Where Is the Thing We’re Chasing? Renee Gladman and Her Invented City of Ravicka

By Nathan Scott McNamaraNovember 6, 2017

Where Is the Thing We’re Chasing? Renee Gladman and Her Invented City of Ravicka
RENEE GLADMAN and I sat at the kitchen table in her beautiful red barn drinking green tea, the natural light profuse even on a rainy day. She told me that she loves how language fails us. “I know it sometimes gets thought of as a problem — that once we start to try to think in language we’re changing the thing that we’re thinking.” Gladman has been writing toward and about that problem, the obstacles of language and the experience of being a body in space, for over 20 years. “To me,” she said, “it feels like a kind of interesting problem to have: where are we in language, and where is the thing that we’re chasing?”

The recent Dorothy Project release Houses of Ravicka is now Gladman’s 13th book, and her fourth about her invented city of Ravicka. Her Ravicka novels are strange and obsessive and in many ways singular. But Gladman also follows in a robust literary tradition of surreal urban creation. In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo describes over 50 fictitious cities to emperor Kublai Khan. In Julio Cortázar’s 62: A Model Kit, “The City” feels like Paris, Barcelona, or Oslo as it shifts around its characters. Samuel Delany’s 800-page novel Dhalgren is an extended trip through the Midwest city of Bellona, cut off from the rest of the world by some unknown catastrophe. With Ravicka, Gladman conjures a city in which everything is vivid and nothing is fixed. I often tell people Gladman’s Ravicka books are like The Phantom Tollbooth for adults.

In its exploration of language, space, and time, Gladman’s writing achieves an uncanny balance between evocative specifics and hazy uncertainties. The first Ravicka book, Event Factory, features a “linguist-traveler” studying the city and its speech. “Listening to [the Ravickians] was like gathering water without a pail,” the narrator says. “Water gathered around my feet. I tried to capture it with my mind. I asked Dar to hold some. But it was water.” In The Ravickians, the second book, Gladman writes, “The closer I get to the end of a sentence, the less certain I am of its beginning.” In the third book, Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge, the narrator says, “I could write pages and pages without disruption, but if I stopped to think, ‘What is this language and how is it that I know it,’ I could not progress.”

The Ravickian language features physical motion and dance, and in Ana Patova, the famous Ravickian novelist Luswage Amini writes that it cannot be translated, suggesting that we are considering a report that is impossible or at least a fundamental misrepresentation of the actual case. But the same goes with the experience of the city. In Houses of Ravicka, Gladman writes that anyone walking outside — even just to buy a loaf of bread or to refill the olive oil — will find themselves on some “living ground.” She writes:

Growing up, I saw the city as a strange unknown body that seemed to be in conversation with its inhabitants. We’d walk a new way to work or coffee or to dinner with a friend and by the next morning the city would have responded, would have moved something. And I say moved to encapsulate all kinds of change. I’m saying the city responded, the city communicated, but these are not the right words.

Gladman’s literary path is interwoven with writer Danielle Dutton’s, creator of the indie publishing house Dorothy, a home for too many knockout writers to select any specific names to list here. Gladman started writing the first book in her Ravicka series in 2004 and finished the second not long after. Still in 2008, they were idling. She thought Dalkey Archive Press might publish both Event Factory and The Ravickians, but it didn’t happen. “They just weren’t interested in them,” Gladman says. Dutton and her husband and co-publisher Martin Riker had both worked for Dalkey; Dutton was still a consultant. “And then, according to Danielle, that was when she decided to start Dorothy, because she was like, ‘I don't understand why these books aren't being published.’”

Dutton published Gladman’s Event Factory in 2010. At a rate of two a year, Dorothy has now published 16 books, four of which are Gladman’s, and she’s the only writer they’ve published more than once. Gladman looked at the Ravicka books splayed on the table between us. She talked about the care and understanding Dutton brought to each of them. “They’re absolutely beautiful,” she said, picking one up. Like all Dorothy publications, the Ravicka books are compact but not slight. They’re decorated with clean and simple covers. “I feel the ways in which she’s a special publisher.”

Gladman told me she writes or draws every day, except for days when something is different, like my being there. I asked her if when she went to sleep at night, she knew what she was going to write the next morning. “Absolutely not,” she said. She paused, “You mean like what book I’m going to work on?” There tend to be several. “No,” I clarified — “like the next scene.” “Oh, no. Absolutely not. I don’t want to know before I sit down what I’m going to write. I just don’t. To me that’s a different kind of writing. That’s more like architecture. You have a plan and then you manifest the plan. There may be something to learn in that, and that’s maybe where I’m moving, but that’s not what I’ve historically been interested in.”

The shifting city in Gladman’s fourth Ravicka book presents the novel’s central problem: Duder Jakobi, the comptroller of Ravicka, cannot find Houses no. 32 and no. 96. Proud author of the book Regulating the Book of Regulations, Jakobi dreamily scrambles after the two buildings. “It was difficult to admit to myself the degree of my discouragement,” he says. “I reassured myself: just because I couldn’t find no. 96 in the middle of the night with an eighty-year-old Basharac does not have to mean I would never find it.”

Ravicka, like Samuel Delany’s city of Bellona, has undergone or is undergoing a terrible crisis, the particulars of which are hauntingly elusive. Moving through Ravicka, we often experience a simultaneous sense of wonder and loss. In The Ravickians, Gladman writes:

The papers today report our population at 245,873, the same for the last twelve days. The news is indicative of so may things; we are proud to say that no one has fled in that many days, no one has died (or been found to have died); we are less proud to say that, in this time, we have had no immigrants. The number 245,873 is only an eighth of Ravicka’s past registry. We had so many people.

