In 2013 and 2014, when I was working at a title insurance company with little sense of purpose, freaking out about the world work, I started an underground “academic journal” as a place to analyze our workplace conditions, deal with the trauma and futility of being stuck in a dead-end job, and makes some jokes to reassert our humanity.
Early on in the run, we our first “Fiction Issue,” in which I began published a serialized story called Invisible Plots. To understand it, you have to understand a few things:
First, the basic format of Italo Calivno’s Invisible Cities, which this parodies (read the Wikipedia page here or the whole book here) with Michael Bloomberg in the role of Kublai Khan and a surveyor who happened to show up on a huge number of our plot descriptions, Donal O’Buckley, in the role of Marco Polo.
Second, the language of real estate surveys, which is very dry and tends to include a few certain phrases frequently repeated.
Third, the weird instinct I have to create parodies that don’t really have much of a point, the sort of nonsense voice that I like for some reason, but is never publishable.
Anyway, here’s all I wrote of the story, which was published in three installments:
Michael Bloomberg doesn’t necessarily believe everything Donal O’Buckley tells him when he describes the lots he surveyed on his expeditions, but the emperor of New York listens to the young Irishman with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other surveyor or abstractor of his. There is a sense of emptiness that comes over him at the end of his term, after all the elections, the appointments, the mass arrests. His armies will be disbanded; the tide is coming in. Slowly he realizes how illusory his command of the city was; he could take but could not hold it. He is left only with those lands to which he himself holds title.
Bloomberg, from his palace in Manhattan, holds more property than he cares to walk. But that is not why he sends O’Buckley. As the night grows later, he stares off into the glowing red sky over New York County and wonders whether, if he could visit these plots, he could ever see what Donal surveys.
PLOTS & BUILDINGS 1
The survey of Tuckahoe, the marble plot, shows a three story stone and masonry building with two-story and one-story sections; a two story stone and masonry building with one-story and three-story sections; a one story stone and masonry building with two-story and three-story sections; a three-, two-, and one- story stone and masonry building; a stone building, with stories from one to three, and sections made of masonry; a masonry building, between three and one stories in height, with sections made of stone; and a building of stonemasonry reaching up to three stories in the air.
How many buildings are in Tuckahoe? How many sections? It is impossible to say. We can only count the stones. But when we stare into the marble, we see that here the stone runs one color – here another; here the dark strain branches right, or the light strain branches left; here the stone is gray, here grey; is this stone one stone? Is the strain one strain?
We cannot describe Tuckahoe. Stone is not words. Stone is stone
PLOTS AND BOUNDARIES 1
Upon following the courses and distances describing the boundaries of Inversia, we find ourselves at the point or place of beginning, and realize that the boundaries describe two plots; the land outside of Inversia, and the land inside of it? But which, then, is the inside, and which is the outside? And in which plot is the owner truly free?
PLOTS & TIME 1
The title to the plot of Sarayburnu excepts therefrom a certain parcel of land, described in a certain way; but from that description is excepted another parcel of land, and from that parcel, a parcel is excepted. From that excepted parcel, a small parcel of land is excepted from exception, except for a parcel which is excepted therefrom, with the exception of a parcel, described by a document which excepts from its own description a parcel described by another description excepting therefrom another parcel.
The property, in its entirety, describes a two family dwelling; each family claims to hold rights to all the land, though each fears its claim, if read, will reveal it to own nothing. The fears are secret; though each knows the other’s secret, it is afraid to reveal it, afraid to reveal its own secret.
Both families have attempted to claim the land by right of adverse possession, but neither has succeeded. Every nine years and 364 days, they chase each other from their properties, and switch houses.
The truth is neither has defensible title; the names on the deeds are not theirs. But the owner can never evict them; they can always retreat deeper and deeper into the exceptions, without losing space; for each excepts all of the parcel.
PLOTS & BUILDINGS 2
Refelexia, the mirror plot, has many appearances. A survey from the east shows a two-story brick house; a survey from the west shows only trees and a lake; a survey from the north shows a vast field with a barn; a survey from the south shows a gravel road.
