The City's Son by Tom Pollock
Reviewed by Martin Lewis
25 January 2013
Beth Bradley is lost. Her father has become catatonic following the sudden death of her mother and she has sought solace in rebellion: graffiti and minor drug dealing. This enforced orphanhood—a necessity for all teen adventure stories—is rather too glibly realized to convince, and Beth's father, though granted his own viewpoint chapters, remains an amorphous, unlikely presence in the novel. It is equally hard to be convinced by Beth's rebellion: too clean, too aloof, too removed from the culture and the people of the milieu she supposedly dabbles in. Nonetheless, she is lost:
Beth pressed her cheek to the cool, rough wall. She stood like that for a moment, then pressed harder and harder; until hot pain spread from the grazes on her face and hands, as though by sheer force of muscles she could burrow under the city's skin. (p. 35)
Her wish is granted: a train-beast railwraith bursts out of a nearby tunnel and so begins Beth's journey down the rabbit hole—and how else would a journey in London begin than by stepping on the Tube? This journey doesn't truly begin, however, until she meets Filius Viae (literally "son of the streets"—perhaps a slightly better title than The City's Son). Like her, he is sixteen and motherless; unlike her, his mother is the now-departed goddess of London. It is Filius who becomes Beth's guide to another London.
So debut novelist Tom Pollock is telling a story with a familiar shape, a story of secret London. The daddy of such books is Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere (1996), adapted from the BBC drama he devised with Lenny Henry, and it still casts a long shadow. Once I would have said that there was perhaps a need for this sort of story to be retold every five years or so, but now, of course, urban fantasy is ascendant and every city has a secret soul. The City's Son may ride this wave but it fits more comfortably into a slightly more specific tradition. After all, London is a bit special. I was reminded of this earlier in the year when I went to an interview with slipstream writer Nina Allan. At one point, she mused on her distance from the core of the science fiction genre and rather wistfully remarked that she'd like to be a space writer but always seemed to end up as a time writer. Listening to her I was struck by how perfect London is as a setting for such fiction. After all, the city is a type of time machine; the past and the future sandwiched against each other. This history—this density—imbues the city with a crushing psychic weight. It is virtually a singularity. As one of Pollock's characters puts it: "You see, this city is built on a lot of things: brick and stone and river clay, but under that, under everything this city is built on bargains" (p. 236).
So a collision of otherworldly realpolitik is promised. Before discussing the secret world (the world Beth goes into), however, I'd like to discuss the real world (the world Beth and I come from). Beth is from Hackney, the borough of London where I've lived for the last ten years. She is described as having a "Hackney accent" which I confess I would be hard-pressed to differentiate from, say, a Tower Hamlets accent. Later we find her "dodging the brightly dressed women carrying bags of vegetables from the market in Dalston" (p. 107). Presumably this is Ridley Road Market but it is a bland summation of a location that could easily fill pages. It is strange that in a novel about the fabric of London, a concrete sense of place is lacking. At other points, Pollock's psychic map just seems wrong: "Docklands: the eastest of the East End" (p. 240). Really? I'd say Southend has a better claim to that title.
But let's discount these gripes as inside baseball of little interest to those outside the confines of the M25. If the real London doesn't breathe, does the fantasy version? Well, no, not really. For a start, this secret world isn't very secret. I take it as axiomatic that in this sort of story the weird must live in the cracks: beneath, between. Here it is dumped out on the side of the road for all to see. Pollock has an answer: "It's none of our doing that no one listens to the few people who let themselves notice us. People believe stories, not facts, and we don't fit into theirs, so they don't tend to believe in us. We're easy to miss after all" (p. 225-6). It is an answer familiar to fiction and, like much here, a bit too easy; to be honest, they seem pretty hard to miss.
No wonder Beth is so unfazed by the world she has stepped into. She does make the occasional gesture towards self-reflection—"She was following him unquestioningly, she realized with a jolt; could she really trust him enough for that?" (p. 127)—but mostly she just takes the radical transformation of her life in her stride. But how and why has this transformation occurred? Again, Pollock has a ready, somewhat shaky, answer:
"I don't even know why she picked me up in the first place."
