Words by Aaron van Dorn
The Municipalists follows Henry Thompson, an orphan, a bit of a loner, and a mid-level agent for the United States Municipal Survey. The USMS, one of the US Government’s largest agencies and the organization that ensures that the miracle of modern urban planning works as smoothly and efficiently as possible in cities around the country, but especially the giant megacity of Metropolis (population 39 million).
With a public transit system that moves 4.2 billion people a year, the USMS has its work cut out for it. But when Terrence Kirklin, one of the USMS’s star agents and the Metropolis station head goes rogue and attacks the USMS headquarters in Maryland, as well as fomenting a series of terrorist attacks in Metropolis, Henry is assigned to head to Metropolis and see what’s going on, accompanied by a holographic projection of the USMS’s recently sentient boozehound supercomputer AI, OWEN.
What follows is a funny, action-filled journey between two mismatched partners as they explore an imaginative, inviting world forty-five degrees from our own, but that’s concerned with problems as close to you as your nearest bus stop.
The Municipalists is Seth Fried’s debut novel, following 2011’s short story collection, The Great Frustration. Originally from Ohio, Fried currently resides in New York City
Off Shelf: The Municipalists has a really deep interest in the ideas around urban planning, gentrification and public transit. Metropolis, the megacity that dominates most of the book is something out of Robert Moses’ or Baron Haussmann’s wildest dreams. What drew you to that setting?
Seth Fried: When I was starting to come up with the idea for the novel, I had just moved from Ohio to New York. So I think that it was really on the forefront of my mind of “how does all this work?”
I started reading the classic urban planning books, like Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities and stuff. I just became fascinated. It also seems really relevant in that I think the country is becoming more and more urban. I think 2008 was kind of the tipping point where it became predominantly urban. So it just seemed like a thing that was really going to become more and more crucial.
OS: When did you decide to make your main character someone working in the depths of urban planning, and then in a way that was kind of a little bit divorced from reality?
SF: As a fiction writer, it’s like if you’re writing about a china shop you start thinking about bowls. So part of it was like, “Okay, I’ll have someone who cares too much about cities” and knowing that one was going to be at risk or that the ideas around them we’re going to complicate his worldview in a way that kind of echoed my own research. Or just kind of really being enamored by cities and then realizing a lot of stuff that was wrong with them. This systemic inequality and gentrification and things like that that there are no quick fixes to and you can’t just get rid of them by leaning into what makes the city great. So I think that that’s how that character began to take shape. I just started to think of this Leslie Knope-ish type of guy where cities meant the world to him. How was he going to reconcile that with the truth once you get deeper into the problems with cities?
OS: One of the things that comes out in the book is that your main antagonist, Terrence Kirklin, has some legitimate grievances about the way that the United States Municipal Survey has dealt with urban planning in cities, which echoes legitimate complaints in the real world. But as you describe it, the USMS and the city of Metropolis are far and away more successful then what we have in the United States as it currently exists. To what extent do you think that’s something that has to do with Henry’s evolution as a character finding that change?
SF: I think that tension really came out of my research. There are more moderate thinkers whose thinking might not be as sexy as all the radicals that are energizing to read. But things like Ed Glaeser and his book, The Triumph of the City, points out that the discrepancy between, for example, poor city dwellers versus wealthy city dwellers is of course like repellent, because you have people living in abject poverty and then people living in penthouses. But he would make the argument that the more germane comparison is people living in rural poverty versus urban poverty. Whereas you’d say that people in urban poverty have more options, there’s more economic mobility, stuff like that.
So there are ideas like that that are in theory really attractive to me, where — and Jane Jacobs talks about this too — there’s such a thing as good poverty. A lot of the bad aspects of poverty came from attempts around the time that she was covering it in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, of demolishing slums—which were in fact healthy communities—and putting up government housing, which were designed poorly and led to horrible outcomes.
Then there’s that tension of Kirkland’s point of view is basically saying that we’re subsidizing inequality with how we prop up the status quo. It was one of the things that I couldn’t really reconcile them, so I think it became a thing where it’s really just about addressing these ideas. I think the book becomes about just trying to have an immediate, authentic relationship to these ideas, as opposed to just signing onto an ideology and locking yourself in, because both kind of have monstrous outcomes.
OS: It’s interesting, because what makes a lot of successful literature and films is when the characters have motivations that, while you might disagree with how they do it or their underlying motivations, they have legitimate grievances and the issues that they identify are real and need addressing. So Kirklin’s idea that the situation needs to improve in ways that the status quo isn’t addressing or contributing to is legitimate, and it makes Henry have to question himself a little bit further.
