chapter  13
14 Pages

‘There are different ways of making the streets tell’: narrative, urban space and orientation: Inga Bryden

As a site, then, of narrative and culture, the city is ‘mobile … and monumental’ (Tew 2004: 90). Given this, literary critics such as Philip Tew have argued that the contemporary city is represented predominantly as ‘a world of multiple practical problems … fracturing or fractured relationships, and … inconsequentiality’ (Tew 2004: 111). If this is the case, it suggests that narrative itself is necessary in order to make sense of the fractures in the edifice, perhaps becoming the sole means of linkage between fragments, or parts of the whole. Tew’s assertion also raises the

question of the need for orientation: for the reader of the text, the inhabitant of urban space and the visitor to the city. The challenge to writers to wrestle the city into a narrative form is more, though, than a question of reproducing topography or architectural features. Characters, their histories and their movement define urban space, as Wilson highlights: ‘The men and women there are narratives … And in the end, after generations … the city itself begins to absorb narrative like a sponge, like paper absorbs ink … The citizenry cannot fail to write there’ (Wilson 1998: 215-16). At this stage it is useful to consider further the extent to which the city is a text to be written, read and travelled through, as this reflects back on the literary representation of urban space. Roland Barthes argues that in understanding the city we must move beyond seeing spaces in terms of specialisation of functions (for example, the street as a homogenised unit) and ‘decompose microstructures in the same way that we can isolate little fragments of phrases’. In this sense, ‘The city is a writing. He who moves about the city, e.g. the user of the city (what we all are), is a kind of reader, who, following … his movements, appropriates fragments … ’ Moving about a city gives the potential to ‘find a different poem by changing a single line’ (Barthes 1997: 170). In other words, narrative and the city offer potentiality; there are endless routes to take. As Peter Ackroyd has commented, the city ‘is a form of literature in which the streets are the lines of a book which can never be completed’ (Ackroyd 2001: 4). What form, though, might the ‘endless routes’ take and what is the significance of the street? Streets as a system, a feature exaggerated on most maps, are ‘the way maps become possible’ (Harbison 2000: 126). However, cultural geographers (as well as sociologists) have drawn attention to what are termed ‘desire paths’: the use of unofficial routes, rather than devotion to ‘cognitive mapping’ (a phrase borrowed by urban theorists from experimental psychology) as a means of orientation (Tonkiss 2000). In this sense desire paths could be seen more as narratives of/through a city (regardless of whether or not it has already been mapped in the cartographic sense), and an acknowledgement that it is possible to know the city by working out a pattern, any pattern. Architecture clearly has a role in the literary representation of landmarks (buildings which themselves appear in conventional maps of cities), whereby characters may orientate themselves around a city. However, cognitive mapping can also be understood as the process through which individuals orientate themselves in relation to society as a whole, as Fredric Jameson argues in Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991). This social dimension to locating oneself is significant in relation to the literary texts discussed here, since characters, their histories, and the histories of communities or neighbourhoods define urban space. Perhaps most important for my argument is the notion that desire paths can refer simply to movement in urban space: the city ‘houses a multitude of little spatial histories told by bodies moving within it’ (Tonkiss 2000: 2). The narratives trace these everyday movements,

which take place in relation to the built environment (interior and exterior spaces), though irrespective of whether routes have been mapped. Crucial, then, to this investigation of writers’ narration of urban space is the interaction between architectural forms and inhabitants; or, the extent to which one is prioritised representationally over another. I will now consider how urban space has been ‘codified’ by contemporary literary and cultural commentators (Lefebvre 1991: 269). Henri Lefebvre’s concept of codification is concerned with the spatialities of representation, and more specifically, with the inseparability of space and social relations. This connects with the understanding of desire paths as ‘spatial histories’ as mentioned above. The writers discussed here use a range of strategies to represent architecture and urban space, or make their streets ‘tell’: describing topographical and architectural features (exteriors); focusing on characters, their histories and movements through space; prioritising walking as an aspect of psychogeography; highlighting perspective, or spatial epistemologies; describing microcosms or the interiors of buildings, and emphasising materialities. It is the signifying space of the street itself which can be thought of as drawing these aspects of urban space together. The street is symbolic of collectivism – a communal space – whilst being made up of individual buildings and stories. It can also be expressed in terms of its materiality: the public space where detritus gathers

