The Five Books of (Robert) Moses
by Arthur Nersesian
This might be the most physically intimidating book I’ve ever seen, up to and including the Oxford English Dictionary. At 1500 pages, it’s up there with the full Lord of the Rings trilogy. This tome combines history and a dystopian fantasy of New York City with Robert Moses’ transformation of post-war New York city. In real life, urban planner Robert Moses transformed New York City with expressways and non-elected control boards and a vast power to condemn and rebuild the city and clear slums. Moses never saw a freeway he didn’t love, and author Nersesian translates his idealistic vision into a slum of scum, sewerage, and institutionalized crime that makes the city work just well enough to keep its citizens alive, but little more. We visit deep subterranean catacombs where nonsensical activity consumes enslaved citizens. Rival gangs run the city with gang justice and extortion. Instead of Democrats and Republicans, we have the Piggers and the Crappers, and at this level, I can’t tell them part. There’s even a semi-accurate replica of the city constructed out in the Nevada desert to host people after a terrorist attack contaminates the concrete. Everything is replicated out in “Rescue City” down to the crimes, corruption, and random violence. Our protagonist Uri begins in Rescue City with amnesia and no idea who or where he is. A series of “visions” or “adventures” bring him to realize his mission in this morass, not that he can change anything. His friends die or mutate, and a running commentary on modern society points to a bleak future that’s not that far off from what we might become in real life. Pages of text are blacked out, redacted as if by the FBI. Is that to keep the critics at bay, or to lend an air of a recovered document, mutilated by those with something to hide?
Reading this novel, we might compare it to plowing through Dante’s Inferno, the epic that describes heaven, hell, and the poor sad Earth in between. Inexplicable events parade by, sometimes to delight us but more often to revolt us. After a few hundred pages, the reader becomes inured to the filth or abandons the task of reading it. There’s an outrage lurking here, as well as an irony.
Arthur Nersesian released this project with clear parallels to the current Covid crises, although the author’s note indicates he’s worked on this project for 25 years. Is this a good story or a bad story? Taste is a subjective judgment I don’t feel qualified to decide, but I found this much more challenging than Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. Can I recommend this book? Yes, if you agree to delve the depths of human indecency and come up willing to fight for or against that said indecency. If you’re a reader of other Akashic titles and enjoy them, this will thrill and delight. If you’re not an Akashic fan or a dystopian daydreamer, this might not be the best entry point in to their oeuvre. But I’ll say this: it’s a hell of a story.