Books : Love and War in the Futuristic City

The City, Not Long After by Pat Murphy (Doubleday: $17.95; 242 pages)

This novel is described on its blurb as an example of “magic realism,” as if, when you come to think of it, all reality weren’t magic. “The City, Not Long After” proceeds off the hypothesis that the world, as we know it, has already “ended,” and that the “end” has not turned out to be such a bad thing.

The place is San Francisco. The end has come in the form of a great plague. The circumstances surrounding this plague were these: Back in the 1980s, peace groups from all over the world heard of a monastery in the Himalayas that sheltered a group of monkeys reputed to bring peace wherever they lived. Peace-seekers concocted a plan whereby these monkeys might be shipped to world capitals everywhere--making use of them as potent symbols. The monkeys indeed brought peace in a big way: They carried fleas that began a pandemic that killed off 99.9% of the population. Now during the time of this novel, there’s nothing left to fight about.

Only 100 or so people live, these days, in San Francisco. There’s “Books,” a nice man who tends to the library, “The Machine,” who believes he survived the plague because he was a machine, Mrs. Migdale, who writes the weekly newsletter, a nice older man who creates glass mazes, and so on. Across the Golden Gate, over in Marin County, farmers labor, but San Francisco itself has become an artists’ colony. (There don’t seem to be any babies around, but maybe it’s too soon.) The artists live a carefree, some might even say feckless, life in the city, working on that glass maze, constructing elaborate wind chimes, putting up solar-operated spiders, generally living the life of the artist.


The question might then come up: Who is to be the audience for all this art? But a young man, Danny-boy, who’s lived in the city all his life, explains it this way to Jax, a girl whose mother lived out in the sticks and who has just moved into town: “Sometimes you make things that won’t last just for the pleasure of making them. . . . When you make something beautiful, you change. You put something of yourself into the thing you make. You’re a different person when you’re done.” And, “While you change yourself, you change the world. Make it more your own.”

These city folk, then, living off the truck garden in Union Square, biking down deserted streets to Ocean Beach, feasting on leftover caviar from emptied-out department stores, are living an idyllic life.

But--wouldn’t you know it?--some Jell-O-brain named General “Four Star” Miles has got bit all over again by the military bug. He’s formed an army, and is tramping all over Northern California from Sacramento to San Jose, occupying towns, imprisoning innocent passers-by for questioning, extolling the virtues of democracy, and so on. He intends, naturally, to invade San Francisco, make an example of the dissidents: All those things that military men hold so dear.

Jax, in fact, has been instructed by a mysterious metallic angel to journey into the city to warn the inhabitants, and the middle third of the book consists of Jax’s own process of getting “civilized"--engaging in conversation with “Books,” chatting along with “The Machine,” and falling in love with Danny-boy. But Jax is also honor-bound to explain to them the exigencies of war.


Urban Warfare

Finally, General Four Star invades, with mayhem on his mind. But Danny-boy has made an important strategic decision: What if he and his friends treat this war as an art project? This then develops into an engaging tale of guerrilla warfare: The real soldiers ride around on horses and in jeeps. They carry guns and threaten death: The artists use purple smoke and jars of cockroaches, angry wasps and cheap perfume laced with LSD. The value systems are Danny-boy’s love-at-all-costs vs. Jax’s “sometimes-you’ve-got-to-defend-yourself” philosophy. Both Jax and Danny-boy learn from each other. And--ghosts, angels and the city itself pitch in against the bad guys.

This novel is simple to a fault. Just hovering at the young-adult edge in terms of linguistic sophistication. But what’s wrong with that? The ideas themselves here are subtle and interesting. It may be argued that the sooner people get exposed to this kind of material, the better.