Event Factory, The Ravickians, and Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge by Renee Gladman (Dorothy; 2010, 2011, 2013) Reviewed by Christopher Fletcher

Event Factory, The Ravickians, and Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge
by Renee Gladman
(Dorothy; 2010, 2011, 2013)

Reviewed by Christopher Fletcher

1.

From the sky there was no sign of Ravicka. Yet, I arrived...

Event Factory

I recalled my view from the plane, moments before we began our descent into Ravicka, seeing the portioned land, but disbelieving that a city was below me.

Event Factory

Where is Ravicka? Maybe this will serve as an answer: go spread a map of the world on that table over there. The coffee table with a top made from a slab of log. Yes, the card table whose legs tuck under it like a sleeping cat’s. The desk. That is what I mean. Search the map for Ravicka. You may have trouble seeing it on the map. If you ever feel like giving up, remember the words of the unnamed “linguist-traveler” who narrates Event Factory: “What one couldn’t see wasn’t always what was there.” You may have to get closer to the map to find Ravicka—either that or farther away. Stand on a chair or pin the map to a wall in a neighboring room. Look at it through binoculars.

If you find Ravicka on the map, throw the map away. The map is not the territory, no matter what the cynics might tell you. It will keep you from ever finding Ravicka. You will never believe in the city unless you become a part of it.

 

2.

Before you arrive in Ravicka you'll have to read Renee Gladman's novels set there: Event Factory (2010), The Ravickians (2011), and Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge (2013). Event Factory is exactly what it sounds like; its narrator is a foreigner who sees events happening around her but has difficulty understanding and entering into them. The Ravickians is narrated by "The Great Ravickian Novelist" Luswage Amini. It presents us with a day in the life of Amini as she passes through the city, attends a poetry reading, and goes out on the town afterward. Amini's difficulty traversing the city reveals that even native Ravickians have a hard time navigating the space of Ravicka. The third and most recent book in the series, Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge, is a series of enclosures from the eponymous character musing on architecture, language, and narrative.

Each subsequent novel is narrated by a character pivotal in the novel before it: in Event Factory, the memory of Luswage Amini spurs the narrator to the outskirts of the city where she gains a new perspective on Ravicka, and in The Ravickians, Ana Patova is a enigmatic presence in the life of Amini, who spends a good deal of time missing her and thinking on their shared past.

 

3.

No one not from Ravicka, not even the map-illiterate or the carto-agnostic, would mistake Ravicka for a real country. In an interview with BOMBlog, Gladman says that Ravicka is product of her “monolinguism.” She wanted another language, so she invented one with her partner. She says that “within [their] exchange was the space of the city, questions of the built environment, of community, occupancy. You think long enough about something and it comes to life in some alterity adjacent to your own.” And what more does it take to make a world than space and language to reverberate within it?

 

4.

I couldn't separate what the book was about from how it looked to write write it.

Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge

Renee Gladman is a novelist, a poet, a maker of projects. She is the editor and publisher of an experimental literature press, Leon Works, but her novels are published by Dorothy, a publishing project founded by Danielle Dutton in order to publish writing that sits in the space between poetry and fiction. According to Dutton, before starting the press she “had to wait for an occasion, a moment when [her] desire to publish encountered an actual cultural lack.” As it so happened, Gladman’s Event Factory was the novel whose creation revealed the space that needed filling.

While Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge feels like the kind of novel a poet would write, less a narrative than an accretion of ideas in book form, Event Factory and The Ravickians both have a narrative through-line of sorts, which propels the reader through the book in fits and starts. Unlike most other works of narrative fiction, however, the meaning does not reveal itself as one reads. Instead, meaning gathers in eddies along the way, swirling around a central image or idea as the reader floats past. The effect is rather like devouring a series of poems without pausing to reflect.

 

5.

In that place, whenever you opened your eyes, the yellow sang out to you.

Event Factory

While Ravicka is radically other, it is not always so. In Ravicka people take taxis, drink coffee, and buy books. But they also put their hands in the laps of strangers, eat paper, and live in buildings that migrate. The most striking feature of Ravicka is its air. When you get to Ravicka, tell me if the sky looks yellow. Visitors to Ravicka say that the sky—no, the very air—is yellow. In The Ravickians, Amini says that the air is not yellow but dahar, which keeps being translated into English as yellow. So it seems the only thing to do is send someone over to Ravicka to see the air first hand and tell us whether the air is really yellow or some other color. If the air is yellow, just send a message saying YES. It is probably best not to bring colors or translations of colors into your message at all.

