The Intercom Quartet

I read Renee Gladman’s Ravicka series of novels, because I saw them mentioned in Drifts by Kate Zambreno:

Could this work, could Drifts, unfold like a dream? It is still yellow outside but the trees are now bare. I bring The Tanners with me to the local café, along with Renee Gladman’s Event Factory, another yellow book. On the first page of Event Factory: “The city was large, yellow, and tender.”

The back of Event Factory describes it as

…the first in a trilogy of novels that Renee Gladman is writing about the invented city-state of Ravicka, a foreign “other” place fraught with crises of American urban experience, not least the fundamental problem of how to move through the world at all.

The trilogy ended up being a tetralogy, and volumes were produced out of sequence in a way described by their creator at the very end.

In Event Factory, the foreign narrator arrives by air at Ravicka, which seems to be a modern city with hotels furnished to the latest standards, and skyscrapers containing the offices of businesses with names like “Market Corp.”, accessed through lobbies and intercoms. Although she knows how to speak the language, there is a level of gesture and performance involved in Ravickian culture beyond the words of the Ravic language that seems to elude her. No exact location for Ravicka is given and in the first book it is possible that it may be in the Middle East, however the later books imply it is central-European. It is not far from Ljubljana and Budapest, and its recent history involves secession from a dominant neighbour. The tourist wants to travel “downtown”, but this is hard to orient towards, and there are “agents” seemingly stalking lone wanderers who get away from the hotels where outsiders should be sequestered.

The visitor gets away on a lone odyssey that runs across several weeks. She encounters vagrants and other travellers, explores Old Ravicka and the minority communities living in its ruins. Her sense of time and space drifts in the restless journey, always challenged by her inability to fully understand the signs and actions required in this culture.

I am saying that things happened that have not been reported, and it is in virtue of those missing things that I was here. Had I spoken of them, at this point in the story, I would now be elsewhere.

A crisis is coming to the city.

From above, flying over Ravicka, it could not be believed. And even on the ground, amid debris, there was a definite tone of denial. All Ravickians seemed to want news of the change kept silent. I found myself complicit.

A great transformation:

Ravicka, which at one time had been called Ravkifken by neighbouring states attempting to sweep the country within their imperialism (-kifken meaning “our own” in those languages), was, as I moved through it, becoming a new place. This was not speculation on my part. Any observer who arrived her on the date on which I arrived and remained now would come to the same conclusion. This city, this country, was not dying (as I had previously thought) but was becoming another city, another country, entirely. What enabled me to make this observation was the place of elevation I had reached. I had climbed the Basha mountain, atop which lay a stretch of green that would serve as my campsite for the next several days. I was having difficulty breathing, but my sight was unobstructed. From those heights, I saw growths disfiguring the lower city. It was impossible to say for certain what these growths were, but it seemed they might give way to streets. Though there was nothing in evidence to support that, as right now they were simply clumps. But what else would a new thing growing on top of an old thing become other than its replacement?

The tourist decides to try to meet the great Ravickian novelist Luswage Amini (“a national treasure”) and studies her most celebrated works, but has not succeeded in finding her by the time she has to go home.

The second book The Ravickians instead sees the city from the perspective of its inhabitants, some of whom appeared briefly in Event Factory. They are mainly from the Ravickian creative class, staring with “The Great Ravickian Novelist” Luswage Amini herself. Amini spends a lot of inner time reflecting on her relationship with another Ravickian novelist, Ana Patova, whom she met on the bridge 30 years ago. She sees the damage occurring in the crisis-struck city, but also sees behind the reporting, which doesn’t capture the reality.

Ciut Centali is not in ruins, though the paper ran an article today that said it was. The author of that great feat of error claims that there are “now” three blocks where over fifty percent of the buildings are vacant and missing their marquee. “These same buildings that ten years ago signaled vitality and economic promise for this once degenerate area.” She also maintains that the inhabitants of the buildings “either have fled or been disappeared”. Wrong. That would never happen here, we would never accept such government erasures (as they do in Bashir). I know this. I have been born here. This same article details “ornamental crumbling” on some of the “major streets” – enough! Where is all of it? Here I am, where is it?

I have encountered some rubble near the Opera House. Obviously, it is from somewhere else. Some fool came and dumped it here…. Sifting through the projected rubble, I see that people have begun discarding their memorabilia. I have found several reels of film that I presume to be home footage; their labels give their origins away – “Dogans 1986”, “The Parkers at Elsetjet”. Besides these clues, the genre just seems obvious. Plus, these are not Ravickian names, and this strengthens my theory about the rubble. All from elsewhere.

Luswage and her friends go to the Opera House to hear a reading by the poet Zaoter Limici, who met the narrator of Event Factory (whether that was in the future or past is unclear). The reading ends on this note:

You know, in many ways, even in the time we have passed here, we have been moving toward change. Vlati knows we’ve laid a path of words. We hear that once all the water in Rija Teh is replaced with that from its neighbour Blana we can start this city over… It’s promising, but cousins perhaps you can help me understand: if our structures, bridges, and languages remain, if the light lands where it has always landed, and we keep our names, where will the new city go?

The final section of the book are the conversations of the writers and their friends, held together in the building afterwards as some further “catastrophe” is occurring outside. They try to get away, and can see fires burning in central Ravicka.

