By Renee Gladman
Dorothy, a publishing project
Reviewed by Tom DeBeauchamp
Event Factory disintegrates a world. Not in the way the Death Star disintegrated Alderaan, but in the way a single point of view can split diplopically, a world of wholes can be revealed as atomic, the parts of its parts interchangeable. Unlike the shattering of a planet, Event Factory presents a world simultaneously exploded, particulate, and intact. The novel's narrator, an expert linguist and tourist, deplanes in Ravicka a stranger, and despite weeks or months of interpersonal disjunctions and a vague, nearly-lethal survival exercise, grows no more integrated. She remains other, and though she occupies Ravicka and is known to Ravickians, the world they engender is out of her reach. Its meanings are too fluid to grasp. Even as she waits for understanding, waits for something definitive to happen, the city-state grows and changes. Bookended by her arrival and her departure, Event Factory sketches this surreal, though strikingly terrestrial world, with the broad, smeared strokes of confusion and not-knowing, and the fine brush of sharp, physical detail.
Though versed in "the many dialects of the seven languages [she speaks]," the narrator's mastery of Ravic is largely academic. Ravic, for its part, though profoundly expressive and gestural, is incapable of acting as a vessel for the communications the narrator and her friends intend. Ravic, like everything else in Ravicka, exists only interstitially. Without it, there is no hope of communication, but with it, communication is at best ambiguous. For example:
I asked, "So where is the smoke coming from?" Honestly, there was no smoke. I meant "silence," but silence is not something that moves visibly from one place to another. You simply cannot use the word this way, even in Ravic. I was saying smoke and he knew I did not mean it, but whether he knew what I actually did mean was hard to say.
When Ulchi responds, "they tell us the smoke is coming from abroad. That eventually it will erase us," it's hard to decide whether or not he has caught her meaning, and if not, what specifically he might be trying to explain. Could he mean the thick, luminous yellow of the city's air? Or real smoke? Or a wave of immigration? Contextually, it's clear Ravicka is wrapped up in something more dangerous than smoke or pollution. If it is true that a revolutionary movement, or series of such movements, exists, it seems logical it would have something against which to move. Is that something the 'smoke' of Ulchi's usage? It's impossible to say. Though the word means something, and something specific, what that something—or what that assemblage of somethings—is is unknown. Like the narrator, the signifier 'smoke' is alone in the space between them, its meaning a matter of perspective.
Our readerly perspective on these separate, interfacing objects is surprisingly varied. Though any singular meanings are denied, the interpretations of each event are multiple, often contradictory, and quickly multiplying. Early on, for example, the narrator says:
I walked perpendicularly toward the falling sun. The direction you and I would call west, impossible to commit to here. I say "sun" though I know nothing about that source of light. Of course, it is the sun, but it lands completely different here, as if to light things from the inside. It illuminates more than it shines. Do not misunderstand me. I am not insinuating that there is anything extraterrestrial about this place. How could there be? How could we have flown here (as inexpensively as we had) if this place were not of the same world?
Far from a reassurance of our continued existence on Earth, the narrator's rationalizing asks more questions than it can answer, and these questions, like burning gas in a balloon, inflate the narrative space and expand its dimensions. We are simultaneously terrestrial and extraterrestrial, walking in the heat of the sun and the light of some other star.
As such, Gladman is able to give us both the meanings her narrator proposes and the meanings she ignores, those she asserts and those she denies. After being excommunicated from the colony of the Esaleyons—a group of ex-Ravickians living beneath the buildings of Old Ravicka—the narrator is surrounded in Ciut Centali, new Ravicka's central downtown plaza, by "four agents or flower vendors or future lovers with wire coming out their ears." They watch her until the air goes dark, their ear-wires glowing electronically. While it is unlikely that flower vendors and future lovers would stand so silently with such equipment for so long, it is likewise uncertain whether or not they are agents, and, if they are agents, what sort of agents they might be. Agents of what? The introduction of such a multitude of possibles only encourages the continued production of the same.
