MARCH 24, 2018
MAYBE IT’S SOMETHING in the fetid and claustrophobic air of the United States these days, but dystopian fiction is hot. Some elusive, permeating element now compels writers to scrutinize the horrific present and imagine an even more terrible future. Dystopian novels, such as Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas, exemplify a type of science fiction that Isaac Asimov classified as “If this goes on” stories. Of course it’s possible to imagine any number of post-apocalyptic futures, but most of these novels don’t meaningfully capture the realities of the pre-apocalyptic present: a moment poised on the brink, before the dam has fully broken. Renee Gladman’s Houses of Ravicka (published by the experimental feminist press Dorothy, a publishing project), takes up precisely this purview. The novel provides a meditation on the way we think, feel, and act in the present moment as the rug of reality is being pulled out from under us.
Beginning with Event Factory in 2010, Gladman has crafted an expanding series, including four novels and a monograph of architectural drawings, set in the imagined city-state of Ravicka. Although the setting contains vaguely Eastern European elements (such as place names and surnames), Ravicka’s features are in constant flux. Instability characterizes constantly moving building locations; characters punctuate their speech with backflips and other full-body gestures; poets and writers create and recreate the history of the city at cafes; and your destination might only be there if you approach it by walking in a particular style.
Houses concerns the investigations of the city’s comptroller, Jakobi, who is charged with measuring the subtle changes and movements of visible houses over time, in conjunction with their invisible counterparts elsewhere in the city. Or, as Jakobi puts it, she is tasked “to locate and reconfigure spatial logistics for two houses that exist on the same parallel geoscog referential.” This proves more difficult than it ought to be when the visible house she’s seeking is missing from its expected location (meaning its invisible counterpart is also not where it should be). Mimicking the setup and narrative flow of a police procedural, the novel follows Jakobi on the trail of a traveling, interdimensional house; the story includes episodes with recalcitrant witnesses, hints of espionage, and a visit from a loquacious friend who can fold himself into two dimensions. If you enjoyed China Miéville’s The City & the City but thought it should have been more like Kafka, Borges, or Beckett, this is probably the book you are looking for.
Gladman eschews realism and interiority-based characterization, instead portraying characters in accordance with their environment. In a way, it’s the city of Ravicka itself that is the true protagonist:
[T]his is a densely built city; even bodies alter environments when they move through them. And for a long time, we seemed to understand how to read these changes. We knew how to adjust our thinking when we came upon a protest at the city’s center […] There is a pareis [body gesture] for throngs; there’s a pareis for one body sprinting through the train station; a pareis for an excited family running up or down steps toward a park or carnival; a pareis for a couple in a fight […] We exist in a society of complex gestures, all running along their own time […] this was much easier to accept and discern when it was believed that all of our movement happened upon an unmoving ground.
Communication in Ravicka occurs not just between people, but between people and things, including buildings. This kind of communication proves even more challenging than one would expect due to the propensity of Ravickian infrastructure to shift and transform. Jakobi’s investigation of unstable buildings underscores the alarming fact that the grounds of action and the objective world we inhabit are transformed and shaped by forces beyond our understanding and control, even as we participate in them.
While the action of Houses hinges upon Jakobi’s inability to track the two houses’ movements — as well as her concurrent inability to connect with her estranged lover and partner, Triti — this isn’t the type of novel where the central mystery gets solved at the end. Despite the novel’s pseudo-scientific terminology (geoscogs, trakruler, “retrofit the skadyver”), Gladman doesn’t try for any sort of technological, biological, or scientific explanations. Rather, Houses belongs to the type of surrealist, absurdist, and fantasy-oriented speculative fiction that reached its heights during the New Wave of the late 1960s and early ’70s. Although the New Wave style has been overshadowed since then, a similar type of experimental SF has persisted into the present (often rebranded as New Weird or neo-absurdism) thanks to the work of authors and editors such as China Miéville, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, and, more recently, Karin Tidbeck, whose Amatka shares a striking similarity in themes and tone to Houses.
Samuel Delany called this type of SF “epistemological fiction.” In his essay “Some Remarks Toward a Reading of Dhalgren,” he argues that such fiction treats,
our belief in reality […] like our belief in one reading or the other of the Necker cube: the earth may appear flat, or the scatter pattern through a pinhole may suggest light is made up of particles, but there is evidence waiting just over the horizon, or in the diffraction pattern through a fine mesh grid, for another reading of both phenomena.
In Delany’s analysis, epistemological fiction replicates the scientific method as the themes and tropes of “hard” SF become incorporated into the form itself: fiction becomes a mode of testing reality. In its depiction of a city bureaucrat seeking to explain the disappearance of solid structures, Houses is quite literally a book about testing reality. Moreover, it addresses the potential of using genre writing to carry out epistemological inquiries into our understanding of social reality.
