Review: Imaginary Cities

Publisher Influx Press describes Darran Anderson’s Imaginary Cities as “a work of creative non-fiction”.

“What does that mean?” asked the Bandersnatch.

“Poorly footnoted?” I hazarded.

I was being flippant, of course, but even so I think that’s a good way into what Imaginary Cities is doing, and what it’s not doing.

It’s not an academic study. It doesn’t proceed by evidence-based argument or by logical progression. Or, for that matter, by rigorous citing of sources. Where an academic work is univocal, advancing one opinion in the context of a wider cultural conversation, Imaginary Cities is polyvocal, and contains multitudes.

It is, as its title suggests, a look at the city: that is, the city as it has been imagined and constructed in fiction and art and theory and criticism, from the oldest symbol ever found by archaeologists, a 50,000-year-old red disc painted on a cave wall (perhaps “the singularity that is the pupil of a human eye,” “the fulcrum on which the entire visible universe pivots”, and thus our starting point, chronologically and philosophically, for thinking about space and ultimately architecture) to the apocalypse-emptied cities imagined during and after the Second World War. It spans a vast body of thinking about cities and architecture, from the writings of le Corbusier to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. It works in a sort of stream-of-consciousness fashion, moving from text to text in a way that resembles the mental “hyperlinking” of early medieval Biblical scholars: Anderson creates loose chains of linked ideas, and leaves it up to the reader to make the links explicit.

So: polyvocal. It’s a book that admits many different views of the city, and many different constructions of what a city is and what it’s for. Some broad themes emerge: in particular, the idea that all architecture is rooted in a desire to build utopia (“Anyone who build anything, be it a shed or the Shard, is utopian-minded”, as Anderson writes in Strange Horizons). Anderson’s writing leans liberal progressive, and he pays close attention to the ways in which this utopia-drive can be tyrannical and/or colonialist, authoritarian visions handed down by a self-selected elite to the hoi polloi who don’t get a say.

He also constructs the city as hodge-podge, as bricolage, a patchwork of different utopias – a construction that nicely mirrors the polyvocal construction of the book itself, a patchwork of utopian visions and dystopian nightmares. Both the book and the city, therefore, are imperfect, defined by their gaps and crevices and imperfections as much as they are by their triumphs and their grand ideological edifices.

So: Imaginary Cities may be poorly footnoted (a shame, since I’m sure it deserves a more rigorous response than I have time to give it). It may feel rushed towards the end: more a list of sources and quotations than a productive series of linkages. There may be places where entire chapters seem to have been switched around late in the game (the Situationist term “spectacle” is first used about twenty pages before Anderson defines it in a subsequent chapter). But, as the dead spaces and discontinuities and construction zones of any real city are indispensable parts of its whole, so these imperfections are part of the book’s energy. Imperfection gives both book and city vitality: the sense of a movement, however illusory, towards perfection, towards utopia. Word and space are collapsed in Imaginary Cities into one; we read the city, we traverse the book.

Jeez, this is like catnip to me. I want more creative non-fiction like this, please and thank you.

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