If Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is an act of translation, then Dominic Pettman’s self-styled “phanto-cartographic” missive, In Divisible Cities (published 2013 by dead letter office), is a translation of a translation. Not of locales into words, but of impulses into figures. Where one plies intellect as world-building, a process wherein repetition is the consensus of quotidian life, the other delineates mappings that are themselves generative. Calvino says, “Desires are already memories.” Pettman says, “Memory is already an act of desire.” Pettman’s book is therefore more of a responsory, his words a string of choruses to the soloists of altered images. The latter, courtesy of visual artist Merritt Symes, bypass illusory stillness in favor of a dialogue that moves with every page-flip. Like the list of cities that opens the text in flying V formation, they embody a migration of fixity.
Pettman proceeds diaristically, if not diacritically, through recollections and impressions, savvily reworking experience into expression. Overseeing all of this, as much as tearing it to shreds, is a nameless “she,” whose steps dislodge the virgin spring of ink for maps skin-written along the way. As much thumbprints as footprints, “her” traces dig reliquaries of travel to be filled with souvenirs of perception. They are engaged in what the author calls a “mutual stalking,” a cartoonish tangle of limbs from and into which flows the shared singularity of their comportment.
It’s never enough, he seems to say, to transgress one’s home toward attaining another. One must be prepared to unscramble the very notion of maturation in order to appreciate the encryptions of the childlike, to see the self as actor in want of scripts and foreseeable locales on continents of broken machinery.
The fatigue of modern life, then, is not in the everyday but in the unrelenting stock-taking of the everyday. As Pettman notes in a flash essay entitled “Material Girls,” our desire for any commodity is proportional to its evanescence. “To barely be there: the ultimate fashion statement,” he writes, piecing together some of “her” shreds into portraits as ephemeral as their subjects. In the wake of this observation, it’s difficult to abide by the rationale of collective ennui—no longer the fear of death but of living that stuffs far too many of us into the vegetable drawers of this refrigerator we call society, forgotten until the smell alerts higher-ups to their crimes.
As “ontological origami,” cities crease their inhabitants until they begin to interlock, so that if one falls the others will feel it. This explains Pettman’s need to communicate with everyone, even when it means talking to no one. The absence of human contact is its own form of construction, being an attempt to fill space with that which has never occurred. In this sense, empathy, collaboration, and sex are all mappings in disguise.
Wrapped in the blanket of such narrative anthropology, the reader may wonder how order can have survived so long in the hovels of mammalian intellect. One possible answer lies in the ambiguity not only of geography but also orthography. Presence of, and allegiance to, the almighty scrawl carries those same scents which, in finding their way inside this planet’s nasal passages, have provoked some of the most brilliant sneezes in history.
But Pettman’s is, below all, a speculative geography. His interest is in the preemptive, as if places somehow yielded their addresses instead of bearing them as retroactive badges. Because some places are too obvious, while others barely leave their pieces in you. Because disappearance is the most difficult project of the imagination. Because the only way to complete a journey is to leave its destination behind.
In the complex of these emotional keytones, it’s all we can do to matter. For while earthly engines may run on fuels as yet unspoken, their implosion is so clear it hurts like a staring contest with the sun. At least we can be sure of one thing: Love has blasted its trumpets through every city more than any other music, and if we listen hard enough, we just might recognize a tune.
(Click here to experience the digital version of In Divisible Cities.)