“But there are two kinds of power, as I see it. There’s one kind where you can make other people do what you want. That’s what most civilians think of as power. But there’s another kind, where nobody can make you do anything you don’t want to do.”
Let’s say I heard an audio reading of The City Under the Skin but I missed the part where the author is identified. With that scenario, I would have recognized this book as the work of Geoff Nicholson, one of my favourite British authors. Just to be clear here, I didn’t hear an audio version–I had this book on pre-order the moment I heard there was another Nicholson novel in the pipeline. These days, the author lives in America and maintains a fascinating blog where he explores his fascination with the landscape (urban, ruins, you name it), but back to the darkly humorous novel which has all the classic elements of Nicholson mania–obsessives, collectors, quirky misfit characters and a quest. Throw in cartography, an assassin, urban decay, sinister gentrification, and just a touch of kinkiness and here’s another Nicholsontopia.
The main piece of the puzzle in The City Under the Skin is the abduction and subsequent release of young women by some deranged and not particularly talented tattooist. In another author’s hands, this might turn into a lurid crime novel, but since this is Nicholson, the emphasis is, instead, on the weird.
Zak Webster is the unassuming hero of The City Under the Skin, and as with many of Nicholson’s heroes, there’s a lot more to Zak than meets the eye. Zak is the sole employee of Utopiates, a shop that sells “cartographic antiques–maps, atlases, globes, navigation charts, the occasional mapmaking instrument, folding pillar compasses, snake-eye dividers.” Zak, a cartography expert, is a man whose talents are in low demand; he thinks of himself as “map nerd,” Feeling lucky to have this job and the apartment upstairs that comes with the small salary, Zak fantasizes about being “a curator or custodian of some magnificent, highly specialized, and possibly clandestine map collection.”
Zak steps into the mystery of the tattooed women inadvertently when he is at work in the shop one evening, and a naked woman, covered in rags, appears asking for help:
Her back looked less naked than the rest of her. It was marked with tattoos: wild incomprehensible lines and symbols that Zak first read as a meaningless accumulation of ink, a savage scribbling, and yet there was something compelling about it, something that suggested it wasn’t entirely haphazard. He wasn’t sure, but he thought it might just possibly be a kind of wild ramshackle map, but the glimpse was brief.
Moments later, a “battered metallic-blue Cadillac” stops, a man gets out, shoves the woman in the car, and drives off. The strange scene witnessed by Zak is over in a matter of seconds, and perhaps Zak’s involvement would have gone no further, just another one of those weird things you see in the city, but an intrepid, assertive young woman named Marilyn also witnessed and photographed the incident.
As he drifted he kept trying to make sense of what he’d just seen, unsure whether there was any “sense” to be made. It was puzzling, but hardly one of the world’s great mysteries. Strange women got into strange cars with strange men at any time of the day or night, every day, every night. People had all kinds of weird stuff tattooed on their backs. People lived incomprehensible and desperate lives. It probably meant nothing: things only meant what you decided they meant. He would probably forget all about it in a day of two.
Zak, is a typical Nicholson hero–a loner who’s liberated from that state of inertia not exactly against his will, but not exactly by choice either. Wanting to impress Marilyn and hopefully get laid in the process, Zak teams with Marilyn to solve the mystery of who is tattooing these women, who is making them disappear from the street, and what the maps, tattooed so badly on their backs, represent.
But The City under the Skin isn’t just about 2 people trying to solve a mystery–it’s also about places in a city slated for “speculative urbanism.” The city is in a state of flux, and those impending changes are the white noise surrounding the mystery of the tattooed women. As the plot unfolds, Nicholson shows us the complex connections between three sets of parallel worlds: the criminal underworld and the surface world of the everyday working people, the worlds of urban decay and gentrification, and the architecture of childhood and the remnants which remain in adulthood. All these worlds co-exist, collide, and merge in The City Under the Skin.
Since this is a Nicholson novel, there are plenty of references to architecture and landscapes seen through the characters who inhabit various spaces. Do the places we live in define us, or do we define those spaces? Ex-con Billy lives in a trailer on a parking lot which is as bland, boring, and anonymous as you can get, but this blankness seems to be intentional. Wrobleski: a sinister real estate developer, crook and map collector lives in a walled compound while retired tattoo artist Rose lives in a “personal museum” stuffed full of tattoo “memorabilia” from a career in Ink. Marilyn, a woman of many talents, and many faces, lives somewhere extraordinary, rather as you’d expect.
The Carnaveral lounge said sixties all right, though it spoke in a stuttering, muted fashion. There were plastic pods and blobs, white egg-shaped chairs, though the plastic had crazed and developed a yellow patina. On the floor, the carpet showed a pattern of stars and planets, seen through a veil of plaster dust. The walls were decorated with memorabilia that looked authentic enough: tattered flags and banners, portraits of alarmingly youthful-looking astronauts, sections of charred rocket fins and satellite housings. There was a map that Zak, even in his present state, recognized as a lunar landing chart for the Sea of Tranquility, still visible through cracked glass that had developed a thin film of mold.
“You really live here?”
“Sure,” said Marilyn. “A view property.”
“Who needs a reason?”
“Isn’t it like living in a Kubrick movie?”
“The Shining or 2001?” Marilyn suggested. “Or were you thinking Spartacus?”
While this is a novel about discovering the mystery of the tattooed women, through the various characters we see that The City Under the Skin is also about finding one’s way in life which, after all, comes with no instructions, no landmarks, no maps. And part of making one’s way in life is making choices and decisions, taking a moral stand. Rather interestingly, Zak’s hobby, urban exploration, a seemingly odd activity, proves to be incredibly useful, and again there’s that subtle idea that our lives are defined by incidents that are not random. The novel argues that our lives are maps with one incident leading to another, and pathways are created by recurring patterns. The city that exists under our skin is our personal map, dotted with significant events and experiences that explain, connect and predict our choices.
“Urban exploration: investigating the city, creative trespass, going where I’m not supposed to, getting into abandoned structures, factories, closed-down hospitals derelict power stations. You know?“
“So you spend all your workdays dealing in representations of places, and you spend your free time exploring actual places.”