Dawn Raffel

(Sagging Meniscus, £16.99)


As much a poetic as a literary experience, Dawn Raffel’s sixth book is partially a homage to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities on the 50th anniversary of its publication. Its first half shelters under the umbrella title of “The City towards Which my Journey Trends” – a Calvino quote – and is a fragmentary travelogue of imaginary cities.

One of these is crowded with pillars of salt, Lot’s Wife taking pride of place amongst people who couldn’t resist looking where they shouldn’t. In another, a population flees its home to escape a flood, future generations returning to live there and even learning to breathe underwater. In the city of Serena, old women must wear masks at all times, by law. And there’s the City of Exits, which everyone has left.

They range from brief sketches of a few paragraphs to vignettes lasting a couple of pages. The one exception is “The Art of Living in Advance”, a full-blown short story concerning a woman who is preoccupied with finding out who the female character in her partner’s latest work of fiction is based on, which shows how successfully Raffel’s lyrical, allusive style adapts to a more realist form.

The book so far is laced with magical realism, but also touches of wit and irony which lighten the weighty baggage of tackling a homage to the venerable Calvino. Some of these vignettes are just puzzling and inscrutable, but themes emerge, such as the medical establishment’s hold over women’s bodies and men’s ambitions to channel their desires, which will resurface later.

The second half mimics the format of the first, only as short chapters of a novella rather than stand-alone pieces. It’s set on the afternoon of 7 July 1933 in Chicago, where Century of Progress, otherwise known as the World’s Fair, is being held. That day, in a show of strength by Mussolini, 24 Italian seaplanes are scheduled to land in formation after an epic 7000-mile journey from Rome, led by the commander of the Italian air force. The armada is late. Crowds are left hanging around the various pavilions on the shore of Lake Michigan waiting for them to show up. Many, like Rufus Cutler Dawes, president of Century of Progress, are based on real people, others are imaginary.

There’s pianist and salesman Toby Weber, who is waiting for his girlfriend Dessie so that they can elope, but slowly realises she isn’t going to turn up. Louise the Bird Girl from a freak show, a pickpocket and his victims, a nervous cop. Some teenagers, who have realised that if they slip out the back of the pavilion full of babies in incubators they can see the Streets of Paris strip show for free.

“Americans would let these babies die. They are ‘weaklings’ in a country where being strong is everything,” their French nurse reflects, as if we hadn’t already been alerted to the dark shadows of this bright afternoon by the characters’ Depression-induced desperation, their memories of the war and fears of the future, the eugenics lectures taking place in one of the exhibition halls and the rigid social rules that leave the young with only a lifetime of conformity to look forward to.

Given that it allows for limited development or resolution, I was unsure of “Boundless as the Sky” at first. But on a second reading (it’s a short book) the impressionistic glimpses of its characters swim into sharper focus, and we can see how the beguiling otherworldliness of the “City” section subtly persists throughout the second half, bringing out a rare poise and lyricism.