Thursday, April 10

Unreal Cities

Of the multitude of themes and patterns I’m finding in Invisible Cities, one thing I’m reminded of are the kind of observations I make when I go on a road trip. I actually wrote about it in a response for To the Lighthouse for another class, discussing the notion that you can never really know anyone. I’m reminded of this idea in Invisible Cities, but as part of a larger idea of what does it mean to know anything: every time I go on a road trip and pass towns that seem isolated or undesirable, I think, “Who actually lives here?” I look at their homes and think how depressed I’d be if I lived in, say, Durkee, Oregon or Winnemucca, Nevada. The entire corridor of I-34 between Loveland and Estes Park, Colorado is on of the most surreal places on Earth to me, probably just from hearing stories about the flood of ’76. (Which reminds me, you should really eat at the Bohemian Cottage, it’s on I-34 west of Loveland. My parents used to eat there when I was a kid. I just typed it up on Google and it gets rave reviews from many Europeans. That place is neat.) I wonder, “What do the teenagers do to occupy their free time?” I wonder, “Do they have derogatory nicknames for their town or their high school and, if so, what are they?” “I’d call it ‘Winnesucca’ if I lived here. Hell, I’m gonna call it that anyway.” I have a friend who hails from “Poopert,” (Rupert), ID, and I used to have a coworker who came from “Hellhole,” (Declo), ID. I can’t imagine that these places exist, much less that people actually live there. It is utterly unfathomable to me. I can be standing in the middle of one of these places, and it’s less real to me than New York or London, even though I’ve never been to either. There is some of this going on in Invisible Cities, and I imagine Kublai and Marco creating the cities out of their pipe smoke (is it opium, or is it just shisha?), and these smoke cities still seem more real to me than say, Burns, Oregon.
I have a friend who grew up in McDermitt, Nevada, which is one of the tiniest, most dismal places I have ever seen. My friend’s family owns the only hotel/casino in McDermitt, coincidentally the first casino I ever set foot in, where my mom made me play a slot for the first time. Across the street from the casino is the tiny grocery store, which also houses a museum of Dutch ovens, something I’d always heard of but had never seen before visiting McDermitt. I was reminded of this when reading about Calvino’s city of Clarice, where, “[items from the past] were now preserved under glass bells, locked in display cases, set on velvet cushions, and not because they might still be used for anything, but because people wanted to reconstruct through them a city of which no one knew anything now,” I wonder if pioneers would scoff at the idea of their kitchen utensils one day being displayed in a museum? (107). The other notable thing about the grocery store is the wall of liquor between the cash registers and the door, consisting of stuff I thought existed only in legend like Thunderbird wine and Everclear. This is perhaps the saddest indicator that McDermitt skirts the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation.
Places like this have a weird, existential quality, and there is definitely something existential in the way Calvino’s cities all seem to be bound up in some sort of repetitive cycle, like the animatronic puppets of Melania, who do nothing but exchange roles and read scripts, and whose lives are meaningless. A similar city is Eutropia, which reminds me of our board game for The Plague, “[t]hus the city repeats its life, identical, shifting up and down on its empty chessboard. The inhabitants repeat the same scenes, with the actors changed; they repeat the same speeches with variously combined accents; they open alternate mouths in identical yawns. Alone, among all the cities of the empire, Eutropia remains always the same” (65). One of my favorite cities is Eusapia, where there is a city of the dead beneath the actual city. A lot of these stories have funny contradictions in them, like in this one, the fact that the confraternity of hooded brothers tells everyone living about the goings on in the underground city of the dead. It seems to me that a confraternity of hooded brothers would be secretive, but I guess this is not one of those. This story and most of the others remind me of that locked casket riddle in the Dinesen story. Especially the line where Kublai Khan says to Marco Polo, “[p]erhaps this dialogue of ours is taking place between two beggars nicknamed Kublai Khan and Marco Polo” (104). Ouch, that locked casket question makes my head hurt.

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