Fugitives and Refugees' - Chuck Palahniuk


Cities are strange things. Sometimes evolved over thousands of years, sometimes appearing fully formed in an instant. Gigantic densities of hard stuff packed together, propped up on concrete bases, ringed with beards of countryside. Forget art, literature, music, or architecture - dwarfed as, stilted, artificial, hermetic. Urbanism is the teeming crucible of civilisation, the apex of cultural production.

Urbanists, on the other hand are ignorant useless fools who only ever make things worse. Urban planners are as ineffectual as Alan Titchmarsh pruning the Amazonian rain forest with a pair of secateurs at controling the wild uninhibited spirit which propels cities. But that doesnt stop them producing policy documents, reports, and zoning diagrams that must be an attempt to bore cities into submission.

It doesn't have to be this way. Chuck Palahniuks 'Fugitives and Refugees, A Walk in Portland, Oregon' shows an alternative way to think about urbanism. The book starts with a map like the 'Hobbit' or 'Wind in the Willows'. And just like these fantasy books, there are a series of adventures that take place across the landscape described in the map. Palahniuks stories are at least as strange as talking moles, frogs who drive, or wizards and trolls, but they happen to be real. It's a map which says 'Here be monsters' pointing straight at Safeways.

It is presented like a guide book, divided into sections such as 'Eating out' and 'Souvenirs'. But it skews off into strangeness: 'How to Knock off a Piece in Portland', 'Where to Rub Elbows with the Dead'. Palahniuks guide starts with Portlands unusual and alternative side, slides into the weird and ends up downright degenerate.

There is an absurdity in writing tourist guides to places tourists would never visit. And the postcards which Palahniuk divides the book with are equally perverse. These give snapshots of various periods of his life in Portland: Flats full of mannequin parts, tossing a jar with his teenage tonsils into scrubland, doing acid and watching lazer shows, appearing in obscure pop promos. These bits tell you about the imprint he has left on Portland. They are postcards written in the place he lives, as though his everyday life is some kind of holiday. Maybe that's part of the point: what if you could treat your own town as though you were a tourist? What if you could bring an eye for a Kodak moment to your weekly trip to the supermarket? What if the school run became an exciting adventure?

The book mythologises the everyday. It shows that you can look at the stuff that surrounds you and recognise a folk vernacular that is full of humanity. It's part of the idea that a city is a collection of stories rather than masonry, concrete, steel or glass: All the things that don't appear on urban masterplans. Urban designers are far to busy hatching in zones on a plan where houses are smaller than sim cards to worry about these kinds of things. How can shading and colouring in begin to explore the myriad experiences that make up city life!

If you are trying to describe a city, maps might not be only way. Maps show geography, but exclude all kinds of other information. 'Fugitives and Refugees' is a different kind of urban report. It shows up the life of a place through stories and personalities that would usually slip under the radar of urban planners - hobbies, interests, groups that evade history. Things like the history of drag shows, eviction courts, local recipes, junk shops, sex clubs.

Ask an architect to design a city, and they will start by puzzling over new ways of putting two paving slabs together. Architects cling to solid, silent, tedious materiality out of a terrible fear of the dirty, messy, vocal and human vitality that cities are really about.

Fugitives and Refugees makes me wonder about a the potential of Gonzo Urbanism. What would happen if you sacked the specialists and hired people who are in it up to their necks? Would it really be any worse if the ghost hunters, drag queens and perverts whose lives fill up cities were in charge?

First Published in Modern Painters

Posted by sam at May 16, 2004 11:02 PM

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