and objects can be found as evidence of everyday culture. Significantly, the urban or suburban street is also liminal – the space where people pass through – and as such, is the starting point of narratives. In this conceptualisation, materiality (exteriors of buildings; objects found) is the clue to the hidden lives of others. Furthermore, as Ross King summarises, ‘the street … promises freedom: anonymity, drifting, the cornucopia of displayed commodities, limitless contingency, boundless choice … ’ (King 2000: 97). Ultimately, streets or roads offer potential;2 they are ‘wishes or proposals for journeys and demand to be travelled over’ (Harbison 2000: 126). Writers can exploit ‘streetness’ to highlight the narrative potential of urban space, whilst simultaneously emphasising the link between identity and place, between the individual and the social. Interestingly, ‘streetness’ in this sense became a generic convention in literary representations of London after the Great Fire of 1666. Cynthia Wall points out that as houses were being rebuilt and lived in again, ‘the literature repeopled the streets, filling in those blank spaces’ and literary characters’ identities became increasingly constructed by place. Moreover, characters are ‘more determined to construct their own or others’ identities from place (or series of places)’ (Wall 1998: 115-16). The street as a locus for the urban encounter and the epiphanic moment (or revelation of character) is particularly in evidence in the contemporary urban short story. Indeed, numerous critics have observed that the city and the short story, as opposed to other narrative forms, are ‘apposite bookfellows’ (Crossan 2006: x). This is because successful short stories don’t aspire to completeness and admit that the insight they provide is fragmentary and momentary, echoing the acknowledgement by writers and urban commentators that a city is always a ‘work in progress’. Ian Reid (1977) draws an analogy specifically with architecture when he refers to the short story’s symmetry and unity of effect. Decapolis (2006), edited by Maria Crossan, is an anthology of stories from ten European cities. The aim of the anthology is not to provide direct entry for the reader into the streets of named cities, but rather to construct a series of ‘city-like experiences’ (Crossan 2006: ix). Nine of the stories are translated into English, which means that access to these imaginatively constructed cities is further compromised by language. Translatability seems curiously appropriate for the subject matter, though, if we acknowledge that ‘the architecture of the text that we encounter’ is removed to a degree (Crossan 2006: viii). There is a seeming incompatibility between the often spontaneous nature of the urban experience – for example, the element of chance – and the structured and crafted narratives which repeat such coincidences. Spaces and the people within them are not fixed, rather, suspended for the duration of each narrative. This concept is emphasised in the half-drawn outlines of maps of the countries where the cities are located, which are included at the start of each story. The ‘chance’ of city living, notably ‘the encounter’ with a stranger, occurs in many of the stories in Decapolis. In David Constantine’s ‘The Beginning’ (set in

