Five Books with Fantastic Invisible Cities to Explore

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Five Books with Fantastic Invisible Cities to Explore

My hometown sits on a breeze-shaken sweep of prairie split by a railroad and paved over with post-war housing. If you drive downtown and look out over the lip of the parking garage’s top floor, you can see clear to the earth’s curvature. This was what we had by way of excitement—except for the carnival, if you could call it that, which arrived in late June. And the weekly parade of hot rods on Tuesday nights when no one went absent from the plaza.

But come fall the brief fits of fun cooled. Then the town was so open-fisted about its dullness, it’s no surprise I hadn’t noticed the alley that cut between the men’s shoe store and a small cafe before. I don’t remember what led me there. I caught a slice of light from a cracked open door down a flight of steps, and I pushed the door open. Inside, a grip of middle-aged men worked on an immense network of model trains, a cornucopia of towns and stations, tracks teeming with tiny steam engines laden with cargo or painted families. One of the men saw me, smiled, put his index finger to his silver mustache and winked. Another ushered me out and closed the door.

Who were these men? What was this enormous network of miniatures they slaved over? Had they always been there? It wasn’t that I was excited—as I’ve said, that word didn’t come up much in the local lexicon—but I was fascinated. People were leading secret lives, building a city within the city itself.

An invisible city.

This brief list enumerates a few favorite books that explore such a topic. It’s not just that these cities are made up—this happens all the time in fiction. It’s that the cities are secreted from the characters, from the reader, from both. At the very least, they’re idiosyncratic wonders. Enjoy.


Emmet Penney’s writing has appeared in The Silo, The Bad Version and Madcap Review. He lives in Santa Fe, where he works at Collected Works Bookstore and studies the classics at St. John’s College. He is currently working on a collection of essays.