When I started The Splendid City by Karen Heuler, I was struck, first and foremost, by its tone. Whimsical and biting, it reads a little bit like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and “A Modest Proposal” (1729) had a baby and then sent it to a seminar on Dadaism. These are heavy-hitting antecedents, but this book earns them, going all-in on its playful surreality and satirical teeth.
Eleanor, a witch from New York, and Stan, her social-media-troll coworker whom she transformed into a cat, have been sent to Liberty (formerly Texas) to think about their mistakes and investigate the disappearance of a witch named Daria. Liberty itself is a dystopian fever-dream where “messengers”—vans that ring bells and have chickens with frying pans painted on the sides—careen down the streets, giving people items of great value and snatching citizens off the sidewalk, seemingly at random, all while strewing along it nougats of unspecified flavor and origin. Water is heavily rationed—despite the moat outside the President’s palace—and its price changes constantly, while the water itself can be turned on and off with the finest of control on a day-to-day and hour-to-hour basis. Constantly surveilled by animatronic heads of the President (who has no other name), characters are accosted, asked if they are “Better than they were,” then asked for campaign donations and to report on their dissatisfied friends and neighbors.
Of course, bread-and-circuses (light on the bread) surveillance dystopias are not new, but these and other details speak to a distinctively post-2016 version of the United States. The demagoguery of the President and his faction—especially in the constant vacuous demonstrations held in his honor and the way that “Easterners” (meaning, of course, people from the East Coast of the United States) are blamed, constantly and nonsensically, for the water shortage—is deeply reminiscent of contemporary politics. Heuler really captures this feeling. In the first demonstration, we read:
[Stan] saw signs that said Support our Coal Workers and others that said Solar Power Isn’t Power. He could see some signs with business logos as well. Note merely the ever-present chicken with a frying pan, but also Water Is Beautiful signs, which had the virtue of not meaning much at all.
There’s a bit of arch certainty to the narration and in Stan’s mind—this is obviously propaganda and obviously empty—but there is also a keen awareness that sometimes, such things work not in spite of but because of their ability to mean anything and everything that the propagandists want … and that this flexibility has its root in the fact that the slogans mean nothing at all. Our post-Trump world where, even two years after his electoral defeat, national discourse is ruled by the “alternative facts” of the Fox News propaganda machine, is reflected through this funhouse mirror surrealism—and the ever-increasing unreality of Liberty manages to never let us forget that, no matter how absurd the details seem.
The plot builds on both Stan and Eleanor’s engagement with this absurdist propaganda state. Early on, Stan finds an announcement in the newspaper of a mysterious hidden treasure and a hunt for the clues to it, while Eleanor attempts to piece together her search for the missing witch through the endless misinformation. She cannot even piece together the topography of the area to begin her search—the mountains move from map to map and only the official search engine, Wiggle, works well enough to use, but it says nothing that is not approved by the regime.
Moving back and forth between these plots works well—we can see how they intersect with each other and really understand these moments as an intersection, both physical and metaphorical. We track the development of Stan’s and Eleanor’s searches in tandem as they both fail to assist each other and provide invaluable insight into the nature of the city. Each of them passes over the streets, weaving around each other and encountering some of the same things: the parades, the animatronic heads, the President himself. Throughout the book, Stan sees opportunity where Eleanor sees repression. He loves the topsy-turvy emptiness of Liberty, not because he believes that the President is telling the truth, but because he expects to be able to take advantage of the lack of solid epistemological grounding. He immediately finds a new social media site to troll and happily bullies shop owners into giving him free fish tacos by insinuating that their pineapple salsa in unpatriotic. Eleanor, conversely, is disturbed by this, devoting her energy to unraveling the same web of lies that Stan so gleefully hopes to twist to his own ends. Her search for Daria necessitates that, as she first expects that Daria was a victim of the tyrannical regime and then, slowly, grows to suspect that perhaps she is part of the problem. To discover just how deeply Daria is or is not involved, Eleanor must see beneath the calculated absence of information.
It’s a compelling story with a strong and thoughtful politics. Where The Splendid City’s effect is a bit more variable is in the ends to which it is put. It is clear what the book wishes to satirize and critique, but what does it support? How does it make that clear? Here, the book can end up feeling a bit heavy-handed. Early in the novel, Stan eavesdrops on an argument between a couple: a woman goads her companion, through a series of comments about medical history and his use of generic “man,” into admitting that he believes that, “Everyone knows it. The penis is the dynamic force of civilization.” Her ultimate objective is to point out his sexism, to make him admit to the underlying patriarchal principles that, prior to this admission, he was working so hard to naturalize.
