Marream Krollos, Big City, Fiction Collective Two, 2018, $18.95
When you start Marream Krollos’s Big City, you might feel as though you are reading a hopeless horoscope, perturbing yet everyday. Krollos sets up a tension between “I” and “we,” the individual and collective at odds or symbiotic in the urban landscape. In this, she captures the unique sort of loneliness one might face in a crowd—that energy telling us that we are lonely but not alone, part of something that can be beautiful and life-threatening. Eventually the “I” breaks down into something not so separate, not so set apart, into something defined by that world which surrounds it—an ego defined by a city.
This tension gives way to a long, woven love story of a “he” and a “she,” never named and never quite stable. They could be the same characters; they could be anyone. Krollos is just broad enough to make this impossible to determine, yet clear enough to make a cohesive narrative. She uses these characters (perhaps not people, but voices) to grapple with anxieties of romance, of needing, of the body, and of how all of these anxieties get wrapped up in a place that you endlessly move through yet never quite exist in. This is coupled with the not-too-postmodern idea that the solution lies not in oneself but in a new location, “a different city where the people are hungry, to remind you what’s really important in life” and where the ultimate goal is to “just be from a beautiful city.”
This book is full of stories, yes, but also accusatory, stark lines of barren truth (in titles like “People Kill People in the City”) and strikingly personal lines that will beat on the reader’s skull long after they have left Krollos’s city. Here, you are never quite sure where you are or who you are with. It’s a stroll through the idea of a city in which you may randomly come across any one of its dark alleyways or witness any measure of its beauty or grief. Communication breaks down as one street violently crosses another and the city sprawls into chaos and loneliness, until each body is an apartment rented by a mind or the body is just a “hangnail” on the mind. Even rooms in the same building can’t or won’t bother to talk to one another, only using one another for structural support, taking “what you need for your body from their body.”
The story passes like a song hummed by one city dweller, then another, none of them knowing quite where they picked up the tune nor that anybody else knows it. Each person has their story, and each of them intertwines with everyone else’s in real time. There is no true voice but that of the city itself, an “everyman” created from a castrated collective, singing for the individuals trapped within, whose names we do not know. The loveless and often joyless tone of it, mixed with awe at the shape of the place, betrays something of an advanced Stockholm syndrome that the citizens have. If the reader is not careful, they will be trapped, too. In fact, from time to time, “you” are. You are. They are. He is. She is. Nobody is as much a character as anybody else. And all of us are swallowed by the big city.
Kant defines the aesthetic sublime as something that threatens the viewer’s existence. He lists examples, such as an empty desert or a thrashing ocean. As the modern mind moves away from these naturally sublime places, I believe that we’ll be inclined to think of the city—that swirling mass that threatens to swallow us whole and leave us forever moving within its socially constructed walls. In this sense, Krollos is a reporter on the modern sublime.