Manchester), the adult narrator recalls his encounter with a girl, ‘M’, on the bus, and his first encounter with a dead body which is being pulled out of the river Irwell below. Later, waiting upstairs for the number 64 bus to depart from Victoria Bridge, he opens M’s gift of Wilfred Owen poems. The moment is crystallised via the narrator’s orientation of self in relation to landmarks – Telephone House, Exchange Station, the cathedral and the river Irwell – which can all be seen from his position, alone, in the space of the bus: ‘I believe all behind me was empty space’ (Constantine 2006: 5). From this perspective the narrator is able to watch the drowned man being hauled out of the river, whilst also watching the policemen on a platform fixed to the bridge watching the efforts of their colleagues below. Constantine uses perspective, through the placing of the narrator in relation to specific buildings and space at this point, to precipitate narrative. The narrator experiences a rush of ‘questions’ about his personal and family histories: the buildings were significant in his grandmother’s youth and, in the present, are the catalyst for him to ‘collect up’ his grandfather (who was blown to bits in the war) from his grandmother’s ‘bits of story’ (Constantine 2006: 9). As Robert Harbison points out, a writer can place particular buildings in a book ‘in order to provide the scaffolding of automatic organization’ (Harbison 2000: 74). Landmarks are also the means of orientation, structuring space and narrative, in the story ‘A Man of the Streets’ by Jacques Reda, which has resonances of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story ‘The Man of the Crowd’ (1840). However, in using the device of walking around buildings and through streets, Reda draws on the earlier psychogeographical tradition of navigating the city (Coverley 2006: 59-62). The paths of the businessman narrator and Georges Louis (an ‘indigent’ or beggar) – the daily, routine routes they take around Paris – intersect one day by chance. However, as the dynamic of the ‘relationship’ unfolds, based on an ‘intimacy’ of non-communication, the story highlights the different relation each man has to the streets of the city. Georges Louis could have found his way around the ‘labyrinth of streets’ with his eyes closed and has a strong awareness of the relative situation of landmarks. Driven by the dictates of his stomach everything is rendered of ‘more or less equal interest’. By contrast, the narrator feels ‘out of place’, only a ‘hypothetical being [like the others] … behind the silent stone and glass facades’ (Reda 2006: 16). Built structures are far more than urban ‘backdrop’, though, in the majority of stories in this anthology. A key concept defining Decapolis as a whole is that cities are in transition, and that buildings – their façades and interior spaces – can be read as evidence of the past living in the present. In ‘Something for Nothing’ by Larissa Boehning (Berlin) and ‘The First Day of the Fourth Week’ by Agust Borgbor Sverrisson (Reykjavik) it is the central characters’ explorations of disused factories – ordinary, abandoned buildings – which highlight the inevitability of change. After her father’s death, the narrator of ‘Something for Nothing’ gives his collection of cameras to Uli, the man in a nearby photo shop – ‘a confidant who’d just happened to come along’ (Boehning 2006: 104). Uli then takes the narrator

on a drive to a disused factory in East Berlin, and they walk around a room filled with workbenches, handling ‘the tools, metal, engine parts’ left in a jumble, as if abandoned in a moment after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Uli comments: ‘That’s how a state comes to an end … deserted by everyone … it happens so fast … It’s a nice image: the people simply leave everything behind’ (Boehning 2006: 105). Such an image reminds us that ‘the city’s very physicality never settles into a single version’ (Crossan 2006: xiii). In this narrative the writer has used a focus on the physical fabric of ordinary buildings and the objects within them to stress the dynamics of history and the mutability of the city. The connection between the individual and the wider social narrative is still retained via the narrator’s memory of seeing how everything had been left on her father’s workbench, as if he might come back, echoing the scene in the unpopulated factory. Bringing materiality to the fore to emphasise change is also strikingly evident in ‘The First Day of the Fourth Week’. Having lost his job, the narrator finds himself alone at home during daytime: detailed description of the domestic interior and workings of the townhouse magnifies his sense of disorientation due to his changed situation. What should be an architecture of familiarity is represented as teetering on the edge of destruction. This sense of alienation is replicated in the streets of the city when the narrator visits the deserted company buildings where he used to work and wanders his usual routes, but this time with no purpose. The city is similarly represented, as a place of constant reconstruction where the familiar can be rendered strange in an instant, in Emil Hakl’s narrative ‘The News and Views’. The narrator of this story walks through a familiar street in Prague, only to encounter a ‘brand-new’ yet ‘ordinary urban hill’ which has been formed from dirt from the pit dug up for a gigantic new Carrefour supermarket (Hakl 2006: 97, 96). Standing on the hill, the narrator muses that there is no reason to ‘get upset over some insignificant details’ or be disoriented by the daily routines of city living. It is precisely the (observed) detail, of architectural and topographical features, the minutiae of everyday life, and the marks left by people moving around urban space, that are significant in Iain Sinclair’s writing about/of London. A key strategy used by Sinclair, which allows intervention in the urban space, is the activity of walking. Indeed, walking through the streets of a city, a characteristic of psychogeography, is a prominent feature in urban literature. Seen as contrary to ‘swift circulation’, walking can cut across established routes and facilitate exploration of marginal or forgotten areas (neglected urban spaces such as the non-u-mental sites exploited by Gordon Matta-Clark, for instance).3 These areas could also be defined in terms of the mythic or mysterious dimension of the city, beneath or beyond the ‘everyday’, but revealed by and through the everyday. Such a concept might be seen as a reinterpretation of the Surrealists’ term ‘deambulation’, whereby ‘automatic writing in real space’ reveals the unconscious zones of the city (Careri 2002: 22). The structure of Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territory: Nine Excursions in the Secret History of London (1997) – the chapters or accounts of nine separate, yet related,