SF: Yeah, that’s an important idea to me. I think this quote is actually a George RR Martin thing, where nobody is the villain of their own story. When I teach bad guys or antagonists to my fiction classes, one thing I say is “Take something you really believe in and that you really think is true, and then just don’t waver from it.” And you know, within a couple of steps, you’ll get into some pretty monstrous behavior. Just be like, “Oh, well obviously we would have to jail these people or blow this up.” If you were really to be uncompromising with what your ideals are, you become a villain pretty quickly, even if they’re good ideals.
OS: What made you decide to take your megacity, Metropolis, that obviously has a lot of New York City in it, and fictionalize it? Why create a Metropolis when you deal with other cities around the United States—Cleveland, Stuebenville, South Bend—that are real? Why not just have a New York City in the 60s or 40s that grew beyond what it is as opposed to creating a brand new city?
SF: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think like part of it was, it just felt a little more fun. Sometimes as a writer, something has a little bit more zing to it and you’re just like, “Okay, I’ll do that”. But also I think in general that some of the ideas in the book could be described as political. I thought it might help to abstract them. I feel like right now, as soon as you get into the specifics of any situation in the real world, it feels like it’s a race to the bottom in terms of disagreeing and and using minutia as a shield and details like, “Well, Obama did this like that.” I think it would feel like you’re just inviting those sorts of arguments and stuff like that where I wanted to be like, “Let’s just look at this in terms of pure quantities of what’s going on in cities.” And so I thought that that might help just kind of elevate the discourse a little bit.
OS: Henry and OWEN in your novel are kind of in a mismatched buddy cop comedy. Henry’s obviously a stick in the mud and OWEN’s a little too aggressively wacky for his own good. But in a lot of ways, they’re kind of an ego and id, where they’re more of a whole person together than they are apart. Was that something that you deliberately intended to develop or is that something that emerged as the characters came together and started interacting?
SF: I think it definitely emerged, and this is kind of armchair psychology, but I’ve heard people say that in your dream, you’re all the people in your dream. They’re all just different versions of you. I feel like as I was exploring these two characters, they became different sides of my own personality. So that was fun to kind of… it becomes sort of a weird, fabulous handling of personal growth in terms of finding a more fluid and a mature worldview. I also think without intending, it ended up being kind of… it’s funny, I was not a Joseph Campbell adherent or anything, but then reading it afterwards, it’s like, “Oh, this is just a by-the-numbers trickster character.” OWEN’s sort of there to re-categorize things and I don’t think I originally conceived him as an aspect of Henry’s personality, but that’s definitely a valid read of how it worked out. I really just saw Henry’s view of the world as too rigid, and Owen’s job there is to make it more flexible and I liked that.
I mean, that’s pretty standard buddy comedy stuff but I’ve always liked them too. It works and it’s fun and it mirrors how our friends and loved ones kind of shape and improve us.
OS: I think a lot of it is because in a lot of literature outside of, I don’t know, Henry James, it’s very difficult to chart the internal changes and shifts that a person makes as they’re developing. Having someone to play off of, especially a character that kind of fills in parts of the other character, really helps to make that more dramatic.
SF: That’s an amazing point. I think that speaks to your idea that OWEN’s almost just an aspect of Henry and use of the word “projection” was probably like a subconscious choice. I’m always teaching in fiction courses that you’re looking for a way to externalize internal things. So yeah, that seems like that really speaks to that reading.
OS: The book leaves Henry at a weird place. You mentioned Joseph Campbell and the kind of arc that a character progresses through. Is that something that you wanted to capture or is that something that the idea of aging is about disappointment and disillusionment?
SF: Yeah, it’s… it’s interesting. I think, especially with the character of like Sarah Laury, I think she even more than Kirklin, represented someone who just never changed from the way I looked at the world when I was 19 and reading Chomsky. I remember being like, “I could never publish a book because it’d have a barcode on it”. I was that kind of anti-capitalist.
I really admire her as a character and she’s kind of a doomed character. Because she didn’t have that. But also she’s a domestic terrorist, you know, I don’t want to praise her to highly. But I was kind of processing that loss a little bit, of seeing my own compromises and kind of realizing which of those compromises have enabled me to do and have wonderful experiences and have a more nuanced relationship to the world, and which were just losses.
There’s a little bit of fear of that. I think it’s good. I think that flexibility and that learning to compromise are good, but then some of it is just… what are we also losing? Sometimes you’re losing vital tissue. So I was thinking about that a lot when I was tracking his growth.