On the title page of Dawn Raffel’s newly released “Boundless as the Sky,” the book gets categorized as “Fables & Tales. Some of Them True.” This blurring of genre lines creates an immediate challenge to the reader, who also might not know, as is explained in the press kit and on the back jacket, that the first part is a feminist response to Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities.” Or might not know “Invisible Cities” at all. So right away, there’s work to be done; some untangling, for sure.
Part I. It’s subtitled “The City Toward Which My Journey Tends,” a riff off the Calvino line that serves as epigraph. Twenty-eight chapters, some very short, others sub-divided into numbered parts, several that consist of a single word defined. This section is an entity unto itself, with only tangential relationship to the second part. This series of vignettes all use a city—ancient, mythical, futuristic, and real—to ruminate on much larger cultural and human issues. As Raffel hints, women often, though not nearly always, play central roles. These city settings exist as suns peeking out from clouds. We see the irrational, absurd, and cruel ideas that govern these cultures (and nearly always devalue and oppress women and sometimes the elderly). We begin to see, or think we see, ahead to a transformation. But maybe not. This “feminist response” lacks consistency, as in the vignette, “The Big Book of Elephants,” in which the elephant keeper’s deep absorption in a book keeps him (or her) from his (or her) appointed duty to watch over the very subject of the reading at hand. Ironically, the keeper eats peanuts (an elephant’s favorite treat), the discarded shells mounding below him as he grows old, his wife leaves him, the elephants all vanish, the city changes names, etc. It’s a nicely-rendered, lyrical piece—no doubt in the category of fable; it’s just not clearly an enhancement of anything larger than itself.
Almost all of the first-part pieces are worthwhile, though a foreboding narrative voice compels the reader to hunker into a seriousness that is not always required. Even when the vignette is a setup for a punchline, like in “The Balloonist,” the joke inspires a search for profundity rather than the laugh it deserves. The true gem in this first part is “The Art of Living in Advance,” the longest piece with the most complete narrative arc. The story, at times funny and pathetic and insightful, masterfully blends genres and experimental techniques while adhering to the tenants of a doomed love story.
Where Part I most obviously connects to Part II is in the story “The Second City (1933-34),” which lays the foundation for a novella that takes place on a single day during the Chicago’s World Fair called The Century of Progress. This is another fine vignette, and, like “The Art of Living in Advance,” more of a standalone quality. In it, we gain access to characters and setting important to the plot of “Boundless as the Sky” and find our way inside the emotional ripples that emanate—here, especially, but always—from history.
So: Part II.
The novella, from which the entire book takes its title, begins with a Chicago Tribune news item dated Saturday, July 15, 1933. It sets the scene whereby Italian General Italo Balbo and his armada will descend upon the fair to complete a 7,000-mile journey from Rome. It is a highly anticipated occasion. “Streamers and Signs,” up next, perfectly establishes the tone and mood, literally beginning with a “Shhh” as the early morning, pre-fair atmosphere rustles itself into what promises to be a frenzy. We sweep through many chief characters, mostly drawn from history; an assortment of fairgoers that will populate, along with others, the interconnected plotlines. From myriad perspectives, we get inside this spectacle at ground level: the cops, pickpockets, freak-show performers, star-crossed lovers, the fair bigwigs, even ticket takers. Tension builds as the day (and the novella) progresses, as the armada nears its landing site. What’s at stake differs for each character, but though they’re part of an enormous crowd, their connection to each other, in place and in time, instills a sense of humanity. Their individual histories and the collective history will forever be altered, and this moment, whatever it winds up being, will impact the present and the future. Unlike the first part, each piece in this section builds and expands the larger narrative arc, each piece sensually laid on top of the other, the action and pace expanding, each character and story amplifying each other.
The story “Something Must Be Done” demonstrates the real brilliance of this novella. It works on its own as a tiny story about an exhibit in which hundreds of babies survive on incubators. As revealed in the postscript, this story is based on a real historical figure and a real movement to use available medical science and technology to save prematurely born babies. The exhibit enlightens fair goers to the possibilities—the immense possibilities—inherent in human development, at the same time that many men use the exhibit as cheap entrée into the adjacent burlesque show. This idea that our instincts and our will often veer off their noble courses is one of many provocative tropes found throughout the novella. In this piece and others, we do feel a certain resonance with the first section, but the reader must work hard to make these connections.
As a whole, it seems like the making of this book was as much a publishing as artistic consideration—x number of pages equals “book-length,” so let’s get to that number. The material—call it what you will—in no way disappoints (it’s all high quality, first and second part, alike). The presentation does. The first part contains nice pieces, just not satisfying as a whole, or connected to the novella. Even the illustrations seem more integral in the second part. “Boundless as the Sky,” the novella, not the book, is the real artistic achievement. This historical event, called a “good will” journey but probably more stunt or propaganda, serves as a compelling throughline that amplifies every emotion, idea and conflict, and serves as a framework in which the author employs her considerable talents and wide-ranging interests.
“Boundless as the Sky”
By Dawn Raffel
Sagging Meniscus Press, 146 pages
Donald G. Evans is the author of a novel and story collection, as well as the editor of two anthologies of Chicago literature, most recently “Wherever I’m At: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry.” He is the Founding Executive Director of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.