walks forming an interconnected, organic narrative – reinforces the notion that walking is the best way ‘to explore and exploit the city’ (Sinclair 1997: 4). This method of being in the streets is an antidote to adhering to authorised paths and the ‘gonzo’ notion of the city heritage trail (Sinclair 1997: 207). In other words, the desire path takes precedence over the conventional street map. Moreover, the writer, and his urban accomplice Marc Atkins, the photographer, have moved on from the concept of the flâneur (or stroller) to adopt the stalker as a role model: ‘the stalker is a stroller who sweats, a stroller who knows where he is going, but not why or how’ (Sinclair 1997: 75). This sense of uncertainty is mirrored in the text’s representation of walking through the different areas of the city: walking as narrative can be disorientating both geographically and culturally. Even when the narrator and his companion travel on a bus, the route taken seems illogical: ‘I can’t connect any of this with the elegant fiction of my map’ (Sinclair 1997: 44). Inseparable, then, from the business of orientating oneself around the built environment is perspective. Sinclair uses perspective, or narrative viewpoint, to endorse ways of knowing space other than ocularcentrism or lineation (the basis for gridding social space). Instead, the street-level gaze allows the writer to challenge the official representation of the city (Coverley 2006: 12) whilst offering the alternatives of mobile, inclusive, simultaneous and potential spaces (Dixon and Jones 2004: 90-1). Walking marks out territory and allows the ‘fiction of an underlying pattern’ to reveal itself (Sinclair 1997: 4). Indeed, what might be termed Sinclair’s ‘London Project’ – to restore the psychogeographical position of the city via literary texts, documentary studies and films – owes a debt to Alfred Watkins’ discussion of ley lines and the argument that ‘lines of force’ can be mapped between iconic buildings to reveal the latent relationship between institutions (Coverley 2006: 119). As Sinclair observes in Lights Out, ‘London, we were convinced, was mapped by cued lines of energy’ (Sinclair 1997: 85). Another way of formulating this is to say that built forms resemble the conscious mind, a network with a purpose; whereas ruins are the urban unconscious, the unknown or the city’s memory. Rebecca Solnit usefully compares these ‘unknown’ areas or objects to the terra incognita spaces on maps (Solnit 2006: 89). ‘Archetypal landscapes’ are combined, though, in Sinclair’s writing, ‘with the cumulative listing of objects’ (Tew 2004: 135). Walking is very much a material ‘aesthetic act’, whereby the writer is arguably ‘constructing an order on which to develop the architecture of situated objects’ (Careri 2002: 20). And it is the text of the streets which proves the most significant ‘object’: the urban space presents ‘a delirium of coded information, hot text … ’ which Sinclair collects (Sinclair 1997: 49). This ‘cumulative listing of objects’ creates a potential problem with the architecture of his books. As critics have asked, ‘can he create the structures to sustain his sentences?’ (Jeffries 2004: 20). In particular, graffiti becomes the ‘constant’ element – ‘part sign and part language’ (Sinclair 1997: 4) – marking the journeys

