Figuration in Renee Gladman’s Ravicka Quartet
In the introduction to Prose Architectures (2016)—her collection of “drawn writings” excerpted above—Renee Gladman explains, “I did not simply want to write about architecture. I wanted to use its figurative power to get further in, and not just further inside the city spaces I was evoking in my work, but also deeper into certain aspects I privileged in my novel writing, such as the uncanny and disorientation” (vii). As the drawings suggest, Gladman creates worlds in which space and structure are not simply settings for or the subjects of language but constitute language itself: buildings are paragraphs, streets sentences, and windows words. In this essay, I explore how Gladman’s writing harnesses the figurative power of architecture—the ability of architecture to provide a form and outline for experience—by allowing principles such as enclosure and line, and entities such as houses and bridges, to break metaphysical constraints. By playing with the substance and composition of the built environment, Gladman performs stunning experiments with architecture, writing, and experience that readers can perceive at the level of story and sentence. This essay focuses in particular on Gladman’s Ravickian quartet, which encompasses the novels The Event Factory (2010), The Ravickians (2011), Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge (2013), and Houses of Ravicka (2017).
Renee Gladman is a poet, essayist, novelist, and artist with over 10 publications since her first chapbook (Arlem) in 1994. A queer Black writer, Gladman has been associated with the New Narrative movement that originated in San Francisco in the 1970s and includes Kathy Acker, Michelle Tea, and Eileen Myles. In New Narrative writing, performance and bodies are paramount, as is sexuality.1 Such style is evident in Gladman’s Ravickian novels, in which the characters communicate with words as well as bodily gestures known as pareis. Specific pareis are required for particular places and exchanges. When leaving a bookstore, for example, Ravickians must walk backwards out the door, while encounters between colleagues during lunch call for deep bows and a bit of flatulence. In these ways, Gladman takes body language to a surreal level, making it clear why many have described the novels as absurdist. Gladman has also been compared to the writers Italo Calvino and Julio Cortázar, who write in similarly dreamlike and abstruse ways.
However, Gladman herself identifies not with New Narrative but with the broader category of experimental prose. Ravicka is a fictionalized city-state in an unspecified region of the world (although articles about Gladman suggest she sometimes imagines it in relation to Eastern Europe).2 In Ravicka, urban space and the built environment are metaphysical puzzles composed of shape-shifting entities that don’t obey a discernible logic: buildings migrate or disappear; invisible cities emerge on top of visible ones; the sky is yellow; cathedrals exist underground; and people can be in a place but never arrive. Each book in the series follows a different narrator’s attempt to navigate the uncanny and unreal setting. In the first book, Event Factory, readers learn that the city-state and its inhabitants are in the midst of a crisis of various philosophical dimensions—metaphysical, ontological, communicative, humanistic. The narrator of Event Factory is a linguist visiting Ravicka, and while she is fluent in the local language, she has trouble being in and experiencing the city. She searches for downtown and can’t find it. She makes friends but they disappear. At times, she can’t even see the city:
We were alone. This was dramatic and strange. But, what was more
odd was how hard we found it to take in the city visually…. It was one
of those situations where you could not step back to see the height of
it…the whole city was this one building, reproduced dozens of times,
placed haphazardly into the ground, and what separated the one from
the other were these narrow lanes. The city was a maze; it was cramped.
I wanted to rub my face in it. (Gladman, EF, 51)
In book two, The Ravickians, a famous novelist attempts to cross the city to attend a reading by another famous writer. The spare plot reveals the crisis of communication affecting the city’s residents, as a polyphonic discussion between friends and colleagues ensues at the novel’s end, with no one completing a thought, let alone a conversation. In Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge, the third novel in the series, a woman describes books she writes and how her writing is affected by the crisis of the city. In the fourth book, Houses of Ravicka, the city’s comptroller goes in search of a house that’s gone missing despite its corresponding house still remaining visible on the other side of the city. The gender-fluid city official uses special instruments to make sense of insensible space, though at one point they get stuck in the foot traffic of a roundabout and cannot escape the flow for some time. The second half of Houses is told from the perspective of the houses’ inhabitants, who turn out to be the author herself.
