Fiction about cities?
March 16, 2011 10:51 AM   Subscribe

Can you recommend great fiction about cities and the urban experience?

I am looking for fiction (novels, novellas, short stories) where "the city" plays an important role in the plot, atmosphere or theme. Stories where the city almost seems to become its own character. It can be a real-life city or a made-up city. It can be found in fantasy, science fiction, literary fiction, crime fiction, whatever...

I have read a lot of the great SF/fantasy stuff (Harrison, Mieville, VanderMeer, Gibson, Delany) but love it & always want more. I am also particularly interested in works by non-American authors about non-American cities. I am more interested in the physical structure & space of the city than its social milieu.

Thanks in advance :)
posted by crackingdes to Writing & Language (32 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
The Devil in the White City was not fiction, but had a novel style.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:58 AM on March 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

I believe there was a similar question recently. But a few that come to mind once again are:

Joyce, Ulysses (Dublin)
DFW, Infinite Jest (Boston)
Lethem, Fortress of Solitude (Brooklyn)
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:02 AM on March 16, 2011

The City and the City, China MiƩville. There are two-ish characters there.

Any of his Bas-Lag books have stong elements as well, especially Perdido Street Station.
posted by bonehead at 11:07 AM on March 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

Jonathan Franzen's The Twenty-Seventh City is about St. Louis.
posted by carmicha at 11:11 AM on March 16, 2011

The Famished Road by Ben Okri. It's a book of short stories where The City is a major theme. In this case it's Lagos and London. He's got a great perspective as he can compare rural Africa with modern London.

And my favourite description of a city is the first few pages of If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor. (You can actually read the passage on Amazon's 'Look Inside') It's one of my favourite pieces of writing ever - just beautiful.
posted by sleepy boy at 11:14 AM on March 16, 2011

I found that Zadie Smith's White Teeth felt a lot like London, to me. Or at least had a distincitve urban feel. Similarly, The Imperfectionists by tom Rachman seemed very city-oriented to me despite being centered around a newspaper.
posted by hepta at 11:22 AM on March 16, 2011

Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities consists of a dialogue between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan bracketed by dozens of descriptions of imaginary cities Polo has visited. Each city is like a character unto itself, reflecting some abstract urban idea like interpersonal connection or innovative architecture or the ravages of time. You can read some sample chapters here.
posted by Rhaomi at 11:29 AM on March 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

The shared-world anthology Metatropolis (originally an excellent audiobook) is a collection of stories about various near future cities by some well known science fiction authors (and narrators). There is also a sequel. Both are well worth checking out.
posted by Roommate at 11:44 AM on March 16, 2011

seconding Invisible Cities and A Winter's Tale

also, you read BLDGBLOG, yes?
posted by Prince_of_Cups at 11:45 AM on March 16, 2011

Yes, love BLDGBLOG. The recent interview w/ China Mieville about The City & The City was so fantastic and partially inspired this question.
posted by crackingdes at 11:48 AM on March 16, 2011

Nthing Winters Tale. Its quite a remarkable work.

In a far more fanciful vein, many of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels take place in the rather absurd city of Ankh-Morpork, which is described and characterized in great detail across his stories.

Further back in fantasy lit, you have Lankhmar, the home of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, also meticulously described in the stories (by Fritz Leiber), and very much becomes a supporting character.
posted by elendil71 at 12:56 PM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Detroit is a pretty engaging character in Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.
posted by *s at 1:35 PM on March 16, 2011

Jerry Pournelle has a novel, Oath of Fealty, set in a near future arcology called Todos Santos that is built in a razed portion of LA. The novel revolves around how the Arcology self organizes and interacts with the 'old' city of LA.
posted by bartonlong at 1:37 PM on March 16, 2011

Yup, I came to mention both those China Mieville novels as well.
posted by princelyfox at 2:34 PM on March 16, 2011

Two David Mitchell books to recommend:
number9dream (about Tokyo)
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (about Dejima, Japan)
And continuing with the Japan theme: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (Takamatsu)
posted by mattbucher at 3:15 PM on March 16, 2011

Thank you all for the wonderful ideas. I want a comprehensive reading list, so the more input the better. You guys are awesome. Please keep them coming.
posted by crackingdes at 3:18 PM on March 16, 2011

A Winter's Tale is a classic, but a nice response to Helprin is Jonathan Lethem's stoner magic realist vision of NYC, Chronic City.
posted by ovvl at 3:59 PM on March 16, 2011

M. John Harrison's Virconium has been cited as influential books by many - including Mieville I believe.

Edward Whittemore's Jerusalem Quartet - especially Jerusalem Poker, are terrific, and about a city - as the name implies.

The Alexandria quartet, by Lawrence Durrell - though I personally didn't like them at all.

A Tale of Time City and Archer's Goon are both excellent YA books about cities by Diana Wynne Jones.

King Rat, by Mieville is very much set in London.

The Chronicles of Barsetshire as epitomised by Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope.