A broad smile split his face. "Seriously? You don't even know that? But that's obvious—you were a passenger. You wanted to go somewhere—anywhere—and she sensed it." (p. 154)
It seems as if the magic under-city takes its cue from Theodor Herzl: "If you will it, it is no dream." Fair enough but are we to believe Beth is the only one who has so willed it? There must be a thousand children (not to mention adults) who have yearned for what she has found every day. This makes for a rather uncertain edifice in which to house Pollock's others, his pavement priests, his lampfolk (the sodiumites and blankleits, rival embodiments of different eras of streetlight), the mirrorfolk, and the members of the Chemical Synod. Neither city seems real in its own right and the merging of the two makes this even more noticeable.
For me, setting is what makes or breaks a story like this, and the book is therefore broken. But what of the story itself? Well, there isn't much to say; The City's Son has a rather thin plot that is helpfully summed up by Filius himself: "Simple: meet a girl, round up a ragtag army, carry out an all-out assault on a skyscraper God" (p. 286). That skyscraper god is Reach, crane-embodied engine of rapacious construction and yin to the absent goddess's yang:
He is murderous, Beth; he's the City's own greed, killing itself in its haste to grow. He's reborn, generation after generation, and every time he comes back stronger and we get weaker, like a cancer. I needed you to realize that all those pretty little towers he builds out of glass and steel"—he spread his arms over the mass grave—"it's all built on that." (p. 135-6)
In other words, Reach is capitalism. Unfortunately, although it is a point Pollock's book makes quite baldly, it is not one he explores in much detail. After all, not all progress is bad: glass and steel may be built on the blood of the proletariat but brick and stone (and even concrete) are apparently honorable, even noble, substances. That nobility is represented by St Paul's, the most protected view in London—exemplar of English heritage and totem of English Heritage. Reach, in sinister contrast, squats in a building site that encroaches perilously near to the cathedral. For the local reader, this setting has been rather overtaken by events: the building site has been built and is now One New Change, a shopping center. Does this mean that Reach has won? During construction, Prince Charles complained about the unseemly modernity of the building given the sacred context. Are we to take it that the Prince of Wales is a force for good and Jean Nouvel, the architect responsible, a force for bad? The idea that modernity is bad is not unusual in fantasy but, for a book that places this idea front and center, it is strange it is so unexamined. It is only in a brief scene of rapprochement between sodiumite and blankleit at the very end of the novel that a more complex truth is hinted at:
Two glass bodies lay in the sleepy embrace of post-coital lovers. One glowed a sooty orange, the other a pure white. Their light mixed and washed over the crushed cans and old springs in the wall. (p. 441)
The fact that the lay of the land has changed between the book being written and published points to a further dislocation. This is because, with wearying inevitability, The City's Son is the first volume in a series, the Skyscraper Throne trilogy. That throne is located at the top of One Canada Square in Canary Wharf which, at the time of writing, was the tallest building in the UK. It has since been comprehensively overtaken by the Shard in London Bridge, currently the tallest building in Europe. With a sense of space and time both lacking, the flimsy story has nothing to anchor it and risks of blowing away. Faced with this, the fundamental question I kept coming back to was: who is this book for?
To answer this question, I think it is instructive to consider ways in which the story has been sanitized. London is, after all, a dirty city. We certainly have some of this rubbish, best expressed—personified even—by Gutterglass, Filius's guardian:
Old chow mein cakes his chin in a slimy beard. His rubbish-sack coat bulges as the rats beneath it scramble about. . . . He's nabbed a tire from somewhere and his waist dissolves into a single wheel instead of his usual legs. Lithe brown rodents race around the inside, rolling him backwards. (p. 18)
So Pollock is not afraid of getting his hands dirty. In other respects, however, the novel is filleted of filth. Consider this coyly clipped thought that Beth's best friend Pen has in response to some inane radio pop:
And this'll be a hit, Pen thought, even though it's sh— (p. 106)
Then quickly afterwards:
"Conjurors," another voice put in, coming from inside a marble scholar.
