The World That Jack Built: cityCityCITY
by Stuart Cormie

Guess what I'm writing. A fantastic science fiction novel about a super future world city so immense it's inconceivable -- you'll see. Very funny. All worked out. Finish it in a month.

So proclaimed Jack Kerouac in a letter [1] to Carolyn -- the then wife of Neal -- Cassady in August 1954.

But the novel was never to be. Instead, by May of the following year, Jack had produced a 10,000 word short story that he called cityCityCITY.

In a letter [1] to Allen Ginsberg in July 1955, Kerouac wrote:

cityCityCITY is my big science fiction phantasy preview of city & future which I sent Bill [Burroughs] a copy of, very wild, I tell you about it when I see you, very hip, very tea-head writ, sinister, etc., not Burroughsian at all, tho -- sort of thing I could do ad infinitum on weed -- wrote it during Army McCarthy hearings and so it has wildly hip political flavor.... Kafkaen [sic] horror etc.

On the surface, city is a classic American 50s paranoic, pessimistic sci-fi tale. Kerouac depicts a post-apocalyptic future Earth where:

... every square inch was covered with electrical steelplate. The ocean had long ago been covered with earth acquired from surrounding planets. cityCityCITY was the world; every square inch of the world steelplate was covered with the Three Types of Levels of cityCityCITY. You saw the skyline, of steel skyscrapers, far away; then beyond that, like a ballooned imitation of the same skyline, rising way beyond and over it, vastly larger, the second of cityCityCITY, the City level; beyond that, CITY, like a dim cloud, rose huge on the horizon a vast phantasmal skyline so far away you culd barely see it, yet it rose far above the other two and far beyond. [2]

'Master Center Love' (MCL) ("which had for centuries emanated from the inner core of the High Women of the world ...") controls this new world. Children are born in central facilities and distributed to 'parents' in 'Zone Blocks' assigned by MCL's 'Computer of Infinite Merit'. The world is divided into 'billions' of these Zone Blocks, each comprising "only about" 2,500 people. The reason for the 'horror', as Jack put it, is made clear:

Population kept increasing continually. It was necessary at intervals to electrocute entire Zone Blocks and make room for a new group culled from slags and miscalculations in the system.

Hence the (conducting) steelplate....!

As we would expect, Jack eschews the conventions of 'plotting' and 'character development' in city, and instead gives us a great deal of telling, and not much showing. The story centres on a boy, M-80, whose (surrogate) father T-3 happens to be 'Prime Minister' of their Zone Block. As Prime Minister, T-3 is privy to important information concerning his Zone Block's fate ...

What sets this story apart from the science fiction that was prevalent at the time is Jack's incorporation of some of his familiar preoccupations, most notably his studies of Buddhism. M-80, despite being only thirteen, dreams at one point that:

Whether as worlds and cities and universes, or whether as nothingness and emptiness, what difference does it make?

There are few concessions to the reader in this piece, a policy which isn't as successful here as it is in his main body of work. The end result is often a dense avalanche of detail, which requires repeated readings to grasp. Maybe because it was "tea-head writ", city contains a number of apparent internal inconsistencies, and there's a definite air of underdevelopment. But, beneath the inelegant surface, the grey and authoritarian world that Jack has built has impact.

In a sense, city is more of a blueprint for this future world than a story in itself: a set of notes for Jack himself perhaps. This makes sense when we consider that as soon as Jack completed the manuscript in May 1955, he made the following request to William Burroughs, who was at that time living and writing in Tangiers, Morocco:

... in the middle of the night, when the orange moon sheds dips from big glory clouds and you dont [sic] hear even a dog bark, and I sit in dark yard in white chair with drink ... but I'd rather be in the native quarter of Tangiers I tell you.

I'd like to be there high on hash writing "cityCityCITY" copy of short story version of which I am sending you for your pleasure. This is the story that I think we should collaborate on, for a full novel, making the first truly literarily valuable book written by two men (instead of Mutiny on the Bounty) -- a real wild one. I think you have there the basic scene for hilarious satires. Your kind and my kind. This present short-story version I hope to publish but it has nothing to do with the eventual novel that I would like to see produced by the two of us in Tangiers or wherever you'll be. By William Lee and Jean-Louis. What say? It'll give me a good reason to go to Tangiers & get high on hash. Read it, send it back, let me know what you think.... [1]

Burroughs' reply on June 9 was ambivalent. Rather than commit to a joint project, he simply advised Kerouac to develop the story by concentrating "on specific characters and situations involving them" [1]. Jack was also told to forward "the rest of it as you get it done".

