Tr. by Tomasz Dukanovich
Brandon Moy’s story, as far as the reader is concerned, emerges from the smoke, rubble and despair that the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001 left in their wake. Despite this necessary fact, that the falling of the twin towers is the first step in the Rube Goldberg machine that is The Same City’s narrative, Luisgé Martín’s book wants deeply to not be about the 9/11 attacks and what they meant to the United States. It wants to be about mid-life crises or the creation of art or anything other than the actual circumstance of its beginning. It wants to filter out the impossible horror and tell Brandon Moy’s story as one born from happenstance instead of terror.
When the novel begins, Brandon Moy is on his way into work when the attacks happen. Had he been in his office on the top floor of the World Trade Center, as he should have been, he would be dead. All of his co-workers are dead. He realizes that he is presumed just as dead as they are. When Moy tries to call his wife, the phone lines are down in “a technological limitation, a chance occurrence.”
After that first failed attempt, Moy does not call his family. He is unhappy with his life. Stability does not make his heart race. His aspirations stayed aspirations. He knows his family believe him to be dead, and in his own words, “leaving someone is a betrayal. Dying, on the other hand, is not.” Instead of heading home to be with his family on one of the most infamous days in American history, he decides to leave. He goes to Boston, and eventually, all around the world.
He does, in fact, decide to leave. The unnamed narrator, a writer to whom Moy confesses his story near its end, would not have the reader believe it to be a decision. Instead, the narrator constructs a long list of reasons why Moy had no say in the matter. The circumstances that lead up to Moy plucking himself from his responsibilities are portrayed as freak incidents all: “a technological limitation, a chance occurrence.” The prose treats this as though the circumstances are exactly the same as if a tree had fallen on the wrong wire or he did not have any change for the payphone. They are not. The phone lines are down or tangled up because everyone else in the city is trying to make sure their loved ones are okay and telling them they love them, that they’ll see them soon.
The Same City is obsessed with chance. Everything happens by chance. Chance after chance after chance changes the course of events in ways that, certainly, Brandon Moy could not control. The narrator wants to let him off the hook. Even Martín seems to want to let him off the hook. Somewhere in the fibers of the book’s skeleton, there is a legitimate philosophical argument about free will or a lack thereof, and in many circumstances, it might be an interesting one. We are all only products of our experiences and every decision we make is the culmination of an infinite amount of influences that we never asked to be imparted on us. That does not, however, absolve an individual of responsibility for their actions, or wipe away the guilt they should feel for the pain the knowingly and deliberately caused. Brandon Moy is not a helpless man. He is privileged and he is sad. When he sees an out, he chooses to take that out.
The narrator’s admiration for Moy is clear, and certainly one cause of the narrative sympathy for the man. Presumably, the power and weight of the award-winning work he produces during his adventure away from home buys him a great deal of leeway with creative communities in the world of The Same City. The narrator fawns over Moy’s work, but presents only accolades and no substance in the process. If the reader were given a piece to which they could connect, maybe it would be easier to understand. The Same City is narrated with a façade of amorality. Bias is disguised as objectivity. The unnamed narrator discloses the details of Moy’s evasive years in a matter-of-fact tone. Though the prose is detailed, it offers little in the way of judgment or beauty. The impartial style seems like a tool to convince the reader that the narrator is not firmly in Moy’s corner, but the lack of negative commentary on things that are obviously negative proves otherwise. Unfortunately, with how he is portrayed, no matter how much compassion the narrator might have for Moy, it fails to cross over. It’s not contagious.
Yet it’s not entirely clear whether Luisgé Martín’s position towards Moy aligns with the narrator’s, or is more antagonistic. How Moy goes about acquiring his new freedom, the way that he abandons his family in order to engage with new experiences, is objectionable at best. For the work to be palatable, much less enjoyable, the narration could be no other way. Still, the artifice shows through. Moy is a fractured, difficult character. At no point in the novel does it feel as though he has any sort of moral high-ground. The biggest mistake the narrative makes is in refusing to treat him as such.
Certainly, tragedy can make people do crazy things. If the sheer terror of what took place made him scared, lost, distressed, maybe what he does could be excused, or if not excused, explained. But he has the peace of mind to call his loved ones. The book just doesn’t give him the conscience to keep trying. There are affecting, empathetic ways to construct a similar narrative, but Martín just isn’t interested in them. Instead, the meat of the story is preempted with a long passage on the psychological legitimacy of mid-life crises. It’s a clear attempt to to prime the audience and convince them that was is about to happen is understandable, that it is somehow morally explicable.
Still, the book is a slim, quick read. Easy to devour in a sitting. The prose, though inelegant, is efficient. The pace of the book is enthralling, and once within its grips, it’s hard to get out. There are moments of transcendence where the work finds a way to, for a moment, leave the tragedy of its opening behind. Those moments are too few, but they’re there. As a work, it is undeniably thought-provoking. This effect is due, mostly, to the antagonistic nature of much of the work’s subject matter, but it’s still fascinating to engage with. Even if the conclusions are the same as the initial impression, The Same City is a work unafraid to push back against the generally accepted manner of handling 9/11 in fiction and that alone makes it noteworthy.
The Same City is ultimately the story of how a privileged man uses one of the greatest tragedies in American history as an opportunity to abandon his family because his wildly prosperous life didn’t go quite the way he wanted it to go. Martín’s novel lacks the depth, or maybe the length, to flesh out its premise to the fullest potential.