Started this morning with a part of the book called “City Lites: An Interlude.” “I never understood the concept of the sister city” (145), says the narrator. Neither have I, come to think of it. And what is it that makes cities sisters?
“Some unions, like that of Tel Aviv and Berlin, Paris and Algiers, Honolulu and Hiroshima, are designed to signal an end to hostilities and the beginning of peace and prosperity; arranged marriages in which the cities learn to love one another over time” (145).
It’s Beatty, again, slogging through the muck and morass of human irony and wiping his boots on the reader’s doorstep.
The idea of sister cities is there, I think, to echo tropes of division and reconciliation and the perverse ways in which unity and difference are often justified.
“I grabbed my atlas and tried to guess who would be the lucky ladies [for Dickens]. I knew better than to expect Rome, Nairobi, Cairo, or Kyoto. But figured second-tier hotties like Naples, Leipzig, and Canberra were definitely in play” (146).
No such luck. City Match, the urban matchmaking firm, breaks the bad news.
“Let’s see your three sister cities in order of compatibility . . . Juárez, Chernobyl, and Kinshasa” (146).
Not what our narrator expected, but even so, he’s willing to give it a shot. Or he would have been willing, if only the sisters in question hadn’t turned down Dickens!
“What? Why? On what grounds?”
“Juárez (aka the City That Never Stops Bleeding) feels that Dickens is too violent. Chernobyl, while tempted, felt that, in the end, Dickens’s proximity to the Los Angeles River and sewage treatment plants was a problem. And questioned the attitudes of a citizenry so laissez-faire about such rampant pollution. And Kinshasa, of the Democratic Republic of the Congo . . . “
“Don’t tell me Kinshasa, the poorest city in the poorest country in the world, a place where the average per capita income is one goat bell, two bootleg Michael Jackson cassette tapes, and three sips of potable water per year, thinks we’re too poor to associate with.”
“No, they think Dickens is too black” (147).
This interlude on cities reminds me of a Ted Talk I use to teach my “wastelands” class. Ron Finley, the speaker, opens the talk by describing South Central, where he lives: “liquor stores, fast food, vacant lots.” The city planners, he tells us, decided they’d try to improve the situation by renaming the city to South Los Angeles. This is South Los Angeles, Finley says, “liquor stores, fast food, vacant lots.”
It’s the same thing Beatty’s saying, I think. A name is just an association. A sister city is just an association. Neither of these things touch the actual conditions of the actual place where actual people live. Yet we see this kind of—what should we call it?—political cosmetics everywhere. It does nothing to overcome the systemic segregation that keeps some places poor and others prosperous. It’s not an accident that the very next section (after the city interlude, 153-168) expands on the idea of segregation as a way of ameliorating the troubles of Dickens. Obviously, it’s already segregated. Re: liquor stores, fast food, vacant lots. No change.