through streets. Graffiti brings with it an element of surprise – ‘words to hold your attention … breaking the monotony of … environment’ (Smith 2000: 87) – and, as Sinclair reminds us, ‘has a half-life far in excess of the buildings on which they have been painted’ (Jeffries 2004: 20). At the same time, the representation of graffiti in Lights Out, for example, draws attention to the textuality of the city and to narrative as a construction holding together the fragments of urban space. The notion that marks made, or traces unconsciously left, have resonance beyond the built architectural form is explored in Jon McGregor’s novel If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (2002). Indeed, the text could be read as an exemplification of Walter Benjamin’s notion of the buildings of a city as places where human subjects leave traces, so that the interior spaces of a row of houses, for example, are altered both materially and psychologically (Benjamin 1986: 155-6). If Nobody… is an invocation of the life of a city in an unnamed, rather rundown street. The lives of the unnamed inhabitants (who are known by the number of the house they occupy) intersect via narrative description of ordinary everyday activities. In other senses the lives are unconnected, until an accident in the street becomes a crystallising moment (and a structuring device of the narrative) whereby shared witnessing creates an encounter (without contact) which reverberates into the future and the past. As the first-person narrator recalls: ‘That’s the way I remember it, with this single weighted pause, the whole street frozen in a tableau of gaping mouths’ (McGregor 2002: 9). There is a link here with the stories in Decapolis (‘Beginning’ and ‘Something for Nothing’) which use the witnessing of the aftermath of a traumatic incident to give a momentary structure to the narrative and highlight the

desire for intimacy in the context of a city. The text is also similar to Lights Out in that the seemingly ordinary, everyday things are significant, or ‘remarkable’: detail is magnified. At the moment of the accident in the street the narrator sees ‘all these moments as though they were cast in stone, small moments captured and enlarged by the context’ (McGregor 2002: 8). Detailed description of a relatively small portion of urban space characterises the various strategies used by McGregor to represent the city ‘architecturally’. The textual strategies also underscore how different characters try to come to terms with the momentary ‘coming together’ in the street, and indeed with the apparent randomness of urban life. In this way the writer reveals the tension between an acknowledgement of transience – that built forms and the street are temporary habitations – and the desire to leave one’s mark permanently. One of McGregor’s strategies involves architecture directly, as a means of reflecting on the instability of the built environment. The young man who sits on his garden wall ‘outside number eleven’, for example, spends his time drawing a very detailed picture of the street, ‘trying to get the correct perspectives and elevations, trying to capture all of the architectural details’ (McGregor 2002: 58). He wonders what the people who first lived there would make of the houses now, ‘shunted into the poor part of the town, broken up into apartments’ (McGregor 2002: 59). The mark-making is an acknowledgement of the desire to connect one’s identity with place, in the way that graffiti can be read as an assertion of individual ownership and identification: we can all ‘divide London according to our own anthologies’ (Sinclair 1997: 142). A high proportion of the narrative of If Nobody… is focused on the details of interiors; the microcosmic spaces of the city. The first-person narrator articulates the desire to leave a permanent mark of human dwelling in buildings and urban spaces: ‘I wanted to leave a note for the next tenant, leave a trace of myself behind … to go back years later and find a plaque with my name on it screwed to the wall’ (McGregor 2002: 65). In a broader sense there is an interweaving of written text, narrative and the street: the words on sodden newspapers ‘glued to the wet street’ have the potential to ‘soak into the stone … yesterday’s stories imprinted like cave paintings, like a tattoo’ (McGregor 2002: 66). Another strategy McGregor uses, emphasising the materiality of urban space, is concerned with collecting objects from, and images of, the street. The boy from number eighteen is an ‘archaeologist of the present’ gathering ‘urban diamonds’ – in other words, collecting finds from the street (McGregor 2002: 153). He represents the need to ‘fix’ transience in the form of photographs, his polaroids capturing ‘the soap opera of the street corner marked out in [the] rain-faded initials and abbreviations’ of graffiti and layers of torn posters (McGregor 2002: 30). All the literary texts I have discussed depict the exterior and interior aspects of urban environments (neighbourhoods, streets, buildings, rooms) as sites of lived experiences and as places marked with visible traces of the passage of time, and of

