“You’ve got to entrust yourself to the waves, lash yourself to the mast, pray the gods are on your side, and rely on cunning to survive the rest. The seas are full of forgotten monsters, yes, but they’re full of forgotten glories too. And people who stay at home and sit out the war never get to see them. That’s what I think, anyway.”
-Kristopher Jansma, “Why We Came to the City”
Rating: 4.5 stars
Time to read: 21 days
When I was reading through the POPSugar list at the beginning of the year I started to research this category like a good academic. Who talks about books before they come out though? I thought. This is by no means a rare phenomenon, but this was stupid of me. There is a whole rabbit hole of blogs talking about books that are coming out over the next 6-12 months and I got happily sucked into all of it. Once I found a snippet about this book I couldn’t wait until it was published. Thank the good book overlords that I only had to wait until mid February.
Why We Came to the City is a story about 5 friends from college now in their late twenties living in New York City around the beginning of the recession in 2008. Sara is a magazine editor and type A planner, who is dating George, an astrophysics postdoc bordering on functioning alcoholic. William works in finance and is far too shy to admit he is in love with Irene, an artist. Jacob is a gay poet who has not written poetry in quite some time. I almost hesitate to call it a story because it is more a reflection about connection and humanity through a group of friends as they navigate through the world, together and alone, over the span of a couple of years with a very loose beginning, middle, and end. The first chapter itself is practically poetry that I might have read about 5 times before proceeding (“For the rest of the world, it seemed to us, had somewhat hastily concluded that it was the chief end of man to thank God it was Friday and pray that Netflix would never forsake them”).
One of my favorite threads throughout the book was the attachment that Jacob and William feel towards the classics, particularly The Iliad. Jansma uses this beautifully as a juxtaposition for the struggles of the characters. Unlike their fictional counterparts, though, they are not heroes on fantastic journeys. Their battles are not epic, nor do their misunderstandings and failures always result in lessons and greater understandings that can be dissected and analyzed. They each struggle in unique ways for connection and meaning and in earnest fail in petty ways, over and over. It is, in so many ways, painfully beautiful in its ordinariness. Far from the navel gazing that tends to characterize much ‘I’m just trying to figure out life’ writing (I’m looking at you, every “X number of things about my twenties!” Thought Catalog list), Jansma’s take is refreshing and subtle.
Although much of the book captures the singular spirit of New York City, I saw so much of myself in their story. In one of the opening scenes they drunkenly find a hot tub on the balcony of a luxury hotel in the middle of December and decide on some impromptu skinny dipping. It reminded me of a night one summer in college when we climbed to the roof of a beach house, passed around a bottle of wine, and watched a far off lightning storm in the distance for hours. There was an infinity in that moment, the kind that changes you. Now far past the limitless feeling that marked the beginning of my twenties, I suffer a lot from being restless and often I’m not content with where I am right now. I’m in a part of my career that’s jokingly (with a sick thread of truth) referred to as career purgatory. My twenties have included more than one lost love, and often feeling like I have to leave a city just when I’ve finally fought to make it feel like home. Potentially the hardest– feeling like I’m not where I should be, perhaps because there is no such thing, despite my emotional protests to the contrary. The beauty of all of this through Jansma’s lens though is that my wars (and theirs) are small but to live they need to be fought. In the struggle we find our character.
If I continue this will become a Dead Poets Society-esque monologue, but it might suffice to say that I lost myself in this story the way that only a book that articulates something about yourself that you were never able to can. I would venture to say it might do the same for you.