Decay of society parallels decay of the city (4/5)
In 2010, I read my first Charles Platt novel: The City Dwellers (1970). It was a fair novel composed of four parts, all of which read like separate stories in a regressively chronological future history. It was moderately interesting, so I kept it in my library. My second Platt novel was in 2012 with Garbage World (1967), which was Platt’s first novel but still as flawed as The City Dwellers—nothing really to entice the mind of the reader other than the unusual plot setting.
I haven’t gotten around to another Platt novel since then, but one recent review by Tarbandu of Platt’s novel The Twilight of the City (1977) piqued my interest. The reviewer panned the novel after only reading 83 pages. When checking ISFDB, I saw that The Twilight Years is actually a variant title of The City Dwellers. I didn’t remember the book being that bad, so I bumped it to the front of my to-read queue to give it some justice—only if it deserved justice.
Rear cover synopsis:
“In the 21st century, when urbanization is reaching its limits, the population suddenly slumps…
The city is killing man—strangling and crushing humanity as effectively as the jungle destroyed the civilizations of the past.
The characters—zombies, slum-dwellers, a pop star and an architect—move like tiny insects through the vast empty street and concrete landscape of the city.
The Loners decide to opt out of civilization…
The Civics dare not venture beyond the city limits…
which will survive?”
My one qualm with this otherwise introspective novel is Platt’s role of women. As the citizens of the city commit to maintaining their archaic urban lifestyle yet their lives decay around them, it’s almost as if the role of women, too, begin to decay into submissiveness. The women tend to take submissive or pleading roles in each of the following encounters. Platt’s prerogative or a symptom of the city’s decay?
A few notable examples:
- “[S]he pressed herself hard against him, wanting him to make love to her” (23)
- “She tried to stifle her cry when he entered her” (38)
- “When he entered her she shut her eyes and gave way to his strength” (58)
- “[S]he gave herself, pulling up her knees and shutting her eyes” (62)
- “[S]he took out her dentures and started kissing down his body, arousing him till he was ready to take her” (71)
- “[S]he pressed herself to him … she responds passively, enduring him with resigned acceptance” (147)
- “She frowns. ‘Please let me stay here with you …. Please?’” (150)
The central theme to this part of the novel is Greg’s overexposure to the extremes of fame in parallel to city dweller’s overexposure to the extremes of the inhumanity of the city. Greg’s slightly older companion, the “healer of man” named Cathy, is better adjusted to the randomness of life as she’s been in contact with heart-broken men more than twice her age.
Though she’s only six-years senior to Greg, their experiences in life and in music contrast greatly; perhaps this is a plot by Owen in order to Greg to become more mature. Considering that Greg’s life is all about his pop music, Cathy has very little to connect with as she has a totally different pop music experience:
I grew up with pop music when there were groups, it was simple, maybe a few lights, the music was life instead of taped, it wasn’t staged. Loud, but not overwhelming. There wasn’t the personality cult, the calculated hysteria. (16)
In contrast to his amoral and extravagant lifestyle on the stage, Greg lives a meager lifestyle in the slums of the city, which doctors have been warning everyone of being “unhealthy for mind and body” but what was most important for Greg was the “now and here in the centre, setting tastes and interacting with everyone else … He was them they were him” (19).
The constant exposure to activity enervates Greg’s senses, making him susceptible to the errant experiences, pushing him—and all citizens of the city—closer toward insanity. While the stress attacks psychologically first, the latent generational effects are physiological. In Greg’s day and age, population is peaking and the prior generation are observing the drastic change: “We get so used to it, the overcrowding, population still rising, people pressing close all the time … people don’t see how it produces pressures—eat, buy, consume, hurry, the whole consumer business” (28).
Just as the tides of pressure eventually inundate and destroy the impressionable mind of Greg in a fit of mindlessness (30) akin to the mindless jabber of the radio (9-10), so too do the mental barriers of resistance begin to crumble for the city dwellers. Added pressures to shift down through states of amorality for the loaded promise of relief from the strain where emotion can sweep over them forgetting “everything, living it, being it, drowning in it” (58). In order to feel more human, the city dwellers combat the insensitivity of the city by indulging in the polar opposite of their stern uniformity—goodbye turgid logic, hello raw emotion.
Switching to extremes like the city dwellers in “Part 1”, Julius and Hilary flee the city in favor of the country, where the face just as many obstacles as they had in the city, just in different form. Having fled the depopulation and economic crisis (65) of the city, the city’s absurdities, trivialities and dichotomies are replaced by the brute force of man versus nature (life on the farm) and the subtle nature of man versus man (marital conflict).
However, history does not disappear from their lives; old personal grudges between the pair silently begin to wedge them apart. To further drive that wedge between them, the unexpected visit of their old artistic friends from the city descends upon the farm. The absurdity is obvious in their outfits—“Polaroid pants. Distorting suits. X-ray shirts and swirl-painted ties (69)—yet the news the bring carries much more significance: the birth rate has been dropping for a long while and no one knows when the crunch will come; tens of thousands of industries depend on each other and the drop in births is affecting their growth; deflation sets in and nervousness settles in (79-80).
In contrast to their fears, the city dwellers bring a mobile party with them, intent on living it up with Julius like they had in the past. The monotony of the farm breaks, shatters as Julius indulges in reliving the past: sex, drugs, and revelry; however, his care for the farm still remains, as evidence by his outrage over his so-called friends’ destruction of his property and their mistreatment of his pregnant cow.