bodies moving through them. We could assert that writers and architects are interested in the formation of an imagined literary/architectural space. Yet it is useful to consider this further and reflect on, as mentioned in the introduction, what links the writer of the city and the architect, in the realisation of the narrative/form. In Architecture as Metaphor Kojin Karatani defines architecture as the ‘will to construct’, a metaphor which he sees pervading thinking across disciplines, including literature and city planning. More significantly for this discussion is Arata Isozaki’s comment in the introduction that since 1968 architects have been left with a ‘loss of subject’ – the disappearance of the ‘grand narrative’ such as ‘architecture as construction’ (Karatani 1995: xii). I would suggest that both contemporary writers and architects are responding to this in their realisation of narrative and structure. The response takes the form of a resistance to meta-narrative, or to providing any overarching explanation of the city. Implicit in this is a sense of the mutable and fragmented nature of urban experience, and of the impossibility of representing a city as a unified whole. At the same time, narrative is the ‘bricks and mortar’ necessary to both guide the reader around the city and ensure a degree of rootedness in place. Sinclair alludes to this with the comment ‘the serial city is a manageable concept’ (Sinclair 1997: 44). It can be suggested that the texts focused on here are concerned with establishing some kind of relationship between the parts and the whole, between microcosmic and macrocosmic spaces. As Sophia Psarra discusses, conceptual ordering, spatial narrative and social narrative are fundamental to how buildings are shaped, used and perceived (Psarra 2009). For the writer and the architect, then, the relation of the individual self (part) to a communal identity (whole) is important. In ‘The End of Modernity, The End of the Project?’ Gianni Vattimo elaborates on this by arguing that writers and architects occupy an intermediary zone – between ‘enrootedness in a place – in a community – and an explicit consciousness of multiplicity’. This is the ‘new monumentality’, where self is recognised in shared values and in distinguishing ‘marks’ – that is, where one is. Interestingly, Vattimo draws attention in a broader sense to the ‘rhetoric’ of cities. If urban planning takes into account the cultural traditions of communities, its ‘rhetorical aspect’ means that the work of the contemporary architect is redefined (Vattimo 1997: 154). Rather than rely on architectural landmarks as a means of orientation, can we look to a narrative of ordinariness, to a series of what Michel de Certeau terms ‘rented spaces’ and the movement of individuals through those spaces (de Certeau 1984: 103)? In this sense mapping becomes a form of story-telling or narrative, rather than adherence to mapped routes or streets. Contemporary urban literature may articulate a ‘consciousness of the problematic of everyday life’, although this isn’t necessarily a negative position to take (Tew 2004: 111). Narratives of ordinariness can resist anonymity and inconsequentiality. Indeed, while McGregor, Sinclair and the writers of the stories in Decapolis represent familiar built environments, these may also be the context for ‘extraordinary’ encounters and realisations. The texts discussed here are all, in some way, concerned with what one might term the

‘heroics’ of the small; attempts to reclaim the importance of ‘small things’. Physical detail is prioritised and thus noticed, as is the use and adaptation of space within/ without a particular built form. Furthermore, the microcosmic is connected to the macrocosmic, and it is the connections (through movement, narrative and embodiment) that are ultimately seen to be crucial, rather than the overall masterplan or iconic structure.4