The color of the Ravickian air lends it a presence usually lacking in airs. In a sense, there is no space that is empty in Ravicka; it is all filled with a yellow medium. But like most things in Ravicka, this presence is paradoxical. According to the linguist-traveler, the yellow air is “heavy with loss.”

And what has been lost?

Ravickians.

After years of a crisis—of faith, of space, of architecture—only an eighth of them remain, and the status of those who remain is tenuous; as Ana Patova tells us in Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge, “People kept saying other people were fleeing the city and pointing to themselves.” So even though all open space is full of yellow, it is a melancholy yellow.

 

6.

“I burned it, Luswage,” I told her. “Why is it still here?” She arched her back climbing out of the tub, then burned her building down: “I stood in the ashes, I swear to you.”

Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge

In Ravicka buildings are on fire and then they are not and never have been. I wouldn’t want you to think that there are parts of Ravicka where causality runs backward. But I have insinuated it, haven’t I? Of course it is not really a matter of time but of perception. As I said, it is all just a matter of representation.

But still there are moments where figurative language is used and then seems to be taken literally. In Event Factory the narrator asks a Ravickian about where all the smoke is coming from when she really means to ask about silence, explaining that “silence is not something that moves visibly from one place to another . . . I was saying smoke and he knew I did not mean it.” A few pages later, however, the streets are filled with smoke which stings the narrator’s eyes.

In the face of such instability, it would be easy to say that Ravicka means nothing. Just as easily one could assume that the narrators of the novels mean everything, and the city of Ravicka is actually science fictional. Even the linguist-traveler has to remind herself that she is not on another planet by recalling how inexpensive it was to fly to Ravicka.

To take Ravicka at face value in order to make it mean something (however useless that meaning might be) is certainly tempting, but we must be wary of doing so. Ravicka presents us with the chaos before it coalesces into meaning.

 

7.

If only traveling were about showing off your language skills, if only it did not also demand a certain commitment of body communication, of outright singing and dancing—I think I would be absolutely global by now. In Ravicka I was barely urban.

Event Factory

The language was more a drama than a script.

Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge

In Ravicka, talking about architecture is also dancing about architecture. Characters do complicated bodily folds, reach down and touch their ankles, and use each other’s bodies as focal points for the purpose of communication. Not only does this make for a more intimate language (the word intercourse in its multivalent meanings comes to mind), but it makes language dependent on space in a way that it isn’t when it is confined to vocalizations and marks on paper. Language becomes visible, a part of the milieu, and this makes the loss of Ravickians, of buildings, of places all the more traumatic. The loss of things changes the language, and the loss of language makes space impassable. No wonder then that Ana Patova imagines “a block of streets, off limits to our living, and within this block breathed the real body of our city.”

 

8.

The crisis made me give up architecture, drawing up plans for building, and sat me roughly in this chair from which I did not leave for years. It was ten years, the despair, and it was five days, and it was your childhood...

Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge

The crisis happened in our eyes and in our imaginations, how we made sense of what we saw, the flinty bridges between, but there was nothing we could do about our eyes...

Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge

If Gladman’s novels ever feel like allegory it is when characters speak of the “crisis” unfolding in their city. If Ravicka has a 24-hour news channel, you can bet it is filled with wall-to-wall coverage of the crisis. The effects of the crisis are many: fleeing citizens, black smoke filling the yellow air, the loss of language, increasing self-imposed isolation, general confusion.

The linguist-traveler reminds us that “in any city, where there is a crisis, one always encounters those who deny the occurrence of that very crisis, and eventually one finds out about the activists; but there is also a group that is equally as persuasive as the two above, just not interviewed as much—this group called ‘the artists.’” Perhaps we ought to put Gladman in that less-often interviewed category: she is the artist presenting us with an allegory of our time of perpetual crisis.

At one point, Ana Patova tells us she and her friends began carrying a huge scroll of paper around with them and that on it “everyone was always marking off things they’d finished—books they’d read, books they’d written, meetings held—yet sitting in this empty feeling. The whole time, empty, and waiting for the city to pick up again . . .” These marks, she tells us, are meant to “indicate change, a change that somehow talked about nothing.” I wonder whether Ana Patova ever tore off a piece of that scroll to bring home with her, where she could keep abreast of her friends’ lives without leaving the house.

