You can never judge a book by its cover- except of course when you can. The City of O is every bit as colourful, quirky and slick as the cover, designed by David Wardle. It may be unusual to start a review with the artwork, but even if you don’t enjoy satire, sci-fi or humour, the Retreat West edition of City of O is still a great purchase – even if you just frame it and put in on a wall.
City of O reads like an episode of Black Mirror, but penned six years before Charlie Brooker’s first episode aired. Despite fifteen years passing since the books’ original publication, City of O has become perhaps even more topical.
Today’s consumerist and increasingly polarised society is seen caricatured in the City of O, where human connection comes second to our online presences. It’s not a stretch to see that in a few years, we may too be queuing up to buy the latest pieces of Art-vertising, or that, in our isolated bubbles, we even indulge in a spot of “war play”, where you can pay to direct drone strikes against enemies of the state. The City of O even has a TV-personality President; their own Trump. The characters in the city are seen in stark contrast to the warmth and humanity of the characters outside the city (even Gargantuan, who is in fact a giant).
The book follows two separate groups, Juan, a new arrival immersing himself in the city and a group of colourful harlequins on a mysterious, circuitous quest. The chapters alternate between each band of protagonists, with chapters numbered in digits for the Harlequins and written out for the city. Several times in reading it I found myself questioning whether my book mark had been moved over night, after finishing reading at chapter three, only to start chapter 3 again the next day. It is in line with the heady surrealism that Taylor fosters throughout the book.
I particularly enjoyed Juan’s chapters, where we explored the titular City of O, a place where there is an absurd level of decadence, where everything from new faces to mountain ranges can be delivered at order – in a way to rival even the most extreme Amazon-Prime-Addict. It builds a colourful and complex world, however unlike many in the genre, you will not suffer through long dry paragraphs explaining the intricacies of the class system – Taylor hints and eludes to elements, but drip feeds information sparingly, allowing the reader to draw on many of their own cultural touchstones There are some exceptions to this, however, the book generally performs best when it sticks to the abstract.
For all the topical references however, there were some clear indications that the book had been written before the “Me Too” era. Female characters were, without exception, love interests, mother-figures or cats. It was disappointing to see the only real character development of a main female character take place through the male gaze, in the form of a man sneaking a look at a diary entry. It felt like a tacked-on after-thought, a feminist equivalent to the famous “it was all a dream” literary device.
Another slightly jarring aspect of the book for a 2020 audience will come from some of the banter amongst the Harlequin group. Positioned in the book as “hearty banter”, it felt a little like overhearing the type of locker-room chat that would come out to haunt a politician running for a second term. Although it’s part of the dynamic of the group of oddball friends, after one too many urine-themed jokes, it’s hard to find sympathy with the characters, which seems to be at odds with Taylor’s intentions.
City of O’s new edition could not have been better timed if they tried. It’s balances topical social commentary with razor sharp wit with an undeniable optimism, which is sure to captivate readers. It balances the knife edge of stimulating thoughts and ideas, while avoiding the general plot losing its way in heavy world-building. Taylor’s rich creativity has created a truly unique book, which is totally refreshing to read. If you have not already picked up your ‘lockdown 2’ book, you could not come up with many better choices.
About the reviewer
Jennifer Taylor is a twenty-something reader and art-lover based in London. She knows a thing or two about Kombucha and how to grow avocados. When not forgetting to water her (other) houseplants, she can usually be found with a book in-hand or else generally wishing she had a dog. She (occasionally) tweets at @JenTaylor300 and can be found on Instagram @jennifertaylor12