Ana Patova Crosses A Bridge is unlike the other novels in that it is presented as the text of a book by one of the Ravickian authors we have been meeting – Enclosures, a collection of short meditations on aspects of life in the city during its crisis. The book has an epigraph by Anne Carson, which we can assume is part of Enclosures; underneath it Ana has added her own words:

But if you have not survived the thing you are thinking, because it won’t end, then what are you writing?

In her preface, Ana states that “This book wishes to end a crisis… It shuffles our bewilderment.” She describes the spiritual paralysis the crisis gave to life in the city.

I went on excursions to find the words the crisis had removed from me, my sentences that the crisis sent on circuitous routes through every part of the city and dropped on people’s heads, in crevices along the harbor, on the floors of banks, and made me go to them and made me sit there.

Dreams of maps that come alive, and of writing books in other languages, and near-hallucinations in the static time of emptied streets.

There was a crisis within the crisis of our crisis that seemed to affect us most when we sitting together over coffee. It was a crisis of communication that made us stutter in ourselves and made us silent with each other. Not entirely silent but severely limited in pushing forward a conversation, as if our language presumed we wanted to discuss the crisis, which it would not allow, and seemed to find our efforts to ask each other about our work as evidence of that desire.

We now hear the new idea that buildings in Ravicka are migrating – moving away in space –though at first it is unclear whether this is another aspect of the dream side of the crisis, or an instability caused by perceptual exhaustion.

I believed what I was seeing was a copy of the crisis rather than the crisis itself, on days that I was alone and without direction… We decided that each copy was also an original, perhaps not on the level of the first original but passing on to those looking for it some new category of being.

The final volume Houses of Ravicka has another shift of style, over towards the sort of Borgesian sci-fi dabbled in by China Mieville and other people he’s read. The “migrating buildings” are now to be taken literally – there are zonal connections and space-warps between separate addresses, and a “missing” building is

It was nothing. Not even a lot. What was it? How would you describe it? It was… whatever you call “turning the corner” as a place.

The narrator now is the Comptroller, author of Regulating The Book Of Regulations, and the first Ravickian we’ve met who just has a regular job outside of creative writing. The narrator is male, except for a moment when she is designated as female. The job of Comptroller requires an understanding of the new science of geoscography and the axiohexametrical calculations it involves. But this can’t deal with an anomalous pair of buildings linked together yet out of phase in their levels of reality. As the Comptroller searches the streets for clues to solve the puzzle, s/he also has time to chatter with friends who also work in the civil administration, and question lonely citizens, including remaining members of the city’s minorities.

This is quite different from the other novels in that we are keyed up to expect some kind of fantastic denouement or at least a concentration of the crisis-mystery in to a central chamber of the elusive house. Instead, the Comptroller is left pacing the streets eternally and we break to another narrator, who may be an inhabitant or may be the conjunction of the anomalous houses themselves.

You are used to contradictions in Ravicka; you just hope to get the ones that allow you to go on making a life doing whatever it is you do. But the houses have changed everybody’s living. It’s possible that all of us are out on some trek trying to find the thing we see but can’t reach, or forever reaching the thing we see but again and again finding we don’t know what to do with it or what to say about it. And you’re still passing each other, exchanging novels, trying to find the right reader for your words. You’re still putting your hands inside someone and opening to someone’s hands, hoping you might lead each other to new places, to places further inside the place you’ve already been.

In an Afterword, Gladman explains that Event Factory was written in 2003 and The Ravickians in 2005. Houses was started in 2008 but she could not finish it until 2015, after Ana Patova Crosses A Bridge was finished and she had attempted another Ravicka novel, which was abandoned.

Despite what the back cover of Event Factory stated, I don’t see these books as attempting to represent “American urban experience”, though perhaps Event Factory is the experience of foreign lands to a certain kind of American traveller, disconcerted to find they don’t understand the local culture as well as they expected. Whatever the intent when they were written, they read differently in 2020. The 2 middle books express the diffused despair of being in a “crisis” that has become generic and non-specific from its unending monotony and domination over life. Not the crisis of a war, but a constant dislocation that shakes out lives and flings them out of the city in search of stability. The migrating buildings talk to me about my time in 2008, spending some time in isolation as I was very ill. If you spend too long in the same room and it becomes too familiar, then the problem is not just the expected one that time and memories become disordered; spaces and objects seem to be on the verge of misbehaving as well.

The Intercom Quartet is a name given to 4 novels by Christine Brooke-Rose: Amalgamemnon, Xorandor, Verbivore, and Textermination.  Amalgamemnon was a prophecy and a warning from the mid 80s that had a message of hope that “Europe could make it”; that can’t speak to us now but other parts of it can, and its style of fiction and its universe are close by Ravicka.

The beginning of Amalgamemnon:

I shall soon be quite redundant at last despite of all, as redundant as you after queue and as totally predictable, information-content zero.

The end:

Wouldn’t it be better to make up a story in my head unheeded and unhinged, with characters talking, a government source will say, a scientific source will argue (the source will say), we shall soon live exciting times. The characters should also include spokespersons, statespersons, handypersons, highwaypersons, and wifpersons who will perhaps indulge in the secret vice of reading redundant textual sources of redundant psychic sources in redundant humanist animals, thus putting spokes and states and highways into their wheelchairs and careering around in their nomansland. Secret cabinet sources will refuse to comment on these shadow-figures and I shall mimagree, how should I not?

Our world, and the other one.

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