The book takes a distinctly self-referential turn in Part Two, when Gladman shifts point of view from Jakobi to the misplaced houses’ unnamed resident — who happens to be an artist creating dense architectural drawings suspiciously similar to Gladman’s own, discusses the slow lurch of Ravicka from stable city-state to ungrounded liminal space: “the buildings of Ravicka [were] trying to do something that no other country was reported to have done; the city was a novel in progress.” With metafictional moves like this, Gladman asks us to reconsider the boundaries between the literary and the real.
Although this is well-trod territory since the emergence of the novel (and, perhaps, art itself), the novel’s afterword pushes us to productively contextualize Houses in the wake of contemporary events. Here, Gladman reveals that although she began Houses in 2008, she only completed the novel in the chaotic atmosphere of the United States in January 2017. The book, Gladman writes, takes place “where I am, where many of us probably feel that we are: somewhere where the boundary between places has broken.” This sense of displacement, of liminality, is reflected in the transient, unstable architecture and anxious characters of the story, as well as in the book’s interstitial balance between the genres of science fiction, fantasy, weird fiction, surrealism, new narrative, absurdism, poetry, and even the ghost story.
At the same time, Houses complicates its own liminality. The novel — focused as it is on a government worker on the job — should also be considered within the larger tradition of what might be called bureaucratic fiction. We often think of bureaucratic fiction as offering a satire of an invasive or heavy-handed state apparatus. Such fiction would include Kafka’s portrayals of Austro-Hungarian administrative labyrinths, Dickens’s depiction of Chancery Court in Bleak House, Gogol’s Dead Souls, and science fiction treatments like Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide. But what are we to make of bureaucratic fiction that appears in the twilight of neoliberalism, with a US administration that is aggressively disintegrating the welfare state with a velocity that may leave Reagan’s dismantling and privatization project in the dust? Houses functions as a bureaucratic fantasy: not so much a fantasy of administration, but a longing for it. Perhaps this accounts for the novel’s tone of nostalgia; the alternating sensation of déjà vu and jamais vu; and the vaguely early 20th century, vaguely Eastern European vibe of Ravicka (similar, in many respects, to Miéville’s City). Indeed, Gladman’s depiction of Ravicka seems less a warning about bureaucracy and the administrative state than an utopic expression of the Keynesian state’s potential as the grounds for action, the basis for imagining alternatives.
Such institutional guarantees of social reproduction are necessary for a sense of stability, as demonstrated by the current attempts to dismantle or privatize social services. Without them, the present is dominated by a sense of precarity, instability, and anxiety — much as Jakobi the comptroller is faced with a constant psychological, spiritual, social, and physical unsettledness. Part of the intelligence of Houses is how Gladman shows that the administrative and welfare state can, at the moment of its neoliberal deconstruction, become a site of fantasy and nostalgia.
With the contemporary dismantling of state-supported social infrastructure, Ravicka (and the present-day United States) is left with an unpredictable and psychotic socioeconomic environment. Post-Freudian psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion argues that the hallmark of extreme psychosis is the inability to dream. Rather than viewing psychosis as the inhabitation of a dream world, as we might expect, Bion posits that the person experiencing psychosis actually experiences fantasy as reality — as a waking nightmare. This “dreamless world,” a world in which the nightmare has become real, seems to capture precisely Ravicka’s contemporary world (and our own): the dark dreams of the United States have become larger than life, the undercurrents are now surface level, and utopic alternatives appear completely foreclosed.
Gladman, of course, is equally trapped within this dreamless world. Nevertheless, her work in Houses helps to historicize fantasy’s absence and the conditions of groundlessness that distort and pervert the act of fantasy-making. Jakobi’s fantasy, like that of the writer, is to document, categorize, and control — both epistemologically and, in the case of architecture, physically — the nonexistent, the invisible. In other words, both are fantasies of having a fantasy, and both emerge at the moment when fantasy is precluded, when the stable ground upon which it could thrive have become unstable or altogether absent. The true fantasy thus becomes epistemological fixity, reliant as this is upon a fixed object world — a world in which, at the very least, the world will continue to exist. Such a stable, future-certain reality is not the one Jakobi inhabits, and it’s not the one we inhabit either. The epistemological anxiety that pervades Houses is an expression of the dissolution of a certain order in Ravicka and in our own world. Gladman doesn’t provide an answer or a way out — it’s not that kind of book. But she does open a passage, a “portal” as the Ravickians might say, in the form of speculative fiction. Gladman shows that the drive toward fantasy and speculative fiction acts as a form of necessary testing, diagnostics, and protest. This is itself a utopic gesture: an attempt to write, if not a better world, then at least a different one.
Aaron Winslow’s novel, Jobs of the Great Misery, is available from Skeleton Man Press.