmon Silko.
  • New York, but especially Greenwich Village. The enchantment begins with the film Reds, which I saw as often as many of my contemporaries saw Star Wars, and proceeds through the memoirs of Emma Goldman, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, the  biographies of visual artists John Sloan, Alice Neel, Faith Ringgold.
  • The Paris of George Sand, with its Roman subbasements and medieval back-streets.
  • Moscow of the 1830s, via Alexander Herzen.
  • His version of London, alongside William Blake’s, together phantasmagorical.
  • Chicago, through the eyes of writers as various as James T. Farrell, Richard Wright, Scott Spencer, and Marge Piercy, most of whom wrote about the neighborhoods around the University of Chicago.
  • Washington DC, the stage set of the official city against the lively African-American city that lived and lives in its shadow. A perennial mystery to me is why Russian literature features ghost stories set in Petersburg or Moscow, but American literature offers very few ghost stories set in its capital.

Then there are the ones I’ve lived but not written:

  • Toledo in the 1970s, where I spent some part of my adolescence. It’s now period, before it became the Rust Belt, but I realize now that I could feel some of that historic motion underfoot even when I was living there;
  • Winston-Salem, North Carolina, as haunted a landscape as I’ve ever walked, but very definitely foreign ground, in a way that literary Petersburg, Moscow and Paris are not.

Urban fantasy has morphed considerably in the last decades, as it threatens to become a commercial genre, with all that implies. What’s being lost in that process is the edginess and the political commentary. Bely’s Petersburg is such a compelling read because it uses the fantastic where linear realism fails: to convey the feeling of 1905, when the fabric of nineteenth-century Russia suddenly came unraveled. Part of my goal as a writer in the urban fantasy / magic realism lineage is to write our contemporary dislocations in a similar way.

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6 Responses to Genre Trouble: urban fantasy (the city as character)

  1. Jelzmar says:

    You are going to make my reading list triple every time you talk about stories you like.

    • epbeaumont says:

      It’s the favor that readers do for each other! And then we write and just make the problem worse. 🙂 Not to worry, I’m staring at my own stack of unfinished reading.

  2. Sue says:

    Ed mcbain 87th precinct series uses New York city under a fictional name as a living and breathing entity from “Fuzz”

    “The bitch city is something different on Saturday night, sophisticated in black, scented and powdered, but somehow not as unassailable, shiveringly beautiful in a dazzle of blinking lights. Reds and oranges, electric blues and vibrant greens assault the eye incessantly, and the resultant turn-on is as sweet as a quick fix in a penthouse pad, a liquid cool that conjures dreams of towering glass spires and enameled minarets. There is excitment in this city on Saturday night, but it is tempered by romantic expectancy. She is not a bitch this city. Not on Saturday night.”

  3. epbeaumont says:

    Eventually we’re all historical… that novel about Toledo, Ohio in the 1970s would be historical, now. Forty years ago. Curious, too, how the ‘contemporary’ and ‘up-to-date’ details fade gently into ‘period authenticity.’

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