I can find no trace of the novelist Lise Polak, alluded to on the first page of Renee Gladman’s Morelia, in the object-world. Morelia’s unnamed narrator describes the fictional author’s novels as being “in reference” to the narrator’s dreams. In reality, the novels do not exist because the author does not exist, furthermore because the dreams do not exist. Neither Polak, nor the world of Polak’s novels, nor the novels themselves, nor the dream-world they’re said to illustrate, nor the narrator’s waking experience, is empirical. Which, Morelia suggests, doesn’t make them any less real.
The comparison the narrator draws (“in keeping with the novels of Lise Polak”) only seems to clarify. This is characteristic of Morelia, a cipher without a code, a work of metafiction and enigma.
Morelia is an exercise in problem-shifting, but importantly, not problem-solving. It begins on the edge of a dream from which the narrator wakes in a strange hotel room. There she finds taped to the window a slip of paper containing a sentence she recognizes, but which nonetheless remains indecipherable. “I look at the first word, ‘Bze,’” she says. “I try to think familiarly. I used this word yesterday.” She suffers from a sort of aphasia. It’s possible she was drugged or poisoned, or hit over the head, and has lost the ability to speak and understand. She knows she must leave the hotel room, but doing so necessitates that she interpret the language map of her mind. Even to refer to the purpose, or the end-point, of her journey as a “destination” or “meaning,” is too limited. Yet the quest to solve the mystery of this sentence and its “Bze” is at the core of Morelia. That which is both strange and familiar leads us into the story.
In the dream from which the narrator wakes, a gangster employs her as an assassin. Perhaps, she thinks, she has awoken in this strange hotel room because her employer has arranged it. “That’s when it dawns on me,” she says, “I am falling asleep in one place and waking up in another… How strange, though, that I, or some power outside of me, keeps changing the place of my body, literally lifting it out of one bed and situating it in another.” It is possible the narrator’s impression of a dream is in fact a foggy memory of reality, or that the dream itself is acting on her reality.
Just forty-three pages in total, Morelia feels expansive. The telescoping structure of the narrative is one reason. In its early pages, the story regularly slips into and reveals the parallel realm of the narrator’s dream, which may be real. Gladman expertly pivots on a word or phrase, such that the dream and the reality of the story, as well as a book the narrator reads, are contiguous. The dream and the book are fictional worlds that render the world in which the narrator moves factual by comparison. Or perhaps this pivoting simply calls attention to the way in which we, as readers, regularly regard fiction as fact, how the line between fact and fiction is arbitrary.
Leaving the hotel room is a small action—indeed, one of the few “real” actions in the book—that transpires with painstaking slowness. The reflection of the narrator upon her own action is the sort of delightful self-awareness that makes possible Gladman’s meditations on reading, writing, and the mind. Gladman’s is a mind crafting fiction about the mind crafting fiction. “Could I talk about the narrative as I was operating within it?” she asks in her 2015 book, Calamities. Like Calamities, Morelia is preoccupied with the intersections of space, travel, language, structure, meaning, perception, and the overlapping, inextricable nature of these.
“I began the day,” she opens each new entry of Calamities. The book is structured like a diary, and the repetition of this phrase provides an architecture, a point of departure, a ritual, a grid, and a lattice for what moves within each “calamity.” Like Walter de Maria’s The Lightning Field, an earthwork comprised of an array of 400 stainless steel poles set out at fixed intervals in the desert of New Mexico, the diaristic structure makes possible our perception of the animate: what moves among the immobile points is alive, and activates the work.
In Morelia, Gladman’s fixed points are phonemes, morphemes, the rules of grammar, of communication, or city structures—mechanisms and paths of speech, or movement. It’s been said that a common response to The Lightning Field is autobiographical. What flows through these fixed points of phonemes and grammar in Morelia “is like dreaming inside a machine, or dreaming up a machine that was your life,” as Gladman says in Calamities. What flows through the rules of communication is inspiration—in the sense of breathing, living.
