For some readers, there’s a romance to reading about cities or countries that never were, or have vanished, or exist only in the most conceptual way. Not far from my desk is Lonely Planet’s guide to micronations, which features profiles of theoretically sovereign states ranging from Sealand to British West Florida. The title of the first collection of the G. Willow Wilson-written comic book Air neatly summarizes the romance of geography disappeared and nonexistent: Letters From Lost Countries. If you read that and your mind immediately turns to wistful thoughts of nonplaces and former places, your own personal cartography might be brilliantly fragmented: consider the process of creating maps and drawing boundaries for places for which no accurate maps will ever exist.
Fictional geography is an integral part of some writers’ palettes. William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County comes to mind, as does Dempsey, New Jersey, setting of many of Richard Price’s novels. There’s an art to this: building a place that might be real but isn’t, but fits seamlessly into what we know, a space that feels like somewhere we could visit, rather than an overly contrived municipality, its geography stylized to a heightened point that removes all sense of drama and verisimilitude from the experience of reading a story set there. There are other fictional cities, which reside on a strange fault line, jostling them out of the realm of possibility and into something more surreal. Often, these exist in works that dip into the realm of the speculative: the twinned city-states of Besźel and Ul Qoma, found in China Miéville’s unorthodox detective novel The City & The City; Hav, the setting of a pair of novels written in the form of travelogues by Jan Morris. There is something deeply familiar about these fictional nations: Miéville supplies a plausible account of his nations’ twentieth-century history in his novel, while Morris’s first book about Hav prompted a rash of would-be tourists to attempt to journey there.
For all of the tactile detail Miéville and Morris add to their novels, there are some blank spots there, some elements of omission that lend an aspect of surrealism to the works that follow. In Hav’s case, it’s a sort of hybrid national culture, an ambiguity about where Hav is actually located. In the twenty years between Last Letters from Hav and Hav of the Myrmidon, Hav’s own culture also shifts, evoking the rise of business in Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism, but also tapping into anxieties about religious fundamentalism’s effects on a society.
Miéville gives Besźel and Ul Qoma a relatively stable geographic placement within Europe, and suggests how they would have fared throughout the history of the twentieth century. In this novel, the discontinuity from reality comes from the action of learning to see only half of what is before you, a metaphorically resonant device that also evokes anywhere in which subsets of the population find themselves at odds on a seemingly fundamental level. Miéville wisely keeps this potent metaphor generalized, though the sad truth is that his novel could be read as an allegory for numerous geopolitical situations.
Renee Gladman’s trilogy set in the country of Ravicka may represent the apex of this approach to fictional worldbuilding. These novels, which move through aspects of Ravickan society via a succession of viewpoints both inside and outside that society, abound with details of Ravicka’s politics, architecture, quotidian life, and cultural influence. And yet an unknowability persists: a yawning impossibility that creates a thrilling imbalance.
Over the course of Gladman’s trilogy — Event Factory, The Ravickians, and Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge — the narrative focus draws increasingly inwards. The narrator of Event Factory is a foreigner, and the book describes her stay in the city, and her struggles with the language and culture around her. At times, she seems thoroughly fluent in it; at others, her interactions with Ravickans are more fraught, with gaps in understanding, moments of political tension, and brief scenes of existential dread. The Ravickians takes as its central character Luswage Amini, a Ravickan novelist alluded to in Event Factory. Here, too, a familiar literary device — following her progress across the city — is juxtaposed with thoughts on translation’s inaccuracy, the problems that plague Ravicka, and Amini’s long and complex relationship with another writer, Ana Patova.
Patova is at the center of the trilogy’s final novel, Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge — a title that seems quotidian until one reads Event Factory and discovers that “crossing a bridge” is a phrase abounding with resonances in Ravic. Here’s the narrator of Event Factory as she views and translates a warning sign beside a bridge.
Digla implied that to successfully cross the bridge (or not cross the bridge, depending on the meaning of the remaining words) we had to grasp the content of the message and integrate that content into an act or gesture made toward the bridge.
Here, more of the city’s history is revealed, and its place in the wider world is made more clear; still, it too exists at a distance, as much of what we’re reading is, ostensibly, a book by Ana Patova called Enclosures. The book’s cover design, in which white space frames artwork similar to the much larger art gracing the covers of the previous volumes, effectively mirrors this structure.
Gladman’s trilogy avoids hitting certain conventional narrative beats, even as the novels’ structures fit within larger guidelines — once again, an echo of Ravicka’s geographic and physical elusiveness. The narrator of Event Factory leaves certain details out of her story which would otherwise represent significant beats in the narrative; towards novel’s end, she notes:
Obviously, I cannot say what happened once I reached the street. That is, I cannot say whether or not I remembered something that I was to look for, as if it were an event that is now complete.
The second and third volumes in the trilogy, ostensibly translated from Ravic to English, achieve a greater stability in their narratives, but other things remain unsaid. Every once in a while, a Ravickian will make a statement that reminds us that their culture is not simply a known one with a few changes in dress or cuisine tacked on. “Everyone is leaking structure,” one character notes in The Ravickians, and throughout the trilogy, a comparison is made between the physical spaces in Ravicka and the characters who live there. In a larger sense, the way that the narrative of these three novels eludes expectations, sometimes frustratingly, mirrors how the use of space in Ravicka can defy logic.
As in Morris and Miéville, some aspects of Ravickian society feel fundamentally knowable. Many of the characters’ names have an Eastern European feel to them, and a reference to “buildings wandering and knocking into each other” in Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge recalls Prague’s Frank Gehry-designed Tančící dům (or “Dancing House.”) Later in the trilogy, Patova’s talk of being offered refuge in Finland during a past period of civil unrest further situates Ravicka in the real world, suggesting that, for all its eccentricities, it can still be pointed to on a map.
It’s also worth noting that Gladman cites Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren in the acknowledgements of Event Factory. That novel, and the city at its center, provide another lens through which to view Ravicka — one in which, unlike the novels of Miéville and Morris, a greater degree of surrealism in the landscape is expected. (One might also cite fellow Delany acolyte Jonathan Lethem’s Amnesia Moon.) For all that the anxieties and anguish of the Ravickians becomes increasingly more tangible over the course of the trilogy, Gladman also poses certain questions about their culture that delve into a glorious illogic.
The Ravic language involves gestures — but to say that undercuts the extent to which performance is ingrained in not just the language but in the very concept of Ravickian identity. At one point early in Event Factory, the narrator notes that a friend of hers, Simon, has vanished. She takes over his role at a hotel in the city; later, she notes that “I stood there and performed Simon brilliantly.” And late in Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge, the narrator shares postcards she has received, ostensibly from expatriate friends, with a gathering of people that includes those same figures. “No one believed Tómas was in Delaware, but no one believed that he was in Ravicka either, as long as I was carrying around that postcard.”
You don’t go to the trouble of constructing a metaphorically rich fictional city without having some larger point to impart on your readers. In Gladman’s case, that seems to be about fear and anxiety and the way each of us splinter ourselves. As her narrative defies expectations, her use of space occasionally defies logic — which is every bit as disorienting as you might expect. There are no maps that can take you to the places Gladman and her colleagues describe, but that might be the point: their geography is already etched into our minds, and we travel there whenever we are reminded of our ever-present anxieties.