Daniel Polansky’s latest novel, A City Lies Dreaming, follows M, a wizard living in a New York where reality can be influenced by the power of thought and other worlds can be accessed on the F train. He works as a kind of magical oddjob man, helping out his motley group of friends and to keep the uneasy truce that exists between the Red Queen, Abilene, and the White Queen, Celise.
Rather than conventionally plot-driven, Polansky writes M’s story as a series of vignettes, recounting various tasks or situations that M finds himself in. There isn’t much hand-holding here. Sometimes characters explain a rule behind this constantly shifting world, but largely Polansky would rather let the reader figure it out. Sometimes this is successful, but at others it can render the world confusing to navigate.
The unusual structure allows Polansky to hop genres with ease. One task feels like a horror tale, and another a fantasy quest, which in turn adds an element of surprise for the reader; you’re never quite sure where M will end up next. The structure also produces a sense of unevenness throughout. Pacing can vary across stories, and some tales – particularly in M’s way of getting out of sticky situations – start feeling repetitive.
However, when a chapter does spark, Polansky’s wit and enthusiasm is infectious, often producing some big laughs. There’s a riotously entertaining encounter with pirates on the Gowanus canal, for example, and there are a few more chapters when Polansky hits those giddy heights again.
Like the book itself, the reading experience of A City Dreaming is a mixed bag. It can be maddening, but when it is at its most bold and innovative, it is a reality-bending journey through New York that is definitely worth taking.