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Tucson Weekly A Tale Of (At Least) Two Imaginary Cities

Touring The Twisted Alleyways Of Postmodernist Fiction.

By James DiGiovanna

Pfitz, by Andrew Crumey (Picador). Paper, $20

NOVEMBER 24, 1997:  THERE'S SOMETHING DEEPLY depressing about reading Pfitz, Andrew Crumey's second novel. The story concerns a romance, a murder and a mystery in a dreary, unnamed city; and a corresponding set of events in the vibrant but fictional city of Rreinstadt. The anonymous prince of the unnamed city has gotten in the habit of describing, down to the last architectural details, imaginary cities. To this end, he has enlisted almost every citizen of his real city, employing them as cartographers, architects, civil engineers, and city planners for his fictional realm. This, however, was not enough for the prince, and so he has also given a large portion of his subjects the task of writing the biographies of everyone who lives in or visits his "Rreinstadt," while others are to fill its imaginary library with the books that the city's imaginary authors would have written, had they been real.

The plot, which is a bit difficult to describe, centers on Schenck, a cartographer who charts the never-to-be-built sewers of Rreinnstadt. One day, while looking at a map of a hotel, Schenck sees the name Pfitz attached to one of the marks indicating the presence of a person. Another man, "Count Zelneck," is indicated on the map, and Schenck's inquiry into this scene entangles him with the beautiful Estrella, who is the biographer (and thus creator) of Count Zelneck. She is eager to learn about this Pfitz, and asks Schenck for more information. Schenck falls in love with Estrella, and begins to write for her a tale of Pfitz, which he claims is a work of fiction to be found in the (fictional) library of Rreinstadt, but which is something of a bizarre hoax, since it's not an authorized fiction, and thus does not really have an actual imaginary existence in the actual imaginary city.

Schenck's story, which he claims is based on the actual, imaginary life of Pfitz, is really the fiction of a fiction of a fiction. He writes it solely to get closer to Estrella. But it seems that another author, of an authorized fiction, has done the same thing, creating a novel and its fictional author in order that he may win Estrella's love. When their two stories come into conflict, fictional, metafictional and actual loves and murders become increasingly confused.

This kind of postmodern trickery, with its unreal land mirroring the real (but still fictional) one, is precisely what makes Pfitz such a discouraging read. The whole idea of the imaginary city seems to be well covered territory by now, and this particular tack on meta-fiction has been so thoroughly, and successfully, explored by Calvino and Borges that it seems unnecessary.

Of course, if Crumey could add some new flourish to this repertoire, Pfitz would have at least the value of a secondary work. However, the story combines its postmodernist elements with a fairly pedestrian romance, and nothing seems to shine out. Even the ending, in playing on Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, looks to a source that has already been thoroughly exploited in recent literary experimentation.

Still, beyond the sense of the familiar which intrudes, unwelcome, on what intends to be a tale of the strange, Crumey does successfully keep the story moving; and his mock 18th-century dialogue, especially in the meta-fictional narrative of Pfitz, is full of delights. In fact, if the book were reduced merely to the Pfitz-tale, as told by the character Schenck, it would be a rewarding read, reminiscent of the style and wit of Laurence Sterne, but with a decidedly contemporary take on the pre-Revolutionary world.

Many young writers express themselves through their influences, and the good parts of Pfitz being as good as they are, it seems clear that as Crumey matures he may offer us not only a diverting read, but also a rewarding one.

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