As a writer and former architecture student, I chose to read Gladman’s work as I became more aware of the significance of structures and space in my experience, autobiographical writing, and voice. As a child, I spent countless hours imagining and drawing houses different than the one I lived in with my mother, father, and sister in Temple Terrace, Florida. Drawing—of architecture in particular—was my first creative practice and my major form of play. It was also a way of creating order within my emotionally disordered family and making sense of how our lives were structured in and through race, citizenship, and class, as I often imagined myself living in affluent homes and neighborhoods I associated with white families. Drawing was, as Lynda Barry also describes it, a way to imagine both an alternative present and the future—from the doorways that would welcome me home, to the walls that would hold a new life and, crucially, a new family. By the time I was in high school, I was building models of these invented spaces, which I strung with Christmas lights so they would come alive. When I went to New York City for college, I was certain I would study architecture, and I did.
However, only autobiographical writing allowed me to see that space and structures are not just the subject of my thoughts but also modes of experience that profoundly form and inform my memory, sense of self, and intimacy with others. I have long understood that I experience relationships in terms of distance, enclosure, and opening, often asking how close or far I feel from people I love. Yet with creative nonfiction I also saw how my stories and the spaces I invented were one and the same, how architecture both holds my interest and my sense of the world. For these reasons, Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge, the fourth book in the Ravickian series, has impacted me the most. Written in poetic form, Ana Patova reveals the problems of intimacy and presence within the Ravickian crisis. The latter is rendered through the failure of characters to arrive at their destinations. Near the beginning of the book, Ana Patova describes a friend named Hausen, who “walked for hours without arrival”:
He left his house for the post office; he left
to meet a friend for dinner; he wanted to
take in a movie; he needed to go to his job
at the National Gallery of Books. He
moved with concerted effort…. All we
could ever say was that there was
interference, those of us witnessing his
failure. He seemed to get in the cars that
pulled up next to him. He seemed to get
on a bus. But only moments after one
thought one had seen him go, he would
be standing there. I couldn’t arrive either.
(Gladman, Ana, 24)
The idea of being somewhere but never arriving helped me imagine how to write my mother in particular into my work. In contrast to my father and sister, my mother constantly appears in my memory in spaces of transition or liminality—hallways, doorways, across the room.3 Feeling space and intimacy through Gladman’s eyes, I understood that the spaces in which I see my mother are the same as the experience I have of her as a person who never quite arrived in my life but for whom I have been and will always wait. This is one of the most powerful ways that architecture doesn’t just symbolize my mother but lends her form, or figures her.
Figuration as Living Through Narrative and Architecture
As I observed how consistently walls, rooms, containers, and boundaries showed up in my creative writing, I began to seek out writers who have keen spatial sensibilities. First on this list, Renee Gladman has pushed me to see beyond architecture as metaphor and toward architecture as figuration. In the Ravickian novels, for example, the built environment does not represent or express the crisis of the city, as if architecture is merely a set of tools or a blank canvas with which to communicate an experience or events. Instead, the boundaries between experience, characters, and the materiality of urban space are incredibly porous. Gladman’s non-metaphorical approach to architecture—what Phoebe Clark in The White Review calls “a construct”—is evident in the fluidity Gladman allows between language, bodies, and environment.4 In a moment of desolation, the narrator of Event Factory confines herself to the hotel where she’s been staying and spends her alone time studying the Ravickian language. “I worked on my libsling, that peculiar Ravickian method of transposing verbs and proper nouns to account for a speaker’s ambivalence,” the visitor explains. But as herloneliness grows, the narrator states, “The hotel became a sentence I struggled to complete. My friends there, adverbs. In Ravic, however, there are no adverbs. So, during certain times of day, there were no friends” (95).
