Imaginary Cities

Read 01/09/2020-27/09/2020

Rating 3 stars

Darran Anderson’s Imaginary Cities is a weighty tome that tries to pull together all manner of writing, thinking, visual representation and design theory on space and specifically on cities. It’s inspired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a book I haven’t read. It’s also that very rare thing – a book I don’t really know how to review. Even taking into account that I don’t really write standard reviews.

I like the cover of the book. It shows a street plan. The streets bear the names of architects who have influenced modern city living, alongside authors, philosophers, artists and film makers whose works (re)imagine the spaces we inhabit. It isn’t anywhere but it could be somewhere. It also hints at what’s inside the cover – avenues of thought that circle a central concept and branch off in different directions.

Invisible Cities has a strange structure – part academic text, complete with footnotes, part narrative history of Western thought on place, part paean to literary and cinematic science fiction. Its implicit definition of ‘imaginary’ ranges from the dreamed of and designed but unrealised to the interpretations layered on the actual and the fictional. It feels at times like the embodiment of a short attention span, flitting from topic to topic and spinning off on tangents. It contains much that is interesting but, apart from the wonderful section on futurology, for the most part chooses not to focus too deeply on anything, despite the detailed discussion of each idea. It’s the late night kitchen chat with the person at the party who has read enthusiastically on a variety of subjects. I liked it and felt intellectually stimulated by it, but I don’t know what to do with what it’s told me. As is inevitable with something that ranges far and wide and attempts a thematic structure to contain the rambling discourse, there is repetition where ideas cross themes. It gives a hint of the writer not being fully in control of his subject, overpowered by his enthusiasm for it.

The back of the book says that Imaginary Cities is a work of Creative Nonfiction, or CNF. It’s a genre that I’ve only recently learned has a name. CNF is defined by the editor of Creative Nonfiction Magazine as “true stories well told”, using literary techniques to present facts in a vivid and compelling way. To be honest, I’m not sure Imaginary Cities is CNF. It reads too much like an academic text with its citations and the organisation of the book into themed sections. The narrative flow that exists is drowned by the amount of information being shared. There are so many subjects covered that Anderson’s point is overwhelmed. Or maybe that is the point and I missed it.

The pages are littered with footnotes, some of which I felt should be endnotes as they only added citations and not commentary to the main text, others of which I thought would have helped the narrative flow if they’d been added to the body text. The peak of footnote pointlessness comes on page 379, when Anderson footnotes the text “In Electrical Experimenter May 1919″ with the reference “May 1919”. Even without the footnotes, the text is dense and the overload of information means that the gems of observation can be obscured. Those gems do exist, though. In the course of reading, I was inspired to buy a copy of a lost Jules Verne novel, reminded of how much I want to immerse myself in the world of Judge Dredd, encouraged to rewatch Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, drawn to read about the work of the Metabolists and Archigram, and provoked into thinking about how and why the city I work in has changed and is still changing.

Anderson starts with the premise that all truth is subjective. What we see around us is seen in the context of our eye – our physical eye and our way of looking at and thinking about the world. He works his way forward to the context of the eye being an all seeing, surveilling one, with cities built around invigilation of their inhabitants. He moves from Marco Polo’s fabulous tales to science fiction writers and film makers to show how we imagine cities. He talks about the way we are all unreliable narrators even to ourselves, because memory is partially fictional, rewritten by us to create a narrative around fragments of the real. Anderson favours the theory that cities, and the people who live in them, contain their own ruins and those ruins, when they survive, are the merest trace of what happened there.

Blank spaces, Anderson suggests, are things we have consciously filled in since cartography began and we realised there were vast swathes of the planet that we knew nothing about. Filling in the blanks is our way of taking ownership of spaces as narratives. Archaeologists, curators, historians, biographers all fill in the blanks in the ruins that survive the march of time and human activity. Architects attempt to fill in the blanks of what future cities might be. Coincidentally (or not?), once I curbed my desire to slavishly read every footnote, and stopped consuming Anderson’s desire to fill in the blanks for the reader, I found the body text flowed more freely.

Anderson makes lots of interesting points on many different subjects, from what cities have been and what they are to what they might become. He talks a lot about architecture and futuristic buildings that never got past the design stage. He is knowledgeable on science fiction imaginings of future cities as representative of contemporary social and political concerns, both in film and in literature. He shows how the future is already with us, as we dream up responses to the things we find limiting or wrong about our contemporary societies. Ultimately, there were far too many ideas for me to wrangle into a review. While cities are the hook for his essays, in the end, this book isn’t about cities so much as it’s about the nature of people and our desire to own places and ideas, and the way that desire leads the powerful to ‘other’ everyone else as conquests. There’s an undercurrent of politics, a criticism of the disruption of society by capitalism, a preference for ideologies of the left, tempered by a willingness to criticise these, too. Some of the opinions he committed to the page five years ago, when this book was first written, are startlingly prescient of the world we currently inhabit. With the benefit of hindsight, it feels as though Anderson somehow foresaw the creep towards totalitarianism even before the EU Referendum result, the election of the 45th US President, the manipulation of government by an unelected civil servant in the UK, and the opportunities opened up in 2020 by the Coronavirus pandemic to double down on anti-democratic controls under the guise of public health protections. Towards the end of the book, too, there’s an almost throwaway reference to Anderson’s hometown of Derry. Derry has been a divided city since it was besieged in the 17th century. It has two names, one imposed by the occupying nation of Great Britain, also in the 17th century. I can’t imagine what growing up there must have been like. It made me wonder whether this book and the rambling essays it contains was a means for Anderson to process growing up in the seat of what we in the UK (more specifically England) call ‘The Troubles’, with all the loaded meaning contained in that phrase, but was in reality a civil rights fight for religious freedom and national identity. His latest book, Inventory, which he speaks about in his article about Georges Perec that drew me to finally read Invisible Cities, sounds like a more crystalised attempt to understand Derry and how it shaped him.

Should you read Invisible Cities? It’s not a general interest book, but if you’re interested in science fiction, film studies, city planning, architectural and design history, and are the type of person who enjoys detailed examinations of these subjects, it’s worth a look.

4 thoughts on “Imaginary Cities

  1. This looks a challenging read, as indeed Invisible Cities was, but one that has too many stumbling blocks for me. SF? No thanks. Complex footnotes? No thanks. I think I’ll just be grateful that you’ve read it for me. Some of his political thoughts look interesting – in fact much of it seems interesting, but… it’s unlikely TBR by me!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was a challenging read, Margaret. I found it very tiring and almost gave up on it a couple of times. The footnotes really irritated the pedant in me! Inconsistent doesn’t even come close to how bad they are.

      I doubt I’ll read Invisible Cities. A friend bought me If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller and I didn’t get on with it. It put me off tangling with any more Calvino.

      Liked by 1 person

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