"Cun—: Lady Justice suggested, but someone shushed her. (p. 122)
Yet a couple of pages later, Beth casually describes an abandoned crane thus: "These must have cost a fuck-load" (p. 132). Pollock's narrative voice is going through puberty: sometimes bass, sometimes squeak. Put it in or take it out (as the actress said to the bishop). Instead he actually employs the cut-off cunt gambit a second time:
"You want to hear my extensive vocabulary? You patronizing cu—"
"Lizbet!" Victor cut her off, sounding so scandalized that she actually blushed. "Not ladylike!" (p. 221)
Victor, by the way, is a comedy Russian—he doesn't belong in a book that is actually trying to say something. Nor does Beth's response: teenage girls do say the word cunt; I doubt they take middle-aged men policing their language with such simpering acquiescence. It also sharply contrasts with a brilliant moment pages later when an aggrieved Beth blurts out: "That's not my fault! That's him being a pussy—!" (p. 224). That is a moment that fully embraces teenage bullshit—rude, funny, petulant, spontaneous—but otherwise the novel takes refuge in a more mannered Young Adult-approved version of teendom. All I could think was, wouldn't it be amazing is someone wrote an urban fantasy version of Misfits?
Conversely, there are moments when the book moves away from the YA straightjacket in the opposite direction by attempting to grow up. It goes without saying that Beth and Filius fall for each other—they are, to all intents and purposes, the only boy and girl in the world. This leads Beth initiating a tender, confused and ultimately abortive attempt to have sex. Pollock pulls back from the act at the last moment, preventing this possibility, but it hints at a better, more mature novel. A similarly adult and incongruous tone is captured when Beth interrogates the faith of one of the pavement priests:
"Tough being religious, is it?" she asked.
Petris barked out a laugh. "It's like sleeping with another man's wife," he told her, "nine parts guilt to one part ecstasy, and somehow you're always alone again in the morning." (p. 351)
Speculative fiction is a genre freighted with stories for children and adults who think they are children, and stories for adults and children who think they are adults. In this company, The City's Son is a rare example of true young adult fiction in that it doesn't know whether its audience are children or adults and falls into a liminal space deeper and more confusing than any of the book's psycho-geographical haunts. Along with these tantalizing glimpses of a novel that could have been, Pollock also manages to give the reader a number of singular images. Such things are the lifeblood of fantasy and Pollock clearly has fantasy in his blood. For example, the pavement priests are old souls trapped inside prosaic statues and condemned to reincarnation. The rebirth of one such stone baby manages to be creepy, powerful and sad all at once:
The statues clustered around the child, cooing in soothing granite tones. One of the angels crooked its wing, a tiny movement, allowing rainwater that had collected in the grooves of its feathers to trickle into the baby's mouth. (p. 126)
Later Beth undergoes her own rebirth, a baptism by fire that is truly worthy of the name. Then there is the wire mistress, a tangle of barbed wire that is both adversary and prison and deserves to haunt many nightmares. But here lies a problem, since Pen falls victim to the wire mistress.
Pen—what can we say about Pen? In another secret London novel, Un Lun Dun (2007), China Miéville pulls off an inspired bit of sleight of hand when the character the reader perceives to be the heroine is quickly discarded to be replaced by the person who, in another story, would have been the sidekick. Miéville is too pleased with himself for this but perhaps The City's Son would have benefited from a similar twist. Instead the mantle of sidekick lies heavy on Pen. Parva "Pencil" Khan is a foil for Beth, her personality and ethnicity attempts to diversify the story. But she has to carry the rest of London on her shoulders and struggles to provide real representation since she spends the entire book as a human punching bag. Firstly, it is quickly and casually revealed that she has been raped by a teacher. This only occurs because it has implications for Beth's own backstory but is totally ignored after this point and Pen is literally denied a voice. Instead she is kidnapped and tortured by the wire mistress, left disfigured and—although Pollock attempts to deny this—forced into the shape of a victim. There is, I suspect, a great character here (better than the rather boring Beth certainly) but she is never given the freedom to exist in her own right.
Perhaps this will change. The revelatory conclusion mixes the generic with the impressive but lards it all with dilemmas from the "shoot the puppy, save the world" school of ethics. Inevitably these will be the genesis of much angst, silence, and misunderstanding. It is a shame anything does have to follow since although the plot may be thin, it is relatively self-contained. But since we do have to follow the past into the future, I hope we hear more from Pen.