56 Cities, Two Books

Painting of the city of Irene from Invisible Cities by Colleen Corradi Brannigan. Click on the image to see more of her renderings of Calvino's work.
Painting of the city of Irene from Invisible Cities by Colleen Corradi Brannigan. Click on the image to see more of her renderings of Calvino’s work.

Urbanization is one of the lifebloods of modern life. If industrialization is the hear of capitalist society, urbanization fastens onto its productive powers and, like a tsunami, creates a sloshing deluge where there was once relative stability. Social struggles have taken to the urban stage since before the French Revolution, though Revolutionary Paris represents their apotheosis in the capitalist core of Europe and North America. So talking about cities involves talking about social struggles. More specifically, cities are living and working spaces, playing spaces, channels for industrial goods, outlets for propaganda and advertising and every form of visual and aural production imaginable. Increasingly, the human race lives out its collective life in cities, leading many Marxists like David Harvey to call for a renewed focus on the character of cities and the political strategies necessary to making cities livable.

Having just moved to one of the larger cities on the continent, I have felt the pull of its acceleration, adding an experiential weight to some of the fictional reading I have been doing. Reading about cities and living in them are separate matters, but I find it helpful to take directions from fiction and other artworks as to what we should look for in cities. Two books in particular have left their marks, providing me with some cutting questions to ask of my new hometown.

1. King City by Brandon Graham

In King City, the characters serve to inform the setting more than the other way around. Their stories are in the foreground, but seems marginalized by the background.
In King City, the characters serve to inform the setting more than the other way around. Their stories are in the foreground, but seems marginalized by the background.

I read King City in a few days from the omnibus collection published by Image Comics. But attempting to read this book along a single plot thread is a mistake, since at the end the “comic book” climax of the story happens in a flash, making the ostensible narrative engine just another story among many. This makes the story not so much a single plot but a book of accounts showing how life is lived in a city warped by, among other things, extraterrestrials, magic cats, and the author’s hyper-dense reimagining of Los Angeles. The titular King City might have a central power core, a government of some kind, and a convoluted network of criminal gangs running the show, but when reading the book none of these things seems to take any kind of priority because Graham’s art is always letting us in on a hundred other stores, sometimes in the space of a single page. It’s a melange or mosaic of disparate moments connected by a certain logic––most of the time, that logic involves groan-worthy puns––that sets romantic tensions, life-or-death rescue operations, petty crime jobs, and supernatural apocalypse on the same level of relevance.

In King City, politics loses its meaning, or at least its collective character. Issues of class, nation, and gender don’t get much explicit discussion in the book. Power blocs form today and dissolve tomorrow, and life is precarious to the utmost. Individual struggles are what is important; the heterogeneity and acceleration of the city seems to render all connections temporary at best. Graham is showing us an important aspect of the modern city: the speed and visual overload people experience there renders the surface of the city a film of blurry fragments. Many jokes at the expense of New Yorkers start off with some catastrophe happening, raising only shrugs from life-weary denizens. Graham’s production here condenses that facet of the city and gives it a deeply weird and novel guise, drawing on anything and everything to pack in. And it looks to use like business as usual. Well, business as usual with a dose of scatalogical surrealism.

2. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Uses one of my favourite Magritte paintings as the cover.
Uses one of my favourite Magritte paintings as the cover.

Now this book, unlike King City, is more properly “literary,” being a collection of what I hesitate to label prose poems interwoven with bits of dialogue. Despite that pedigree, I believe it qualifies as “speculative fiction,” seeing as its goal is to explore the affective and imaginative aspect of cities.

Calvino’s conceit here is that Marco Polo and Kublai Khan have met in the Mongol capital. Polo regales the Great Khan with tales of cities from all across the vast span of the Empire. Khan, plagued with worries about the coming dissolution of his realm, looks to Polo for a sign, though whether that sign is a confirmation of his own decline or the contrary remans unsolved. 55 cities pass through our minds, page by page, unfolding like nautilus spirals. Because the Venetian and the Mongol do not share the same language, at least initially, Polo has to resort to describing cities with objects from them, sketching often fantastical and anachronistic portraits. On his journeys, he has apparently passed through at least one airport and one American-style suburb, not to speak of the more classically Orientalist constructions.Even though every city Calvino describes is nothing more than an assembled fiction, its components find their origins in real cities or legends of cities. The mystical quality of the book comes from its strangeness. Example: one city’s citizens built a replica of their city underground, burying their dead in the same poses they assumed in life.

The entire structure of the book reminded me of Kino’s Journey, a Japanese animated show about a nomadic woman and her talking motorcycle visiting countless cities that embody human virtues, vices, desires, and ideals. Here we have no protagonist in the present tense: all of Marco Polo’s “expeditions,” if they ever happened (and Khan has no reason to believe they did), seem to have been ages ago. So what we have here is a book party archaeological, partly poetic, and partly speculative, and if I could identify a single virtue it would be in expanding our conceptions of what cities are and what they are capable of being. It also shows us quite directly how we conceive of cities in modern times: repositories of buildings, yes, but also stories, images, and desires, not to mention refuse and leftovers.

For Marxists, obviously, the matter does not rest there. We see cities not as fixed or swirling without coordinates, but evolving according to social needs and the dictates of those with political power. In other words, cities are only perceptible through a historical and materialist vision. But I would argue that both of the works in this post offer compelling insights into the nature of urban living today, regardless of their various mystifications and tendencies to treat those social struggles in an oblique way. Like cities themselves, they’re not pure illusions, but products of social labor and embedded processes within their respective industries. Let’s ponder the questions they raise and celebrate the positive aspects of the visions they evoke; we have a long road ahead, after all.