Julius’s wife is outraged by all the antics and confronts him about the choice they must face: live in disparity in the country or rejoin the fold in the city. The factors begin to add up: “I’m not interested in the money … I can’t go back to the old rituals. Life out here isn’t perfect, but maybe no perfect solution exists” (79). Yet, the pressure of conformity remains and the magnetic draw of uniformity compels them to face that very choice of (1) living frugally alone in conflictual tension or (2) living in conflict of choice amid the tension of the hordes.
Life in the civic centres hasn’t improved, regardless of their attempts to enforce normality like they once knew. When the 3-to-1 sex ratio unbalances their idea of monogamy (95), the Civics get desperate. Their beloved city and its city ways have turned on its inhabitants; though man built the cities, “the cities destroyed man; they fed his intellect for a while, but ruined him biologically, psychologically … decaying as the buildings decay” (104-105). Though already inherently defeated, the Civics continue to grasp at the straws of their disappearing life.
Outside the civic centre, Loners dot the decaying landscape of the city’s superfluous suburbs, “cold and empty and lifeless; but sometimes it was beautiful” (88). Ubiquitously monotone pillars of concrete hide the earth’s horizon, utilitarian apartment blocks eclipsing the sight of both figurative and literal greener pastures. The apartments, “sealed container of slow time, empty and bare as monastic cells” (89), are the so-called home to the nomadic Loners. While the Civics hopelessly stick to their decomposing lifestyle without facing the facts, the Loners have adopted a fatalism in tune with their depressing environment as a “one-generation people” who “learn to live with the city instead of trying to fight circumstances” (104):
Life is as it is, perfect or imperfect, and if you’d stop fighting it and accept it as it is, you wouldn’t worry any more about making it better. There just isn’t any point. We’re as the end of the road. (106)
When the tripartite loose marriage of Reid, Vincent and Amanda discover an injured man—a Civic at that—Reid and Amanda appeal to their humanistic senses to help the man who is admittedly running from authorities because of a simple letter sent to the governor… now he’s guilty of subversion. The man on the run, Johnson tags along with the Loners from rooftop to rooftop to monorail lengths while avoiding the sights of the band of Civics after him.
Johnson says he escaped the civic centre for fear of arrest and for want of living like a Loner amid the rubble, but Vincent has his doubts about the man’s true motivation; he repeatedly asks Johnson what information he’s hiding. Vincent’s fatalistic uncaring attitude toward Johnson’s life sets the Civic on edge though Amanda welcomes him with literal open legs and Reid with figurative open arms. This good cop/bad cop attitude of the Loners is better than Johnson’s city experience where all fight a losing fight.
The tie that once bound city dwellers together—the knot of common sense—has long worn away, leaving a gnarl of anarchy in its place. Proximity and conformity may have broken the city dwellers (Civics) generations ago, but now the state of the city's decay almost reinforces their decay of rationalism and humanity. Such is the state of the once proud city that it now resembles the dereliction of its suburbs where the Loners had roamed, proud of their individuality. The city—in it, the Civics—and the suburbs—in it, the Loners—now look in similar states of irreparable deterioration.
The distinction between civic centre and lone zone is blurred now; as the buildings decay, so they come to look alike. The people, too, cannot be divided into separate groups with separate philosophies. Philosophy has died with the interest in the future; men live only from day to day, in small communities from which they seldom stray. (131)
Civilization has digressed to the point of roving bands of heathens, albeit heathens with petrol cars and an innate thirst for recklessness with said cars. The broad threat of a declining birthrate has been eclipsed by the specific threat to one's own life; the worry over economic collapse has been overshadowed by finding one's next meal. Having tried to keep their Civic way of life preserved, it has actually become stagnant and the rioting way of the reckless threaten to destroy what remains of the stagnation.
Wickens is a symptom of his era where things had started to turn belly up long ago; he sees no future in the city, no future for man. His two grandsons have conflicting views on the old man: Manning feels sympathy for the hateful ideas and aims to foster him into a sense of love for the world’s death throes; Neal, however, is a victim of the elderly man’s spite and his recluse lifestyle hides his intentions toward the aging man.
Sheldon is a member of the wild band, whose recent foray outside the city has secured a lone female. When Manning sees Sheldon leading her in tow toward a secluded spot, he tails them and peeps at their progressive sexual activity. The girl spots the voyeur and screams, sending him running for safety from the rage of Sheldon. This small spark of irregularity in the simple Civic’s life can has disastrous consequences as the heathen hordes of men had laid riot to the city a number of times, each time terrorizing the frail structures of both the people and the city, which are inseparable from one another… until the city’s apocalypse nears.
Obviously, though The City Dwellers (1970) and The Twilight of the City (1977) are variant titles according to ISFDB, the review of this novel contrasts greatly with Tarbandu’s own brief synopsis:
The narrative revolves around the actions of three young people: Bobby Black, the superstar singer and showman of the emerging genre of ‘Suicide Rock’. Bobby’s songwriting partner is the taciturn, calculating Michael. And then there is Lisa, who came to the City with a headfull of dreams and stars in her eyes, only to find that dreams die fast on the hard and unforgiving streets of the ghetto.
I have yet to read The Twilight of the City and I’m frankly frightened to attempt it due to Tardandu’s forewarnings, but don’t let the connotation keep you from reading The City Dwellers. It’s a worthwhile read and, perhaps, one of Platt’s best novels… not that I’ve read more than two.