The woman, of course, is correct here, both in the factual nature of her examples of misogyny and in her overall ethos: many medical studies have been done on men and not women, much to the detriment of women’s health; men have made sure that the image of society is a man; these structures do suffuse social relations through increasingly implausible naturalizations. But if all the book wants to do is remind us of the woman’s correctness, it ends up feeling didactic, and if the goal is to satirize the man, I’m not sure that, for me, it worked. He was almost too believable, lacking the absurdity that makes the rest of Liberty simultaneously chilling and amusing as the novel exposes the weak foundations and terrible potential of Trumpism and similar ideologies. Similarly the woman’s arguments sound just like ones we might encounter online in an explainer thread, bringing with them so much verisimilitude as to jar me out of the fiction. As a result, the scene failed to either act as theory or rise to successful satire, feeling instead like I was looking in on an actual attempted hybridization of censure and instruction.
This risk of the didactic only grows once we begin to learn more about Eleanor’s coven and how she came to be in Liberty in the first place. Part Two of the book begins with a lengthy flashback to New York that addresses how Eleanor joined her coven, turned Stan into a cat, and found herself sent to Liberty to search for Daria. Structurally, this works well. All those questions are important ones, and they are introduced smoothly and naturally in a moment of the main narrative where Eleanor would have an opportunity to spend her time reflecting on the past. Through this, we learn a lot about Eleanor’s coven and the values of witchcraft in the novel. The coven lays out its position as a group of witches, specifically invoking Wicca as a religious and ethical framework. Eleanor’s magical training is also spiritual and ethical and it is these dimensions that feel a bit overly blunt. The other witches, in these moments, speak a bit like they’re members of a consciousness-raising group from the 1970s or a New Age self-help text:
“But the world, our world is feminine and masculine, and there is a goddess and a god. We do not say above or below; that is a judgement about worth and value that does more harm than good. Our main focus is the goddess. The goddess is displayed throughout the earth, especially in birth and development . . . We profoundly disagree with all the plunder, all the destruction. The poisoning of our planet is the poisoning of all of us. It is murder.”
This is not an unreasonable way to talk, given what is happening as Eleanor is initiated into the coven and into magical and spiritual practice. However (and perhaps my resistance to it in the book is rooted in my own investment in feminist thought and writing), I felt that the explicitness of the instruction was distracting. I found myself wanting to wade into the nitty-gritty of the argument: what does it mean to identify nature with “the goddess;” how do we guard against essentializing femininity as good and natural; how do we ensure that this version of embodied eco-feminism, with its emphasis on birth and reproduction, includes trans women?
The characters cannot respond to these questions and Eleanor is just now waking up to the existence of the world around her. Certainly Eleanor’s development here is brilliantly realized. Late in the scene above she connects with the whole planet, observing it magically from a distance, and has a beautiful moment where she sees the turtles that go all the way down and we are told that “She had never thought of turtles, or cared about turtles, but at that time and in that place, she loved them.” But because she is no theorist and no mystic, Eleanor’s moments of realization are sparse and the supposed wisdom of the other characters feels less like a conversation and more like the book intervening through their mouths in a way that makes me, at least, expect a level of theoretical sophistication and textual responsiveness that is at odds with the satirical whimsy of the setting.
I think the book is at its strongest in parts One and Three, when it is exploring Liberty and focusing on the twin searches of the protagonists. The familiarly alien landscape of Liberty provides both Eleanor and Stan impetus to change and to discover what they really want, while also allowing the reader to reflect on the satire and critique. Somewhat ironically, given its critique of the empty sign of propaganda, a little bit of openness, of necessary interpretation, allows the book to smoothly direct us towards its resentments and hopes, to the problems it identifies so cleverly and towards, eventually, a real possibility for improvement that is embodied in Eleanor—and is much stronger than the explicit and direct positions taken by the other witches of the coven. Even this scene dances a bit too close to the instructional for me in Eleanor’s explicit affirmation of her desire to become better; but her journey is wonderfully believable and honest.
Eleanor’s characterization, then, is really a delight and is a major strength throughout The Splendid City. She forms the backbone of the book as it progresses, standing out as our fellow explorer in the upside-down world that she (and, in the echoes, we) must navigate. In the end, though, Eleanor’s personal bildungsroman, in which the book locates its hope, is as likely to be at odds with the biting satire that characterized the setting and other characters as it is to work in concert with them. When they work together, the book is smart and funny, and everything it wants to be. When they don’t, the overall effect is the aesthetic of the near-miss. The narrative’s considerable gifts are undermined by a revelation that it didn’t trust its reader to find on their own—and the feeling that its feminist theories are apart from, rather than a part of, the narrative structure of the text. It is in these moments that the humor and horror that make up the satire fall away amid the distraction
In the end, The Splendid City was less successful—for me—than I had hoped, but it was still a very enjoyable read. The satire, at its best, is funny and sharp, and the characters are largely quite well drawn. It is readable and well-paced, moving at speed through its story and making for a fairly quick read. It would make for a delightful evening or two for many readers, opening up a witty window into our contemporary political and social environment—but it does not, ultimately, coalesce around a coherent alternative.