until I chanced upon a documentary which showed

a grown man lying on a floor covered with large sheets of paper, A2 sheets on which there were some very complex and detailed line drawings, page after page covered, and this narrow shouldered man in a white shirt stretched out in the middle of them, drawing away with pencil and rule, adding yet another detailed sheet to all those around him and I must have recognised the sort of drawings they were because I found myself sitting forward in the armchair, prodding the zapper in my hand to turn up the volume so that I could hear the voiceover tell me that this man — some French man whose name I can’t remember — suffered from a sort of high-level autism that left him socially inept and completely without any sense of humour or irony but who was nevertheless designing out of thin air the most complete and complex urban plan history had ever known, a project which had come to light when a few of the drawings were used to illustrate a Sunday Times Magazine article on autism, which brought him to the attention of an urban planner at London City Council who marvelled at the precise beauty of its streets and thoroughfares but who was a lot more intrigued by the sprawling harmony hinted at beyond the margins of the cropped fragments and so took himself off to France to investigate this gifted planner whom no one in the urban design community had ever heard of, finding him eventually in a little village in the Vosges where he lived with his partner, a mathematician and herself autistic, and who, after he’d spent a couple of days there, convinced the planner that he had encountered a fully fledged genius — a visionary who had not only a coherent sense of the vast megalopolis which, after fifteen years, was still metastasizing, day by day over pages and pages, an astonishing achievement in itself but more impressive from the point of view of a city planner was this man’s ability to hold in his mind’s eye a sense of the city as an enormous, dynamic organism which was continually morphing through the vast tides of those circadian rhythms that governed all its streets and infrastructure and which this seer outlined with sweeping gestures over the sheets of paper spread across the sitting-room floor, speaking in a toneless voice which swept through the city with a running commentary on how it was performing at any specific time of the day, how and where all its crowds and traffic were flowing and what routes they took to what points of convergence in the early morning rush hour, and what exactly the drain on utilities would be — how all its vertical and horizontal circuitry was functioning when water and electricity followed in the wake of crowds converging for work or entertainment in various parts and times of the city while disgorging a flow of sewage, hydrocarbons, and CO2 emissions from those same points, this savant holding in mind all the flows and shifts through the city’s streets and conduit, vast rhythms he could gauge to any hour of the day, any day of the week or any holiday, a phenomenal feat which had the urban planner at a loss to find some comparative image or simile — he talked about a 3D chess game and a multi-tiered symphony  of people and environment — all vivid and suggestive but each one falling some way short of the city’s majestic, multi-harmonic sprawl — while all the time speaking to camera the seer himself was down on the floor behind him with his pencil and square, adding yet another precinct to the city’s expanse — a working-class suburban enclave with housing grouped around schools and shopping facilities, parking and leisure amenities, the concrete substratum of a fully realised community — while the city now stood, after fifteen years’ solid work but with no end in sight, as by far the biggest and most complex urban plan ever conceived by man or committee and which I could not help thinking, as I sipped my beer and watched, would, if he stuck at it long enough, eclipse the whole fucking world, this map of a kingdom that existed nowhere on this earth but in his head, this masterpiece with its clueless overlord, a mad king who knew nothing of the real world but was nevertheless on such intimate terms with the infinite intricacies of his own mind that he needed nothing more than a rule and pencil to draw them forth and lay them on the paper, this city as a kind of neural maze, a cognitive map which would reach out, street by street, to cover the whole world and possibly for this reason or for some other I could not fathom, the programme filled me with a sour bloom of resentment the focus of which I could not clearly discern but which quickly had me feeling so foolish I was embarrassed to be alone with myself in the sitting room, feeling that someone invisible outside of myself was standing judge and jury over me, pointing a finger at me, saying

have you nothing better for doing at this time of night than getting pissed off at the television

– from Solar Bones (2016) by Mike McCormack

2 thoughts on “FictiCity

  1. John:
    you have been reading Solar Bones I see. It only was published because two readers from Jonathan Cape from whose list he had been dropped took him up in their new imprint. These days being published and being pushed is as you say a marketing endeavour. McCormack wasn’t that sort of product. In contrast to this you have Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney a young woman who has every possible angle covered. She’s 26, good looking, and she won a major debating competition as a student at Trinity College Dublin so she can be put to signings. The book has a bi-sexual heroine with an anti-capitalist attitude. There was a bidding war and of course it was reviewed in every major newspaper. She blocked it out in 3 weeks and may even have revised a line or two. Various awards have been given for it and to her. I read 45 pages and dipped in and out of the rest. It’s just very bad, a gushing, fatuous attempt to be sophisticated. She may have some talent but her instant fame will probably wreck it.

    Write, Sally, Write


  2. Thanks for the recommendation on this book, Michael — it’s fine. I didn’t read the front-flap synopsis with spoiler until I’d read maybe 50 pages: the reveal did shift my gears, and probably for the better. Maybe McCormack thought the All Soul’s Day setting was enough of a clue. The passage I quoted here struck me as portentious as I stumble my way toward some new trajectory. 3D chess, multitiered symphony — I’d think novel writing would be another apt comparison, another sort of mystic autistic engineering.


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