It first seems obvious to you what the trick of Reflexia is; it shows itself to be the same land on which you stand. But with this knowledge comes a weakness; knowing this, can you dare to approach? What will you find when you are inside?
When Donal O’Buckley first came to tell Bloomberg of his territories, the Mayor inhabited a wide range of land. He would have O’Buckley meet him at one office or another, ride with him in his limousine, fly with him in his helicopter. Donal’s descriptions would help him understand the land he saw, and the land he saw would help him understand Donal’s description.
Then Bloomberg held their meetings at his home. He would pace around the room as the surveyor talked, here placing a brick building, there a masonry wall. Thus this room began to contain all his holdings; it was just a matter of walking the right way, hearing the right words, finding the right distance from the lamp.
Now, after the election, Michael doesn’t move at all. He never explains himself, but the surveyor under- stands anyway. Bloomberg has made his mind a map, and thus it has become something O’Buckley knows how to read. The Mayor, his empire in recession, has only one way to continue expanding; if he makes the world around him smaller, more and more iterations of this world will be found in his holdings. He can make the map larger by increasing the scale.
Donal will not say what they both know: that to manipulate the map is nothing. That to manipulate the map is all that we can do.
PLOTS & BOUNDARIES 2
A survey of the plot of Regularia shows no exceptions, variations, and encroachments. The fences run exactly along the property lines, and no object interrupts them.
But what the survey does not reveal is a deeper, more essential encroachment; that of the description of the property on the property itself. All other lots manage to live outside their descriptions, to carve out their own existence. only Regularia is bound to its map.
PLOTS & TIME 2
A visitor to the plot of Markovgrod can, after walking a few paces, see all there is to see. A brick house, a macadam driveway, a metal fence on a six inch concrete curb. Trees near the northerly property line. Wires overhead.
It is only the owners, the neighbors, people who know the plot, who cannot survey it. The plot has a history, auspicious or terrifying. They know what it once was. They cannot see it through the afterimage.
I cannot tell you the history of Markovgrod; I did not learn it, for fear that, I, too would be unable to survey the plot. Already, knowing that there is a history causes the image to blur, to distort, to shift. All we can do is keep the former Markovgrod cloudy, ethereal. We can see through a misty lens more easily than through a stained glass window.
MASSLESS PLOTS 1
Journeying between mansions, parking lots, warehouses, homes, shops, pools, farms, and condominiums, the surveyor catches glimpses of new plots not elsewhere defined. These are plots that can only be possessed in movement, the spaces that come to be defined only when people are seeking to occupy other spaces.
We slow down to survey them, and they disappear. But it is not that they do not exist. Their existence is of a different state, one harder to achieve. Freedom, privacy, security, possibility: anything a static plot can give some measure of, these massless plots have in purer form. But who among us can possess them?
PLOTS & BUILDINGS 3
The deed to the plot of Shellal gives the owner the rights to the land, and to all the buildings and improvements thereon erected, but all that stands on the property is a giant square stone in the dead center. It was not built - it is only one piece of what already existed. It is not an improvement - it makes the land less arable, it impedes progress. And it is not the land itself - it sits on packed red clay, and came from elsewhere.
But while the stone does not improve the land, it cannot itself be improved upon. Any modification would destroy its simplicity, its integrity. It is a form, both modest and proud, that no flighty organism, no frivolous mechanism, no utilitarian structure, no ostentatious art, no lifeless diamond, could ever rival. even to alter its context would reduce it, would taint its appearance with a wheedling attempt to present a calculated image, to suggest some illusionary truth.
Thus the owner of Shellal owns nothing, and the deed to the property has no purpose.
It is only then, after declining all your options for ownership, that you can truly possess this land. The owner of such a property is the one truly in allignment with what it should be, with its greater purpose. The owner does not believe that it can be owned.