The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro is very strange book about a nameless, typical eastern european city.
posted by smoke at 4:04 PM on March 16, 2011

Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy is almost entirely about a fictitious unnamed city that is unlike any that I've ever seen imagined.
posted by fso at 4:38 PM on March 16, 2011

Clockers by Richard Price (fictional Dempsy, NJ), as well as Lush Life (Lower East Side). In the same way that Baltimore stars in the Wire, which is no coincidence, since they brought him in to screenwrite for the program.
posted by Beardman at 4:57 PM on March 16, 2011

Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds is excellent sci-fi concerning a fictional city devastated by a nanotech plague that physically remolds the eponymous city into new physical forms. Neat stuff.
posted by hafehd at 5:07 PM on March 16, 2011

In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster is wonderful. Made-up city, very haunting - this book has stuck with me for years.
posted by Stacey at 5:09 PM on March 16, 2011

Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. is a wonderful, somewhat depressing novel about Brooklyn in the 1950's.

The Royal Family by William T. Vollman deals extensively with the Tenderloin in San Francisco, especially the world of prostitutes in the first half of the novel. The second portion also winds through the city, but concentrates more on the lives of the white collar inhabitants.

Bright Lights, Big City
by Jay McInerny is a novel about a writer partying hard through the 1980's in New York City.

Down and Out in Paris and London
by George Orwell is a funny, amusing and sometimes strange account of trying to scrape up a living by any means possible in 1920's Europe. It has some amazing details about what these cities were like before WWII changed the landscape and people forever.
posted by EvilPRGuy at 7:13 PM on March 16, 2011

City Come A-Walkin' by John Shirley is a classic, the original Cyberpunk novel. You can't have a "city" more involved in a story that this one, since the consciousness of the city manifests itself as a protagonist. Recommended.
posted by bru at 7:22 PM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I skimmed and didn't see this -- my bad if it's already been mentioned -- David Mitchell's number9dream. At least one city in Japan is central to at least one rather large chunk of it (sorry, it's a complicated book and it's been a while since I read it).

Also, I'm not sure if these necessarily meet what you're looking for, but they might: Amsterdam by Ian McEwan and Mistborn by Branden Sanderson. And has anyone mentioned Kafka?
posted by J. Wilson at 7:45 PM on March 16, 2011

Call It Sleep by Philip Roth (New York)

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

Maybe a bit obvious, but anything by Charles Dickens if you're interested in London

Anything by Raymond Chandler if you're interested in Los Angeles

Jon Fante's Ask the Dust (Los Angeles)

his son, Dan Fante's Chump Change (Los Angeles) and Spitting off Tall Buildings (New York)
posted by bardic at 10:11 PM on March 16, 2011

Sex and the City by Candace Bushnell - yes, the book came before the TV show and the movies, and it is so much better.
posted by SisterHavana at 10:25 PM on March 16, 2011

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman is of an alternate London called London Below. The writing is wonderfully evocative of London Below as a living entity, many of the locations in the shadow city are London in-jokes and ideas that play on the idea of London as a city. It probably works even better if you are familiar with what is in the novel called London Above.
posted by so much modern time at 6:38 AM on March 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Twenty-Seventh City by Jonathan Franzen is pretty much about St. Louis in the 80s.
posted by fso at 10:09 AM on March 18, 2011

Thanks once again for all your great suggestions. Based on all your ideas, and some more research of my own, I've come up with a lovely long list. In case anyone else is interested, here it is:

The Black Dhalia by James Ellroy
The Alienist by Caleb Carr
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
Great Jones Street by Don DeLillo
Netherland by Joseph O'Neill
Spook Country by William Gibson
Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke
Dhalgren by Samuel Delany
Devil in the White City by Erik Larsen
Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
The City & the City by China Mieville
Tainaron: Mail from Another City by Leena Krohn
City of Saints & Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer
Finch by Jeff VanderMeer
Viriconium Cycle by M. John Harrison
Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferriss
The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
Fathers by Herbert Gold
War for the Oaks by Emma Bull
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
Twenty-seventh city by Jonathan Franzen
Them by Joyce Carol Oates
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
The Etched City by K. J. Bishop
Number9Dream by David Mitchell
Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alred Doblin
Petersburg by Andrei Belys
Time and Again by Jack Finney
Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra
Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin
The Valley of Decision by Marcia Davenport
If nobody speaks of remarkable things by Jon McGregor
Metatropolis ed by John Scalzi
Oath of Fealty by Elizabeth Moon
Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
Jerusalem Poker by Edward Whittemore
A Tale of Time City by Dianna Wynne Jones
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy
Lush Life by Richard Price
Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds
In The Country of Last Things by Paul Aster
Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr.
Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
City Come A Walkin by John Shirley
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Call It Sleep Henry Roth
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
Ask the Dust by John Fante
posted by crackingdes at 2:32 PM on March 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

Neal Stephenson's trilogy The Baroque Cycle circles primarily around London, as well as Amsterdam, Paris, Marseilles, Leipzig, etc. It tracks how these cities change during a time when religions, science, currency systems, and political systems are in great upheaval. It also tracks quite a few of the influential architects and city planners of the time and why they made the decisions they did.
posted by heatherann at 5:47 PM on March 20, 2011

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