 

9.

We never saw a building move but were always picking ourselves up from the ground and could rarely find the place we were looking for on the day that we were looking for it...

Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge

“Ravicka is not well, and its recovery has everything to do with architecture.”

The Ravickians

The Ravickian have a unique relationship to architecture. As Ana Patova says, "[Ravickians talk] about buildings as if they were animals." I wonder whether the crisis hinges on this sensitivity to what in other cultures are considered inanimate objects taking up space. When you feel architecture acutely perhaps it is impossible to be at peace in a city.

Luswage Amini remembers a time when "one did not walk among buildings wondering how long he or she might be able to do such a thing." She mourns the time when she and her friends walked the city together. She mourns the loss of familiar places. She mourns architecture. As a novelist, she says she "never wrote about it explicitly. [She] wrote about people in cities, people on trains, but could never bear the daunting topic of structure."

As Amini makes her way from her house to a poetry reading in The Ravickians, she encounters “rubble near the Opera House” and convinces herself that the rubble is not evidence of Ravicka’s decline but has been trucked in from somewhere else. In the rubble are film cans marked with non-Ravickian names, confirming her suspicions. But like a conspiracy theorist denying the obvious truth, she continues to investigate the pile of rubble to find out “how many . . . took part in these strange events,” piling and cataloging the film cans.

In the end she has “eleven stacks of ten documentaries amid rubble with enough distance between each to make the whole scene look collegiate and strange.” She explains her actions by saying, "If it is possible to chip away at something while at the same time building it then that is what I have been trying to do." Chipping away at architecture in her mind, she reveals a metaphor, stacking up eleven high-rises filled with the moments of people long gone.

 

10.

Golden grasses and yellow air do not make a blur of things, as one who has never seen this sight might think they would. It is amazing the way objects bearing such likeness separate themselves in Ravicka—since when you wake from having been asleep outside, you will want to discern things immediately. The shapes engulfing you. Even when there are only two shapes: sky and grasses.

The Ravickians

If during your visit to Ravicka, you feel the city too much with you, take a ride out to Hilayli and lay down in the tall grass. For the Ravickian, “Hilayli is in that part of your mind you would call country if you ever thought about it.” If country is a part of the mind, maybe city is as well. Perhaps Ravickian life is more about how space occupies the mind than how the body occupies space. Or maybe it’s more a tug-of-war between the mind and body over space. Laying out in the field in Hilayli, you open your eyes, and your mind begins to split what your body knew as one into “grass” and “sky.”

Amini believes she could never “bear the daunting topic of structure,” but she has been imposing it on Ravicka all along in the form of language.

 

11.

What you did with where your body went, how you wrapped words around it, calling it something that might be useful to others, who also did not know space, which was everyone, was of an order inconsequential to the space you inhabited.

Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge

Remember when you were a child and first experienced yourself as an independent being taking up space in a world of objects and other beings? Remember feeling momentarily unmoored at the prospect? That is what being a Ravickian is like. To be aware of one’s own relation to everything else all the time, to realize that one is part of the architecture of the city, to know that the architecture is constantly in flux: that is the crisis. To be intensely aware of effects of time on buildings and people and places is to experience mono no aware as a permanent state of being. It is to live inside the melancholia of things.

 

12.

I’d walk the streets and collect signs of the despair and hang these signs in other parts of the city . . . Was “the crisis” the act of returning things to their original location but forgetting and never knowing where things came from?

Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge

Ravicka works better as memory than as a reading experience. While reading about Ravicka, the mind is busy trying to discover the spatial relations between objects and/or sentences in flux and to understand the inner lives of the people who live in the midst of such instability. Reading Ravicka is hard work. Remembering Ravicka, on the other hand, is much easier. Once the half-formed space of the city is introduced into our minds, it becomes a map we carry inside us—a map we can pull out from time-to-time, lay over the apparent world, and search for the little arrow that says, “You are here.”

 

Chris Fletcher is a writer of book reviews and essays who lives in the interstice between the Twin Cities of Minnesota. His work has appeared in 3:AM Magazine, The Quarterly Conversation, and elsewhere. He blogs intermittently at http://minnesotapocketjournal.wordpress.com.