Nebulous Geography: On Renee Gladman’s Houses of Ravicka by J.W. McCormack

The imagined city from Gladman’s Ravicka series is as elusive as human self-hood. 

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Getting lost is a dying art. Now that technology has mimeographed and streamlined our city surroundings, we’ve become too confident in the permanence of locales. As a result, we’ve begun to forget that buildings and streets only seem to be fixed in place, when in fact places shift in our memory, cities alter in the day and dreams reconfigure it by night. To read Renee Gladman’s Ravicka books—which began in 2010 with Event Factory and have just reached their apotheosis with the fourth installment, Houses of Ravicka (Dorothy)—is to regain the sense of the city as a thing in flux, a way of thinking about the body that begins in language, gradually populating and chartering a city of the imagination not beholden to crude geographic borders. 

Throughout the installments, Ravicka is of obscure location and almost-indecipherable ritual, mainly populated by luminary writers and translators who fret their way across its bridges and avenues, and whose names—Zàoter Limici, Ana Patova, Luswage Amini—are caressed like fetishes, though we don’t learn much about them. In fact, what we don’t know about the city vastly outnumbers what we do. Of apparent Eastern European designation, Ravika has been subject to a mysterious exodus, wracked by an unspecified catastrophe referred to as “the despair,” and is said by the visitor-narrator of Event Factory to be possessed of yellow air, though the Ravickian novelist Luswage Amini, the narrator of its sequel The Ravikians, gently chides that “yellow” doesn’t capture the color of its atmosphere; the word is dahar.

We get accustomed to its nebulous geography through observations like “it is difficult to remain stationary. The landmarks call out” and “it seems something can be placed so far away that it actually comes to exist somewhere else.” Of the city’s bizarre culture we are told, “one’s date of birth was celebrated irregularly—three or five times over one’s life” and to be born there ”is to say you have been hungry.” Of architecture, the narrator of Event Factory says that “I can never get inside it.” Ravicka is seemingly changed by every sentence that is spoken about it, yet its denizens cling to its history, because “This is no time to erase things.”

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In Houses of Ravicka, the tension between cartographical exactitude and spatial disorientation is ecstatically problematized. In the book’s first half, the city comptroller, an excitable man named Jakobi, discovers that two houses within his jurisdiction, no. 96 and no. 32, have become spontaneously unmoored from their address. He prides himself on his spatial lucidity and his maddening quest to account for the missing house simulates the task of the reader who is likewise engaged in puzzling out the ornate, elusive logic with which Gladman has endowed her city of ideas—a disobedient city that refuses to be simply the sum of its parameters.

In the second section, the inhabitant of one of the shifting homes speaks to the fluidity of interiors:

We have a whole science that says the buildings of Ravicka are on the move—the houses, the buildings—and although the science doesn’t say it’s because the houses see that they move, it’s clear that they move because they see. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be studying the migration of buildings but rather the behavior of some further exterior source…when it comes to what sets a house in motion, science seems to look primarily at the subjectivity of houses, not going so far as to say they have psychology but definitely allowing for instinct or bewilderment.

She goes on to add that “Houses have creaked for a long time,” and wonders if this creakiness is the dawning of the strange intelligence that allows houses to look out from within themselves. It is natural to think of houses as a kind of skull. We are all, of course, housed inside bodies, peering warily out from behind the blinds; to reclaim the notion of home, we have to find the language to account for ourselves, to make our interiors intelligible to each other and ourselves. Though Ravicka comes perilously close to allegory Gladman pivots whenever the city starts to sound like a stand-in for something anomalous and worldly (sex, gentrification, the writing process itself) and returns to the unfathomable “hidden geography” that has characterized the series.

The Ravicka books—flagships of the elegant small press Dorothy— are what usually get classified as “poet’s novels,” like Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red or My Life by Lyn Hejinian, but in this case, that’s a cop-out. Gladman writes and publishes poetry, nonfiction, and novels with the same frequency. I doubt she makes much distinction between disciplines (and in fact she resembles a visual artist in her staunch pursuit of a theme through varied layers of form and abstraction). 

What Gladman’s work does have in common with the aforementioned works is a faith that language creates the thing it describes. As opposed to the commercial novel, which gestures at the consensual reality beyond the page, Gladman begins with the internal and constructs her world from the ground up, finding meaning in negative spaces. Jakobi proposes that streets should be built according to “qualified voids” and muses that “You can design a flag and name a country, then design another flag and name another country, years before you have to bring that country into existence,” which might have been Gladman’s process with Ravicka—a coherent imaginary place, slowly solidified book to book.

The Ravicka books read as a clever reinvention of an all-but-forgotten genre: The Ruritanian novel which, beginning with Anthony Hope’s 1894 swashbuckler Prisoner of Zenda, entertained English-speaking audiences with adventures set in generic, courtly Eastern European countries that offered fashionable exoticism without getting bogged down in real-world politics (think of Freedonia from Duck Soup). These were escapist novels, but Ravicka, for all its strangeness, never fails to return us to ourselves as though we need the vantage of a foreign city to see ourselves clearly as beings, as bodies and potentials at a point prior to social content or personality—the self that wakes up and asks “Where was the city? Where did all these houses come from?”

The more we get lost inside of it, the clearer it becomes that the city is dreaming us, not the other way around. It must be coaxed into tangibility, the mission of all language. Gladman writes partially to appease its demands and assuage its reluctance to come into the light:

I was drawing when it dawned on me that I was bringing things into the light that would have preferred to stay unseen, undefined. You risked the invisible architectures by occupying them; you force them to act outside of themselves. Yet, this is what they asked of you. They wanted a conversation, although not so much with the human body as with the bodies of the hard buildings, but they needed our bodies to build the tension. We were like poetic lines being woven into prose.

This may be the best we can hope for, “a plenitude of remnants: fragments of our living, tiny novels, small fires” shored, as it were, against the ruins. It’s possible to read the novel without being aware of how much of it Gladman intends as a dwelling against “the atrocities of the political and social present,” but what comes across in all of Gladman’s work is that there is a world worth discovering and which lives both outside and within us, a place “changing all the time” where “there is too much to say about it, too much to see to want to keep seeing.”

Recent work by J.W. McCormack appears in VICE, BuzzFeed, The Baffler, the New York Times, and The Paris Review Daily.

Portfolio by Renee Gladman
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