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.
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1. The City & The City by China Miéville
An invisible border splits a city into two, Beszel and Ul Qoma, and citizens hailing from different areas may not interact with each other. Inspector Tyador Borlú discovers the body of a young woman in his native Beszel, only to learn that she was killed in Ul Qoma and then transported across the border. After a failed attempt to invoke the shadowy organization that enforces the border, Borlú must travel to Ul Qoma to solve the case. The novel brims with unificationists, corrupt politicians, international business tycoons and murmurs of a mysterious "third city."
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2. The Glory of the Empire by Jean D'Ormesson
Behold the history of an empire rival to that of Rome—except in its nonexistence. Catalogued herein are its founding myths, the Athens/Sparta divide of its two major cities, its cataclysmic royal in-fighting, even a chapter dedicated to "Science, Culture, and Everyday Life Under the Empire." The meticulous detail and scholarly foot/endnotes disturb that fact that it's fiction; D'Ormesson makes you believe it's real. This novel also features an epic opening: "The Empire never knew peace. First it had to be built, then defended. From the depths of its history there arose the clang of axes, the hiss of javelins, the cries of the dying at evening after battle."
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3. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
London office drone Richard Mayhew is hauled into a dark, unrecognizable world the moment he helps a young woman named Door. She turns out to be royalty in this mysterious realm, Neverwhere, and Mayhew must help her avenge her slaughtered family. I haven't read this book in a decade, but I still think of Mayhew's first descent into Neverwhere as if it were a memory of my own. This is Gaiman at the height of his powers—essential reading for both horror and fantasy fans.
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4. Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges
It would be irresponsible not to include Borges on this list. Among the treasures of this short story collection lies the "The Babylon Lottery," a tale about a city governed by a lottery that is as likely to demand a murder as it is a woman to drop coins into the sea. Another gem is "Death and the Compass," a detective story about a series of connected murders that aren't technically connected in a Buenos Aires that isn't technically Buenos Aires. The collection tackles questions from "What motivates people to act?" to "Is meaning a maze or a labyrinth?"
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5. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
The premise? Genghis Khan fears for the downfall of his empire. To distract him, Marco Polo regales the warrior king with stories of the greatest cities he has ever seen. There is a city to which I often return in these pages: Eusapia, where the bodies of the dead are dried and placed in the necropolis underground—a replica of the Eusapia above. What would it be like to visit those your mourn, posed in their favorite moments? For "they say that in the twin cities there is no longer any way of knowing who is alive and who is dead."