Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay, with Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer
by Ben Katchor
(Penguin) $35

You think the past lives in the countryside. And it's true that (meth labs aside) rural life is closer to the way people lived a few hundred years ago, when you were more likely to kill your dinner. But the past of the future lives in the city, and there is nothing so poignant--nothing so human--as walking through a gallery of lost hopes. That's what Julius Knipl, the real estate photographer in Ben Katchor's comic strips by that name, does day after day: He stops at a luncheonette and notes the disappearance of a fountain drink he liked (a "Herbert water"?); he visits third-floor commercial enterprises operated by middle-aged men in undershirts; he wonders what became of a defunct business whose five-story painted advertisement is slowly fading back to brick.

The country encourages you to believe in fantasies of a pure connection to the past. The suburbs encourage you to believe in fantasies of a pure and endless present. Cities beckon with a fantasy of the future, shooting up into the sky, but what they really can't help but do is connect you to the old, failed dreams of what was to come. Cheap Novelties, the first collection of the Knipl strips, came out in 1991, and my copy, I'm pleased to say, is already looking a little dated. TOM NISSLEY

The Dissolution of Nicholas Dee
by Matthew Stadler
(Grove Press) $12

There's a city set like a jewel inside Matthew Stadler's 1993 novel, The Dissolution of Nicholas Dee. It's a romantically drawn, glimmering port city of seven hills beneath changeable clouds. The city in the novel is unnamed, but beyond a doubt it is Seattle.

The sky can darken and split into storms, or else grow high and thin: It alters like a barometer of the protagonist's psyche. The book's ubiquitous rain, fog, and slick streets are dreamlike and imbued with comfort. This is the chilly city where you grew up, came of age, or squandered your good looks; the place whose pure weather became part of your messy heart. Despite the characters' entanglements, the city in this book is a reliable, decent, lovely place where people are civil to each other, and where culture--museums, libraries, the university--offers comfort, too. In reality, Seattle's likeness to this portrait grows fainter every year, as the outer world and culture changes, people are no longer so civil or even moral. But we can pretend. STACEY LEVINE

City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles
Mike Davis
(Vintage) $15

Published a year before the L.A. riots (or uprising, depending on your political position), Mike Davis' City of Quartz is a book that--like the megalopolis it loves and loathes (the City of Angels)--has numerous layers and systems of thought. Critical theory gives the book its depth, the spirit of investigative journalism is the source of its boundless energy, and then there is the sheer literary brilliance of passages like this: "Dimly on the horizon are the giant sheds of Air Force Plant 42 where Stealth Bombers and other, still top secret, hot rods of the apocalypse are assembled."

Mike Davis invented a language that utilizes the passion of Marx's manifesto, the pulp poetry of noir, and the high-tech spectacles of cyber punk. In this densely woven text, Adorno stands next to Niggaz With Attitude, Eric Dolphy next to L. Ron Hubbard, Chicano filmmakers next to "players from Tokyo." At the end of City of Quartz' most delirious (or Koolhausian) chapter, "Sunshine or Noir," Davis confronts the big question for the coming century: "Will [this] city... become colonized by a Neo-Taiwanese work ethic of thrift and submission, disintegrate into a clockwork-orange of warring gangs, produce an oppositional subculture (like the Yiddish radicalism of ragtime New York)--or perhaps, all three?" Whatever the case may be, Davis knows this for sure: "[W]hen Los Angeles' street cultures rub together in the right way, they emit a light of unusual warmth and clarity." CHARLES MUDEDE

Middlesex
by Jeffrey Eugenides
(Picador) $15

Joyce Carol Oates has frequently referred to Detroit as her "great subject," and maybe that's true, but let's face it: Her relentless onslaught of novels means that any subject, great or otherwise, gets buried in the fray. A fact: Joyce Carol Oates was not even born in the city of Detroit. She didn't grow up there, and she didn't go to school there. If, as Flannery O'Connor says, you learn everything you need to know about being a writer by age 14, then Oates' claim to Detroit is totally bogus. Jeffrey Eugenides, on the other hand, did grow up in Detroit, a city he revisits in both The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex.

Middlesex would like to be many things--an epic family history, an exploration of what gender means, a postmodern approach to the bildungsroman--but what it is most successfully is a novel about Detroit, a city of skyrocketing hopes and bone-crushing failure; a city that is a perfect microcosm of America. Read the first two-thirds of the book and learn about something whitewashed, wealthy Seattle could never imagine. (Ignore the last third, though, where the other missions of the novel obscure its Detroitness.) KATE PREUSSER

The Autograph Man
by Zadie Smith
(Vintage) $14

Zadie Smith's unfairly overlooked second novel is a book of loneliness and longing, and it's set in the twin capitals of those emotional states: London and New York City. (Actually, it begins in a London suburb called Mountjoy, which is, hilariously, both joyless and flat.) London, in the novel, is a city of drunks, nostalgia hunters, and municipal euphemisms (when someone dives to their death in front of a tube train it's called a passenger action). New York City, in the novel, is where the main character goes to pursue a fanatical fantasy. In Times Square, he finds fantasies of all kinds: "The snow is timorous now, falling in light flakes that can't survive the wet ground. On a soapbox, four black kids are screaming about reincarnation. Adverts shine and move and speak and transform. Stretched the length of a building, a mammoth moving image of a white cat, licking at a bowl of milk. This last is very beautiful, like a dream everybody's having together." CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE

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