So the collaboration never happened. The reasons why are not clear. The pair had in fact already produced a 'Burrouac' (or 'Kerroughs'!) novel in 1945, when Burroughs was aged 31 and Kerouac just 23. The work was eventually titled And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks; it was their account (with the authors writing alternate chapters) of their associate Lucien Carr's murder of David Kammerer in New York in August 1944. This novel was never published, though an exerpt appeared in the 1999 Burroughs anthology Word Virus [3]. Burroughs doesn't appear to have been impressed with their joint effort (nor Jack come to that), but his fascination with literary collaboration is well documented. He felt that any good collaboration generated a literal third entity out of the personalities of the two writers (what he termed 'the third man syndrome'). Perhaps that third person never emerged in his earlier project with Jack. Or maybe he was simply too busy in Tangier to be bothered getting involved. We can only speculate.

It's curious to observe that Jack didn't choose to develop the story himself, following his rejection by Burroughs. This may be connected to the reason why he felt the need to bring Bill on board in the first place. A lack of confidence in his ability to write in a truly creative way perhaps? Again, we can only surmise.

city is certainly an anachronism in the context of Jack's other writings, both in terms of its subject matter (perhaps his one true work of fiction?) and its writing style. Why did Jack appear to suddenly immerse himself in science fiction, when hitherto (and afterwards) the scope of his attentions (at least in his fiction) had been strictly personal?

It was a reality that in 1954, he had reached a state of desperation over the fact that no publisher had been prepared to take on any of the autobiographical novels (including an early version of On the Road) that he'd written using the 'spontaneous prose' method that he'd discovered in 1951. (The more conventional The Town and the City, written in the late 40s, had however been published in 1950.) He certainly needed money at that point, so perhaps he saw cityCityCITY as an opportunity to try to tempt publishers in other ways, with one eye on the possibility that a novelisation with Burroughs could be a winner.

Despite having had a full three years of practice at his new style, city lacks the fluidity and consistency of focus that are the hallmarks of at least some of the novels written in that intervening period. Could this have been because he was no longer writing about the people and situations he'd personally experienced, and therefore was not able to draw upon his own memories or notes? He was having to create everything from scratch -- a potentially stifling position to be in ... for Jack at least. Maybe, with his mind on working with Burroughs in the future, he viewed the development of the short story as no more than the first step of a process, and treated it as such. Even the different stimulant employed during its creation may have been a factor.

Whatever the reasons, the facts remain that no novel was forthcoming (even worked up by Jack on his own), and it was to be another four years (post-On the Road) before publication of the short story was accomplished. Nugget magazine published cityCityCITY as The Electrocution of Block 38383939383 in 1959 (though some sources cite simply The Electrocution as its title there). It was to be reprinted as CITYCitycity in 1963 in LeRoi Jones' compilation The Moderns.

In May 1955, Jack sent Malcolm Cowley (the Viking Press editor who was to be instrumental in bringing On the Road to publication in 1957) a copy of the city manuscript asking him to try to place it somewhere [1], but Cowley replied on June 7 reporting a lack of success. More false starts followed.

Today, cityCityCITY can be read in the revised edition of Good Blonde & Others [2]. Its inclusion there is thanks to Kerouac scholar Dave Moore, who wrote to editor Donald Allen with the suggestion. The version printed in Good Blonde differs from the one that surfaced in Nuggets and The Moderns (apart from the restoration of Kerouac's original title); it has an ending which extends the piece by a couple of pages. According to Allen's notes, this extended version in his book is taken from the original manuscript that was sent to him by John Sampas, executor of the Kerouac literary estate at the time.

What's not clear is who determined the earlier shorter appearances of the story, which Dave Moore reports end with the words "Therefore the ten second rule is imperative to our Machine." The additional pages certainly don't sit easily with the rest of the story. In January 1957, Kerouac wrote to Sterling Lord, his literary agent, asking for the return of his city (and Tristessa) manuscripts because "I have to add to them...." [4]. It's possible he originally wrote the shorter version (which is the one that got passed to Malcolm Cowley in 1955), then later on decided it needed the extension. On the other hand, he could have completed the longer version in 1955, with the ending being subsequently cut by Nugget; it is admittedly weak. But that then raises another interesting question: if this was the case, did Jack add anything to the original in 1957, as he wrote he would do, and if so where is the manuscript that shows this second extension? Perhaps, rather than 'add', he subsequently chose to prune in 1957... and that this revised manuscipt was the version that ended up in the hands of Nugget.

Whatever its shortcomings, in cityCityCITY there is the kernel of an entertaining and stimulating novel (as Kerouac himself foresaw) -- or even a movie.... It's a surprise that no one has yet stepped in where both Kerouac and Burroughs feared to tread.

  1. Published in Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956, edited by Ann Charters, Viking Penguin, New York, 1995.
  2. cityCityCITY, published in Good Blonde & Others, edited by Donald Allen, Grey Fox Press, San Francisco, revised edition 1996.
  3. Word Virus: The William S Burroughs Reader, edited by James Grauerholz and Ira Silverberg, Grove Press, New York, 1999.
  4. Published in Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1969, edited by Ann Charters, Viking Penguin, New York, 1999.


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