The World That Jack Built: cityCityCITY
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  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  to Allen Ginsberg in July 1955,
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. 
'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
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
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.... 
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" . 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 . 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
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
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 , 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 . 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...."
. 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.
- Published in Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956,
edited by Ann Charters, Viking Penguin, New York, 1995.
- cityCityCITY, published in Good Blonde & Others,
edited by Donald Allen, Grey Fox Press, San Francisco, revised
- Word Virus: The William S Burroughs Reader, edited
by James Grauerholz and Ira Silverberg, Grove Press, New York,
- Published in Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1969,
edited by Ann Charters, Viking Penguin, New York, 1999.