In this passage, Gladman describes both the absurd language of Ravicka, as well as how buildings, relationships, and experience are language-bound. This is not the same as saying that architecture is or is like language. For Gladman, architectural elements are not parts of speech that can be composed into something expressive and meaningful. Rather, narrative and architecture are similar vessels for experience.5 Thus, the words “The hotel became a sentence I struggled to complete,” describe a condition in which language and presence are open-ended, sometimes to unsettling effects, and where people never quite arrive in time, space, and/or a story. Indeed, throughout her work, Gladman conveys how experiences of space and structure are synonymous with the materiality of language. In an interview for Pin-Up, Gladman explains she sometimes sees “the sentence as a city, as a space to move through where you encounter punctuation like derailments or signs.”6 She goes on to address the body in particular: “I like that I can put the body next to the paragraph or the sentence. They feel to me like similar kinds of containers, where experience or memory passes through as a way for events to manifest in the world…. [E]verything is in motion. Even when it seems to be still.”7
While it’s possible to see Gladman’s figurative approach to architecture at the level of the sentence, we can also see it in her approach to prose more broadly. Again, experiment is vital, and it shows up in her willingness to wander from her already lightly sketched plots. In Houses of Ravicka, for example, a city official is looking for a missing house and runs into other characters and troubles along their routes. In the second half of the novel, however, Gladman inserts herself as the inhabitant of the missing house and its corresponding structure on the other side of the city. Gladman explains this choice in the afterword of Houses, when she describes the difficulty she had in finishing the book: “I allowed myself to get caught up, in a literal sense, in the streets and architecture of the city…. And then I hit a wall” (144). She goes on to explain how she herself could not discover the location of the house and was, therefore, stuck in the mystery she set in motion—so she wrote herself into the narrative. In an interview for Triple Canopy, Gladman describes this experimentation in relation to the difference she sees between fiction and prose: “Fiction is interested in a certain kind of unfolding or sequence of events. Time is more intact in fiction. Prose, I think, introduces the element of the awareness of yourself in language as you are unfolding things in time and allowing yourself to be distracted or interrupted, allowing yourself to question the difficulty of what you’re doing and be stalled, not to move.”8 Here, Gladman’s self-reflection revolves around questions of genre and form and are, therefore, useful to all writers.
Last Thoughts: All Open
In an interview for BOMB Magazine, Gladman offers some thoughts about experimentation and subjectivity. “Experimentation,” she states, “is an ideal mode of engagement for marginalized people.”9 This statement speaks directly to Gladman’s racial and sexual identity and their connection to her writing. “As a ‘black lesbian poet,’” she goes on to say,
you enter language from a place of disorientation. Your grasp
of the authority of the subject is slippery. You feel deviant. You
feel the need to fuck with things. You see jungle spaces, geometric
spaces inside which it is possible to point, to unfold something
about the silences, the loneliness of being in the world. Really
though, this opportunity exists for anyone who looks deeply into
language and the moment of utterance with his mouth or body
All open—this is a fundamental feeling that emerges when reading Gladman’s work. Whatever mental barriers most people construct between language, bodies, experience, and space, these are either modular or have been dismantled altogether in Renee Gladman’s mind. A phenomenological wonder, the Ravickian quartet captures experiences of loneliness, desire, confusion, curiosity, and excitement in individuals, communities, cities, and even the state. The novels also leave room for the ephemeral, the unpredictable, and the unthinkable by treating solidity itself as fiction.
1. Virginia Konchan, “Renee Gladman and the New Narrative,” Jacket 2, 19 May 2014.
2. Aaron Winslow, “The Bureaucratic Fantasies of Renee Gladman’s ‘Houses of Ravicka,’” Los Angeles Review of Books, 24 March 2018.
4. Phoebe Clark, “Renee Gladman’s ‘Houses of Ravicka,’” October 2017.
5. Drew Zeiba, “City Writer: Interview with Visual Poet Renee Gladman,” Pin-Up, n.d.
8. Renee Gladman with Lucy Ives, “The Company That Never Comes,” Triple Canopy, 31 January 2012.
9. Zack Friedman, “Language and Landscape: Renee Gladman by Zack Friedman,” BOMB Magazine, 24 December 2011.