BLOOMBERG: “Your surveys describe nothing. The abstract shape of a place, the objects within it, are not what gives a plot its value. It is the location of the plot that determines what it is worth. So to survey these plots, you must survey what is outside them.”
O’BUCKLEY: “If I were to survey what was outside the plots, what then would be the location that which was outside them? If value comes only from location, then nothing can ever have any value. For whatever territory a territory is located can itself contain no value if not for its location, and there is always at every level the question of greater location.”
BLOOMBERG: “Then we must choose a point of origin, which itself has value. And from this point, value will flow to subsequent locations. And every survey must start at this point of origin.”
O’BUCKLEY: “If this point of origin is the source of value, why survey outward from it? For there is always more value inside. And that is what I would survey.”
BLOOMBERG: “But that survey would describe nothing as well. For the point is only its point because it is at the center of value; and we cannot see that it is the center without looking to the outside.”
O’BUCKLEY: “Every object is valueless without location; every location is valueless without objects. Where, then, does value emerge?”
BLOOMBERG: “I pay you to answer my questions, not to ask your own.”
O’BUCKLEY: “You pay me to give you the shape of the world. My days of surveying have taught me that the world contains more questions than answers. And while many answers are lies, questions are never wrong.”
PLOTS & ENTANGLEMENT 1
Walking the hills of Atlasia, you move along the path to the subway in the Bronx where you once helped a girl you half-loved with a project for the class she was teaching, and you descend toward the shore of Maputo where you and a friend walked to find a fish market that turned out to be tiny, half-abandoned, and back up to somewhere, someplace, maybe in Africa, maybe in Central America, where you and a friend or maybe your brother explored huts with graffiti and thatched roofs, up to the hills of San Francisco where your grandmother once had a house, and along a flat path to the top of some landform where once as a child you disembarked from a rented SUV, maybe somewhere in New Mexico, and felt empathetic pain where your father scraped his knee. With each step, you’re less sure where you are and how far you traveled, or what place is where or what Atlasia is.
Atlasia itself is in plots such as these, but not in the same places it contains. It is somewhere else, connected to a sandy yard in Algeria, where a woman used to play with her sister when she was a child, near a tree grove in Ireland where we skipped rocks over the river in India where I buried my father. These people have never been to Atlasia, but they would recognize it as the place they imagined, the place they were as they walked these other places.
PLOTS & UNCERTAINTY 1
Stepping onto the plot of Zuristan, you begin to feel a great anxiety. Two possible plots begin to appear. They are not the cause for your anxiety; either one would be a fine home. But not knowing which one you are in, you don’t know if you’re entering a basement or wading into an inground pool; you don’t know if you’re lying on a drainage grate, or setting your food down on a bed. And the features of these plots are vague; you know only that they are different, vastly different, but not what shape exactly these differences take.
But an old surveyor, undaunted, gets to work, and puts these uncertainties out of his mind. Bit by bit, the details are resolved; the distances are precise to the hundredth of a foot, the angles to the arcsecond. The encroachments, variations, and exceptions are all located exactly. And the plot of Zuristan is thus destroyed. A solid, ordered plot stands in its place.
It is only then that you long for Zuristan, and wonder if there were a way to survey the other plot that once appeared.
PLOTS & BUILDINGS 4
The workers who are constantly constructing the dwellings on the plot of Kuhreihburg have simple instructions: they are given blueprints of the ruins that resulted from the last construction attempt, and told to design the building that will not result in those ruins. They always succeed at their task, but, concentrating on the mistakes, they manage to ruin the building once again, albeit in a different way.
Most of the workers think the blueprints are worthless, that they have no meaning. How can you build just by not building? But the oldest and wisest among them know better. They are building something very specific. The blueprints of one set of ruins, in negative, is the blueprint for the next set of ruins.
But they have yet to discern the architect’s plan, the purpose of all these ruins. That there are some people who can never see things for what they are except in retrospect, who project upon the lost a glory that never was. It is for these people that the work is built.