Language is not a means to an end in Morelia. Treating it as such overlooks the critical interstice between utterance and comprehension, that is, the progressive, organic nature of language. Language is built into the setting of Morelia—the setting itself may be manifesting in real time out of the book the narrator reads. About the book, she says, “I’d read it passionately in every language I could find, even when that language was unknown to me.” Like the Ur-stories we tell ourselves repeatedly, but which nonetheless remain obscure to us; the stories that bring us again and again to our writing, but which are never resolved, only transformed: “The site of my injury was not the site it had been previously. A wind had come and changed it. Unsurprisingly, it carried a song (all winds do).” Inspiration is both a wind and a wound.
The action of writing leads the mind to new places. It changes us (“The way that I would have to think in order to write the book would change me from that point forward,” Gladman says in Calamities), but the purpose of writing is not to reach a preset destination. We can only guess as we move through the space of the mind how to language what comes into being. The narrator’s reading of her own book is what brings into being the material reality of the story in which she moves. The book itself may be Morelia.
The world had grown quiet. I felt my real journey could now begin. I could now head out into this city, which I had changed by first treating it like a book. I wasn’t walking in the book anymore but I wasn’t not-walking in it either. That is another thing that happens when one has read: the world changes. I stood on a street that flickered, in a mind flickering between scenes of attack and scenes of leisure.
Language opens new spaces and also delineates space, and defines it. The language in which the narrator moves is a city. “It’s not the city of my choice but a city all the same.” We don’t choose which stories will shape and define our lives, but like the planning of a city, they predetermine the paths along which we travel. Meaning is to a word as location is to a house, as an experience is to time, and a house’s position in space is to meaning as translatability is to a word. Translation is also a form of traversing. Writing is a form of reading, reading is a form of translation, and translation is a way of moving.
Soon, the narrator intuits that her location, or her destination, may be Sespia. She’s heard this word before, and as she begins to travel toward it, declares, “Sespia would be the end of all things.” Reaching the city, she realizes she has already been there: “This was an uncomfortable situation: now reenvisioning my journey not as a ‘setting out’ but a ‘return.’”
A familiar sentiment for any writer, it continues when she encounters a woman in the street: “I wasn’t sure I wanted it—human contact—after all those rooms and concrete.” The private space of language becomes a shared encounter mitigated by syntax. The woman speaks: “Bze”—but the narrator struggles to comprehend. “Instead of beginning a thought as my ‘Bze’ seemed to do, hers always came at the end… Why didn’t we understand each other?” the narrator says. “‘I speak like you,’ I told her, ‘but I put my mystery word at the beginning.’”
It can be said that one purpose of language is communication, and that therefore meaning is collective. If there is no agreement in terms, there is no communication; there is solitude, and an author speaking only to herself. If a single sound corresponds to multiple meanings, then context, which is also a kind of space, determines which meaning corresponds to which sound. The same word may connect many texts, but the connection among the texts reveals nothing about the word. Later, the narrator wonders if Sespia was “anything more than a question about communication.”
Like the four novels Gladman wrote about the fictional city-state of Ravicka (the first of which was published in 2010, shortly after she wrote Morelia), Morelia loves showing its seams—its seems—and is “torn between the artificial indoors and the real out.” In the Ravicka novels, a “linguist-traveler” fluent in the language of Ravicka, but unfamiliar with its customs, travels to the fictional place to investigate why its inhabitants are fleeing. Gladman has been compared to Kafka, but the Ravickian novels, as well as Morelia, bear a resemblance, too, to the fiction of Gerald Murnane, whose narrators, like Gladman’s, are travelers—but often, like Morelia’s narrator, only in the mind. Or they are travelers whose journey is one line of text, with no known terminus. Or whose foreignness is—to use a spatial term—the point.
In an afterword, Gladman explains that she wrote Morelia, “at the end of a strange trip.” A rat crawled over her back in her sleep, and, “I would always be between places.” As Morelia’s narrator says, “Somehow in this life we have managed to fashion only an inside and an outside with nothing in between, and it’s because we can’t always pick one or the other that we get lost and weary.” Morelia is a space between: a work of fiction, philosophy, poetry, travel, biography, and sculpture. And also, none of these. A dream.
Sarah Gerard is the author of the novel Binary Star, the essay collection Sunshine State, and a co-authored art book, Recycle. Her novel True Love is forthcoming in 2020. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, T Magazine, Granta, and various anthologies, most recently Small Blows Against Encroaching Totalitarianism.
Banner image: Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, 1977. © Estate of Walter De Maria