Simeon Marsalis recommends Renee Gladman’s Houses of Ravicka (Dorothy, a publishing project, 2017)

“Seeing my coordinate for the first time and knowing it was my coordinate was like being in two separate novels – at the beginning of one, at the end of the other- and having those two novels write toward one another but as if with an obstacle between them, such as a massive eruption in the landscape that you must walk around in order to progress, and it’ll take decades to do this.” - Renee Gladman, Houses of Ravicka

The third novel in Renee Gladman’s “Ravicka” series opens with a simple, absurd proposition. A city comptroller named Jakobi is looking for a building with two different addresses: 32 in Cit Mohaly and 96 in the Skülburg. Neither of the buildings is where they are supposed to be. As Jakobi searches the city for the addresses with the aid of his friend Triti’s compass, he discovers the buildings do exist, the narrator inhabits both of them, though they are moving. This was a strange tale, I knew, but the greater mystery (to me) was how easily divisible 96 was by 32 (3). This paradox seemed to be at the heart of Gladman’s work. What difference does it make that you understand the relationship between two integers when they represent ephemeral coordinates? 

Houses of Ravicka is a “writer’s novel,” in that the elements of fiction become easy surrogates for the writing process. Gladman indulges in this metaphor near the end of her work when Jakobi declares, “Time was a machination of the earth turning and the buildings of Ravicka trying to do something that no other country was reported to have done; the city was a novel in progress. And everyone knew this. We spoke jokingly of ourselves as “Novelians”…” Two years ago, during my first reading I had loved to imagine myself as one of Gladman’s characters, but the Covid-19 pandemic had upset this fantasy. It felt inhumane to see the world as a surrogate for a novel-in-progress. I was fearful that our (the protagonist’s/ reader’s/writer’s) dislocation was not a natural response to life, but a condition formed by subconscious and clandestine authorities.

In the metropolis where I live (no. 96) New York, New York – I had just said goodbye to a friend I had known for four years who was moving out of the city after living inside of it for ten. I spoke about how strange it had felt to eat in gentrified neighborhoods further east with white people-from-elsewhere (which he seemed to be) – how paradoxical it felt to march the streets against police brutality with white people-from-elsewhere (for whom the abusive policies in this city have existed.) Many of them are moving back to the suburbs now (where they were from or where they would settle) and my friend was not sure if he wouldn’t join them. Basharac, I thought, which is a joke you may understand if you read Gladman’s book.

In the suburb where I’m from (no. 32) New Rochelle, New York – a white police officer named Alec McKenna killed a black man named Kamal Flowers. This occurred two days after 2,000 people amassed in front of City Hall to peacefully protest the national legacy of police killing black people. Some of us continue to hope the family will find justice and others think they know better. The cop has not been charged with a crime and he is still on the force, but there are billions of dollars-worth of new housing development projects in progress near downtown. The “revitalization” began when the city agreed to remove the incomplete highway that had severed the black community years prior. 

Simeon Marsalis was born in 1990 and graduated from the University of Vermont in 2013. He has lived in New York, New Hampshire, and New Orleans. As Lie Is to Grin is his first book.