Not only does Gladman multiply possibilities by addition, she subtracts in a wildly generative way as well. When the narrator attempts to explain her experience with the agents in Ciut Centali, her escape, and her time with the city's other revolutionaries, she says, "I argued... that it was possible to tell a story without explicit details, that this was even the better approach. How else to get to what is hidden?" Though reminiscent of Ashbery's "The New Spirit"—"I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way"—it seems Gladman's narrator is implying a particular detail, a particular event, a particular needle in a particular, and exponentially reproducing, haystack. Where Ashbery abandons the general glut of details in favor of lack's simplicity, Gladman's narrator is leaving out a very specific injury. More importantly, even if there is no such injury, the process of leaving-out so specifically even a nonexistent entity engenders a specific field of absence. By breaking the world of Ravicka, the world of Event Factory, into told and untold, existent and non-existent, Gladman cultivates new and more fertile terrain in the interstices and overlaps. Before re-arriving to her hotel, before arguing the unimportance of explicit details, the narrator says:
[To say] that I have not been on my own for very long... would mean that I have been following a linear path. That the event of sleeping on the grass led to my waking on the bench, and the disconsolation of waking on the bench, in a serenely decimated city, led to Ulchi and his making of the map. This linearity could form only if there had been no events in between. I am saying that things happened that have not been reported...
Whether or not, "the event of sleeping on the grass,"—a scene of loveless, mechanical sex—is the absent injury, it nevertheless forms the tonal fulcrum of the book. Prior to it, the narrator is a happy tourist, attempting relationships across the chasm of the Ravic tongue's gymnastic physicality. She visits buildings and talks to people, using the language, if somewhat imperfectly, as a tool. Afterwards, all such differences are conflated. People are buildings to be excavated or evacuated. People are parts of speech. She says, "The hotel became a sentence I struggled to complete. My friends there, adverbs. In Ravic, however, there are no adverbs." She becomes solitary, and her friendships dissolve.
It would be linearizing to blame her turning-away on the single event of uncomfortable sex. It would likewise be ignoring the reciprocal prehending of events by events not to pay attention to the night on the grass as significant. Certainly, it's true that the narrator has left things unrecounted—some of them banal things, some of them dangerous or angry things, some of them involving butterflies perhaps. It is likewise true, however, that even the unknown and avoided events are engaged in the process of prehension. All of the events, actual and possible, construct one another. In this way, "the event of sleeping on the grass" is more than just the sex act. It remembers the narrator's excommunication, when she "said, 'at some point I knew we'd have to leave here.' And they breathed and beat back, 'The violence of your premise.'" It predicts the disunities and ruptures to come even if it and they are nonexistent or even just unexplained:
A hand entered me as I lay on my back. It did not stay long. A hand entered me again. The third time, it was not the whole hand but four fingers. Perhaps three. The three came back and with them, a body. I let loose a sound and pressed my head against a shoulder. As the fingers left me and the body disappeared, I lowered my head to the ground. I inhaled, and a hand entered me. Then I made a sound. Somebody shouted, 'Look at what I'm writing,' but the voice came from far off. I inhaled again, expecting a fist. A fist entered me. My uterus rose and my mouth expanded. I did not breathe. The fist lingered there; my muscles clutched it.
The individual objects of her body, and the body of her lover (or aggressor, or lovers, or aggressors) attains a kind of ontological independence shared by all of Ravicka. The sound she lets loose is of a kind with her lover's hand and the ground. Somebody's shout is likewise disembodied, another of the world's endlessly disintegrable parts, simultaneously connected and distinct.
By exposing these parts only in uncertain light, Gladman creates a narrative space of real depth, populated by the widest array of possibles. She presents an image of unity, and in fracturing, increases it, and deepens it. The reverberations of the told details with the untold, the facts and their refutations, the limited knowns and the unending proliferation of unknowns give the novel an harmonic effect. It is a book of imagined polyphonies, as Boulez might have called them. With Event Factory, Gladman gives us an uncertain, echoing shape, built from materials we co-create, on the skeleton of what we're told.