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Exploring the Disorienting Strangeness of City Life in Renee Gladman’s Ravicka

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“A plane dropped a building on the Twin Towers.” That’s what Tony, a busybody in my fourth-grade class, had heard an administrative assistant whisper to our teacher. Even though the adults in the room looked tense and nervous, I felt disoriented. It had never occurred to me that buildings could move, or disappear; certainly not the ones along the skyline I stared out at every day of my life, which had been memorialized in films and paintings and songs. In the days that followed, I walked around with the sense that the ground I was walking on would give out at any moment, and that maybe I would float on instead of fall.

This is the feeling Renee Gladman taps into with her Ravicka series, about a city-state whose residents adhere to an absurdist logic in response to a landscape that seemingly makes no sense. In Ravicka — a mysterious country in our future that Gladman began conjuring in 2003 — the air is yellow, buildings disappear, and no one knows why. The first in the series of novels, Event Factory (2010), found a stranded linguist struggling to integrate into Ravicka’s strange customs, which include complicated gestures. (A good-bye between city workers goes like this: “I bent forward in a bow and dropped my arm to the ground; let it hang there. I let loose a little gas, as was custom, which they accepted with synchronized clapping as they walked away.”) Similarly, The Ravickians (2011) and Ana Patova Crosses A Bridge (2013) explored the city from the perspective of its respected literati as they struggled to find the language to document a city in crisis. In a BOMB Magazine interview, Zack Friedman characterized the Ravicka series as “social science fiction,” a descriptor Gladman prefers to more traditional sci-fi. “For me, it needs to stay on this side of reality,” Gladman told Friedman, “and it needs to be pushing for physical space in this world.” In that way, the mystery of what exactly is wrong with Ravicka becomes a way to explore a city, its architecture, and its citizens. It’s not so much a fantasy world as it is a metaphoric explanation of the way any major city might function in a crisis.

Gladman, 46, is the author of eleven published works, including several novels and poetry collections, a book of essays and a work of hybrid drawing/writings called Prose Architectures. The Ravicka series emerged while she was living with her partner in San Francisco, where the pair communicated in an invented language created to “escape her monolingualism.” She cites Béla Tarr’s seven-and-a-half-hour film Satantango, Julio Cortázar’s novel 62: A Model Kit, and Michal Ajvaz’s The Other City as influences, works “where ‘city’ is an idea toward which the author or characters reach, a kind of reflective space that leads to questions about subjectivity or time.” Danielle Dutton, founder of Dorothy, says she started the press in part because she wanted to publish Gladman’s Ravicka series, which she describes as “so completely her own.” It’s true: readers can feel Gladman’s hand behind every turn in the novels, from shifting gender pronouns to the appearance of one-off characters. “It’s euphoria to just be able to make up stuff,” Gladman wrote in an email, then added parenthetically, “(I think that’s one reason I keep returning to Ravicka and fiction.)” This excitement is reflected in the sense of whimsy that buoys the novel through weighty, sometimes-academic topics like loss, language, and displacement.

Gladman’s latest, Houses of Ravicka, is divided into two parts. The first introduces us to Ravicka’s Comptroller, Jakobi, who tracks the always-shifting architecture of the city. Jakobi has “lost” a house, No. 96, though its corresponding house, No. 32, is right where it should be. It is also, of course, invisible. The internal logic of the problem itself is puzzling (“…if I couldn’t find no. 96 where I had calculated it to be, then how could I know I’d actually found the site where no. 32 wasn’t?”), but we slowly learn that Ravicka has invented a quasimathematical art to help track down their seemingly evanescent homes, called geoscography. Jakobi, proud of his governmental authority, speaks almost exclusively in geoscographical terms: “I explain that I’d broken the propositions down to their logical units and rebuilt them using Kovacs’ theory.…” It can, at first read, be alarming and frustrating, but ultimately we find ourselves just as displaced and desperate for understanding as Jakobi is.

Unused to asking for help, Jakobi meets a host of unlikely allies, including a senile elder, a city transportation employee, and a linguist on a secret mission. His interactions with each are uncomfortable to the point of hilarity. In a particularly ludicrous scene, he visits the elderly man and tries to prod him into speaking on architecture, his specialty, but instead the two simply repeat the word “houses” to each other.

Most compelling is Jakobi’s relationship with his close friend Triti, the ex-Comptroller (and current tea shop owner) who butts heads with him over how best to find the missing house. “I don’t want it to be a competition,” he says after he reluctantly accepts her help. When they fall out, Jakobi’s tunnel vision widens for just a second of delightfully weird articulation: “That was the drawback of giving Triti the silent treatment: I hadn’t felt any waves of emotion in over a week. This friendship becomes the heart of part one, which ends not with Jakobi finding the missing house, but with the expectation of a reunion between the two.

Part two of Houses of Ravicka is narrated by the resident of the invisible house no. 32, and it quickly becomes apparent why Jakobi will not find what he’s looking for. The unnamed resident explains — through accounts of Ravickian history, literature, her own childhood, and visits to a newly introduced forest — that there is an invisible city growing above Ravicka that only some can see. While she doesn’t know why exactly she’s been granted the ability to see the invisible city, she hones her ability by reading the works of Ravickian writer Ana Patova (the titular character of Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge, who also seems to see these structures) and repeating passages as she wanders the city.

“These were the categories I had to negotiate,” she writes. “There were the exclusively hard buildings that were migrating; there were the invisible buildings, which mostly stayed where they were (though obviously changing their architecture depending on which hard buildings were laid against them); and newly added was this mutant strand of building that wavered between visibility and invisibility.” The answers she provides help us to understand that house no. 96 has become part of this new, mutant strand, but they raise more questions about the origins of this invisible city, the ability to see it changing, and what it’s implications are for the rest of Ravicka. By the end of Houses of Ravicka, the unnamed resident, for all her knowledge, is also trapped by the changing structures of an unhinged city, as unable to reach house no. 96 as Jakobi is of seeing it.

When we first meet Jakobi, he explains how Ravickians find their houses: “It was not possible to walk directly to the site; nothing would be there. And not the nothing that should be there but something new and unintelligible.” Instead, he must follow a specific, but winding way to his destination. This method of mapping of the city mirrors the way the invisible narrator experiences and talks about the city. The asides that tackle linguistic quirks (Ravickians punctuate any feeling with the phrase, “It’s just that disgusting.”) or the difficulties of living in an invisible house are the only way to illustrate this upside-down world.

Houses of Ravicka is certainly the most plot-heavy of the Ravicka series, with a central problem that never truly gets resolved, but its joy, as with the previous novels, lives in Gladman’s whimsical approach to crafting sentences and situations that are at once absurd and illuminating.

Houses of Ravicka
By Renee Gladman
Dorothy
152 pp.

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