The deft compression of joy and tragedy and the cosmic sense of time and space often provide the stunning effect of Gladman’s writing.

Not too long after I arrived, Gladman’s partner, the poet Danielle Vogel, came through the front door. Vogel teaches at Wesleyan and is the reason the two of them recently moved from Rhode Island to Connecticut. I got up to say hello, apologize for taking Vogel’s parking spot, and thank her for having me. I presented the baked goods I brought from Seven Stars Bakery in Providence, where I now live. Gladman and I were both too indecisive to start in on them, each unsure of social etiquette. “I’m going to put them on a plate,” Vogel said.

“She’s the perfect hostess,” Gladman said. “She’s going to do us right. I never know what is right to do,” she said, laughing. While I asked Gladman more about Ravicka, Vogel cut the almond croissants and currant scones into quarters and set them on the table between us. Gladman told Vogel that the soup she had been cooking turned out weird — a little too sweet — and Vogel said that was fine; she would try some soon. She took some scone and croissant and went upstairs.

Relative to her previous work, Gladman’s most recent books seem uniquely full of love, particularly between the characters Ana Patova and Luswage Amini. “L. loved to hear words repurposed,” Ana Patova says of the woman she longs for. “She would glow inside like light inside a stone, so extraordinary it was (to see her face) that I began repurposing all kinds of words.” Gladman said, “I’m writing them with a kind of love or like being in love-ness. I don’t think that I’m necessarily writing love stories, but if it makes any sense I think it has a lot to do with her.” She pointed at the ceiling, to Vogel somewhere upstairs with headphones on, working on her computer. “[F]or Danielle Vogel, as we travel,” reads the dedication page of Ana Patova. “And always, everything, Danielle Vogel,” reads the final sentence of the acknowledgments in Houses of Ravicka. Gladman said, “These last two books feel like that because they have been written in relation to her.”

Gladman told me the new book she’s writing is a lesbian romance. “I wanted it to be a conventional lesbian romance, but I already messed it up.” She said that she’s writing the novel in the form of an interview, and joked that she had already screwed up the part where she might have been able to sell it and make some money. “But if my brain is saying this is the only way you can write this lesbian romance, then I have to follow it.”

One way Gladman is unlike many writers is that she loves the creative process and doesn’t suffer through it. She said that while she finds plenty in life challenging — even the prospect of leaving her house — she finds writing almost entirely freeing. “That’s like not one of my problems in life, which maybe is why there’s so many little books that come out. That feels like one of the easiest parts of being a person in the world: making these documents.” When I asked if it was ever hard to sit down and write or draw, she shook her head no. She said on a rainy day like this one it was a little more difficult, but still possible. “There’s such a joy in writing. That unfolding of the moment — a lot of the reason why I am writing is just to be in that. It’s not really as much about a story I’m trying to tell. It’s like, how do I put myself in language in such a way that I can experience time and thinking and inventing?”

A linguist researching an impossible language, a comptroller regulating a shifting city — these are situations that also lend themselves to comedy, and Gladman’s work is often very funny. In one scene, the annoyed comptroller wants to contrive a reason to fine another character. “His clothes were stupid and mediocre. [His] shack was nicer on the inside than the outside, but I could find no violation in either. He was running an operation — that much I knew — but did I have time to get to the bottom of it?”

“We were moving deep into the night,” the comptroller later says about a dinner. “It was hard to say whether our presence there was profitable for the restaurant. Usually you want a high turnover but occasionally you get into a kind of homey feeling; the owner looks up from the books and thinks largely, ‘These are my people.’”

Gladman said she doesn’t think of herself as funny; she’s not one to sit there and crack jokes, but there is a certain sort of absurd situation that her characters find themselves in. That levity gives relief to what can be a very somber or solemn feeling in her writing. “I used to write out of a lot of loneliness. I don’t really do that anymore, but the loneliness would get sort of balanced by humor,” Gladman said. “I knew that if I put a character in a space that person was necessarily, immediately lonely, because it’s so weird to be a body in a space or among structures.” It can be unsettling to lose track of whether the skyscrapers on the horizon exist. It can also feel quite calm.

In addition to Houses of Ravicka, Gladman also has a novel called Morelia coming out from Solid Objects press this fall. She had a book of drawings called Prose Architectures published this past summer by Wave Books, and another book of drawings will soon follow. Then will come more Ravicka books, one about the grasses of Ravicka, and she says perhaps one more after that. She asked me if I thought that was too much, if there was a risk of flooding the market, if people would stop paying attention. I assured her that I would devour everything that comes, and I hoped other readers would, too.

“What city is not qualified by the ongoing of its inhabitants?” Ana Patova says to fellow citizens in The Ravickians, insisting that the city will exist as long as people are there to experience it. “As long as Ravicka glows this beautifully, it will remain […] I don’t need to tell you this. You have come tonight. It is tremendous for me to see you.”


Nathan Scott McNamara also contributes to Literary Hub, The Atlantic, The Millions, the Washington Post, Electric Literature, and more.

LARB Contributor

Nathan Scott McNamara also contributes at Literary Hub, the Atlantic, the Millions, the Washington Post, Electric Literature, and more. Follow him at @nathansmcnamara, or read more at nathanscottmcnamara.com.


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