I spent the early spring days of the pandemic phone-zapping landlords and the mayor and city council and sitting on my balcony, quarantined amid the foliage and windless white air of Houston’s Museum District, reading Renee Gladman — the Poet of Architecture, to repurpose an allusion from her novel The Ravickians (2011), but also the bard of crisis. There seem to be two views of Gladman. In one view, her dreamy, atmospheric fictions slant our present into askance allegories — many are set in the despairing, disoriented, yellow-aired city-state named Ravicka. Ravicka’s crisis, this view maintains, is ours. The loneliness of its streets, the confusion of its inhabitants, the alterations in its climate, the brokenness of its public, the drift of its geography and occult vanishing or transformation of its architecture: these cast an obscure light on our environmental predicament, the gentrification and atomizing enclosures of our cities, and the relentless imposing of identities on all of us who’d rather invent new ways of relating to one another.
The other view shies away from talk of allegory, or sees it as a secondary feature. In this view, Gladman is more fantasist than estranging analyst. The quality of her dreaming, its interior abstraction, is exquisite. Its wonder lies in how closed its shutters are to any mundane world, how far back the lanes and alleyways of its imagining recede from the proper nouns and pedestrianisms of our lives.
Swept together from reviews, blurbs, and the occasional interview, the two views represent hints and emphases more than fully sketched arguments. Their use, if they have use, is less to bring out contrasting stances in criticism than to bring out contrasting features in Gladman’s writing. For Gladman herself, in interviews and afterwords, wavers between the two views, or sidles them against each other: as she writes in the afterword to Houses of Ravicka (2017), writing can feel like discovering “a new, secret world of objects” at the same time as it is, “on a profound level, a level on which one survives the atrocities of the political and social present, a way for me to put a pin in the map as to where I am in the world.” Which suggests a crude question: Why, in fictions that put a pin in the map of the political present, should the connection between fiction and our present appear so oblique, so abstract, so disguised as to be at risk of vanishing?