By Tochi Onyebuchi
In “The Life and Death of America’s Big Cities”, Jane Jacobs describes her perfect neighborhood – Greenwich Village, circa 1961. Gentrification began but did not uproot the working-class community that preceded it. You get a mix of old and new buildings, some cheap, some expensive, which include apartments, houses, shops, offices, restaurants and cafes. Different types of people live and work there, and the variety itself supports the new community, because at any time of the day you can have a freelancer typing in the coffee shop, or a builder buying tools from the hardware store. , or schoolchildren walking home, or drinkers coming out of the bar, which stays open until 3 a.m., to keep the street busy and residents feeling safe. That’s one of the reasons she hated the suburbs – the empty streets.
Tochi Onyebuchi credits Jacobs in the acknowledgments for ‘Goliath,’ his new novel, as someone whose books ‘have done more than anything else to reshape the way I think about the metropolis and all the different ways a city can be occupied. “. The story begins with a curious echo of that moment from Greenwich Village: Jonathan and David, a white gay couple, have decided to return to Earth from the space colonies. Jonathan, playing the trailblazer, arrives first and wants to buy a house in New Haven, which has been devastated by a series of political and environmental disasters that predate the novel. The earth and the air have become radioactive and carcinogenic. You need a face mask to breathe safely, unless you’re one of the lucky few living in a Dome, a kind of filter bubble. In any case, most of the upper middle classes have been partly cybernized, “augmented” in ways that allow them to replace cancerous organs and even detoxify their systems after excessive drug use. The real danger, Jonathan warns, is “gangs.”
It’s an ingenious premise: Onyebuchi trivializes outer space and makes battered, nearly uninhabitable provincial America the frontier. “The best thing that could have happened to the planet was that all white people left it,” thinks one of the men left behind. Except now the Whites are coming back. The novel moves away from the stories of Jonathan and David to follow various “stackers” in their daily lives – local, mostly black demolition crews whose job it is to demolish uninhabited homes (using sophisticated new technology ) and rummaging through leftovers for reusable bricks. The leader of a crew is a man named Bishop, an ex-convict and lay preacher, whose moral authority pervades the novel, though his aging body can barely keep up with the work. Even his wisdom was nearly exhausted in the face of the endless repetitiveness of oppression.
The life of the stackers soon takes over the novel. There’s a brief overlap, when Bishop helps Jonathan electrify his new home, but Jacobs’ Greenwich Village moment never really happens. Sure, you could tell this story without the sci-fi machinery, but part of the point is to undermine the consolations of pure realism, the sense of deep roots, the things that fit together, albeit sadly. Characters in the novel always wear their favorite Red Sox caps or smoke Newports or refer to the tale of a house party spiraling out of control as “some Atlanta ass story”. These fragments of the old world matter to people, but there are not enough of them to build a meaningful life. They have to start over.
In its scale and ambition, “Goliath” resembles a Tom Wolfe novel, but there isn’t much of a central action or plot that compels the various characters, up and down the class ladder. , to come into contact and come into conflict with each other. The story jumps between viewpoints and forwards and backwards in time. It also presents an impressive range of records – from the painful self-explanations of a black Yale-educated inmate (one of the book’s highlights), to the embarrassing but well-meaning reporting of a white journalist who wants to tell the story. from stackers, to the “No Country for Old Men”-style narrative of marshals on the trail through North Texas to a murdered boy’s grave.
How it all comes together ultimately matters less than the picture of a broken America these stories present. It’s a kind of post-apocalyptic “Our Town”. Characters with different stories walk on stage and reveal themselves. It puts a lot of pressure on every scene to deliver meaningful reveals. Either something terrible is happening there, or people are telling stories about something terrible that happened to them in the past. In a strange way, however, the stakes remain low, if only because there is so little hope that their lives will ever improve. The closest thing to a central plot begins when one of the stackers discovers wild horses outside New Haven, emerging “from the mist of the shore in answer to a prayer she didn’t even realize. which she had uttered”. Someone decides to collect them and start a farm, the real purpose of which is more symbolic than practical. Money doesn’t seem to matter much.
The novel’s worldview is based on the idea that the most real thing about people is their pain, and that their most important daily task is managing that pain. From time to time they even manage to escape from it (mainly through love, jokes, drugs or horses), but not for long. “In case of grief,” writes Onyebuchi, “sometimes you would go up the bill and after a while the number no longer made sense.” This idea has a lot of power, but it also leaves out a lot and sometimes tends to favor the characters’ more sentimental opinions about themselves. David and Jonathan meet at a space hospital, where David visits his mother, who has dementia. Jonathan offers her a cigarette, which David takes, even though he doesn’t really smoke. “I do it because it hurts,” David explains later. “Smoking. … I like it because it hurts me. All this is the prelude to the confession of a lover: “Then everything came out, a cascade of words.”
David briefly reappears at the end, settled in New Haven now, at a public meeting that shows just how out of touch the returnees are. (David asks one of the panelists to define “the base”.) His pain is not the problem. And as the novel unfolds, the question at the heart of Jacobs’ description of Greenwich Village – how much gentrification is enough? – also turns out to miss the point. Inevitably, tensions between the two communities come to a head, and the result is a tragedy that you don’t have to be a science fiction writer to imagine. But the speculative machinery also offers a nuance here. Earlier in the novel, when Bishop assaults the city comptroller (he catches him jogging and slams a gun to his head), to demand more food rations, he does so partly because he knows the guy is ‘augmented’ – no blood coming out, but a ‘bump ruined the fabricated curvature’. There’s nothing morally ambiguous about the scene, but it also means there’s no possibility of real compromise. The divide has become too deep.