Book Review–Broken Metropolis: Queer Tales of a City That Never Was

This book review is written by Patricia Jakovich VanAmburg, a member of Little Patuxent Review‘s Review Committee.

At first glance, Broken Metropolis: Queer Tales of a City That Never Was, recently released by Mason Jar Press, reminded me of the similarly titled 1927 Science Fiction work best described as urban dystopia. Despite the similarity of title, stories in the new anthology seem more human, and, yes, less broken.

Editor Dave Ring’s forward tells us that “queer people often acquire community in cities through a process of becoming lost and then found.” The press blurb describes Broken Metropolis as “explorations of the edges of urban fantasy through queer narrative written for readers who are familiar with being unseen in the media they love.”

“City of Cats” by Victoria Zelvin is one of my favorite explorations. Why? Well, I like cities and cats, but I am also fond of magical realism. One moment of this story we are walking in a city full of feline graffiti; the next, we have been cat-a-pulted into a lesbian bedroom where two lovers gaze into a green algae lamp bubble connected to the rest of the building. In fact, it is “an interior power supply running from apartment to apartment like pipes.” It runs along the outside of the building too “like a neon spider’s web, and connects over the street with the pink algae light tube from the neighbors.” Back to the cats, they propel us right into a deus-ex-machina finish.

Another of my favorites is Meghan Cunningham’s “The Strangest Places in the City,” six small glimpses which read like a prose poem. Glimpse one begins in a copse where seven stairs descend to a mysterious door. Neighborhoods “accumulate excrescences like wool accumulates static electricity.” In our final glimpse, across from a hospice… ”somebody has nailed a wooden placard onto a tree. Or it could have grown there out of its own accord, which would explain the organic quality of the red letters. I love you it says.”

If you are looking for gay dystopia, “The Plague Eater” by Caspian Gray comes closer. At least this story has both a homosexual romance and a zombie. Nevertheless, it really seems to be more about death and sacrifice. Was it Shakespeare who compared sex to death? Maybe it was Freud? Similarly, V. Medina’s “Your Heart in My Teeth” has a theme of unrequited gay love, but this time, one of the lovers is dead. Medina makes some nice comparisons between human and urban hearts: “it’s not always in the center of everything you know. Sometimes the heart is hidden, or sometimes it lives on the outskirts.”

In terms of the fantastic, “Neon” by M. Roulee offers a density of luminescence and futuristic romance. We see the city through a window, “a scintillating expanse of streets and skyscrapers, cabarets, and capitalism beating impatient on the other side of the glass.” One of the characters wears “a ratty tee-shirt full of light where it should be full of skin: cyan star trails…cherry red aurora that beats out time with his pulse.” The hero, a capitalist by day, biker by night, might be able to fix his friend’s broken wires in his machine shop. In between motorcycle rides, there are fulminations and sylphs. These days I tend to see more of the former than the latter. In the end, the hero asks the right question about both future and present, I think: ”what even is any of this anymore?”

Stories in this anthology are meant to be diverse in sexual preference and gender identity. In the end, I think they are as much about truth as fantasy. A good example might be Claire Rudy Foster’s “Venus Conjunct Saturn.” On the surface, this is a story about transgender bisexuality, HIV research, bodybuilding, PETA, and “a river full of rotting, writhing salmon.” A busy orbit maybe, but three themes seem clear: it is “stupid to define yourself by what you wouldn’t fuck,” “once someone finds out you’re a boxer, all they want to do is hit you,” and, finally, “you are what you say you are”—at least that is how it should be.

The last story in the collection, “Under Her Stars” by Jacob Budenz, is also the longest and the most. It is the most fluid, the most descriptive, and most clever. It might be the most formula—except for all the magic—except for the magic and the evil witch queen who “wore a silver-sequined dress tight enough to boast the outline of his absurdly large penis.” Unfortunately, the queen flames one of the gay lovers into a pile of ashes in a plastic grocery bag lettered with the words THANKYOUTHANKYOUTHANKYOU. Fortunately, the ashes might be resuscitated by the moon under her white stars. As the protagonist explains, Resurrection is “all about remembering someone—the gestures, the face, the quantity of stubble, the preference for yellow roses over red…the readiness of the laugh…Sometimes we are not meant to chase down the baddest witches around just because we’ve got the Gift…sometimes we can measure [success] by the things we have the power to do in our own lives to balance out all the bad.”

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