Each tiny chapter is a report to Kublai Khan from Marco Polo, who has surveyed the great Khan’s vast empire. The cities described are dreamlike, fantastic, exquisite, other worldly. Although we know that the locations are in China and Central Asia, they have architectures, sensibilities, and cultures not of this planet – and yet we can also find something linking each of them to places and people in our imagination.
The inhabitants of an unnamed city become blind one by one. People and societies reinvent themselves in their new existence without sight. Although the outside world is not mentioned, the mysterious city seems to represent all cities and countries. The individual scenes and places are vividly and concretely drawn, yet the landscape is invested with surreal meaning as almost all of its residents are blind and stumble around once-familiar apartments and streets—in the same manner that a familiar street crossing becomes strange after a thick snowfall.
The Tartar Steppe
A young soldier goes to serve in the lonely border area between two unnamed countries in the Tartar Steppe. The other soldiers in the fortress there have been waiting patiently from many years to turn back an invading army that never comes. The young soldier, too, begins waiting, thinking at first that his tour of duty will finish in a few years. But decades pass, and he remains, almost paralyzed. And still no enemy arrives. Although occasional references are made to the soldier’s previous life, his world rapidly shrinks down to the time and place of this single fortress, hovering like a mirage in the Tartar desert.
A famous concert pianist arrives at an unidentified European city to give an important performance. Almost immediately, he is swept into a dreamlike series of strange episodes in which everyone seems to know things about him and his past that he doesn’t know, as if he has acquired amnesia. To make matters more unsettling, the amnesiac landscape possesses bizarre spatial and temporal relationships: an elevator ride takes hours, and a café door leads to a hotel miles away. The reader feels both mesmerized and uncomfortably disoriented.
In this classic novel, a man is accused of a crime, yet never told what it is. Over the next period of years, he must go from one court proceeding to the next, and slowly disappears in a mysterious and oppressive bureaucracy. All the action takes place in an unidentified European city. The vagueness of the crime, if any crime was in fact committed, and the surreal nature of the courts, lawyers, and other judicial appendages all create a heightened anxiety and sense of alienation as the main character is slowly driven to madness.
Alan Lightman's new novel is Mr. g: A Novel About the Creation. Lightman is the author of five previous novels, a book-length narrative poem, two collections of essays, and several books on science. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Granta, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and Nature, among other publications. A theoretical physicist as well as a novelist, he has served on the faculties of Harvard and MIT, and was the first person to receive a dual faculty appointment at MIT in science and in the humanities.
Photo by Jean Lightman