The Village, Howard Norton Cook, 1928, California State Library.
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Seven of the Most Memorable Towns on Earth (That Only Exist in Literature)

From Macondo to Arkham: a journey through the parallel cities of fiction

 

When we discuss novels, we tend to focus on the characters. We get wrapped up in the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist, discuss how likable or unlikable the narrator is, and analyze how the characters have changed by the end of the story. But in some books, the most memorable “character” is the setting. The location of a story can feel as real or alive as any hero or villain. While many novels are set in real places, sometimes an author needs to invent a town entirely—either to give themselves the remove to comment on an actual place or to create a setting that could never exist in our world. Here are seven unforgettable towns that exist only in fiction:

Macondo from One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
“He asked what city it was and they answered him with a name that he had never heard, that had no meaning at all, but that had a supernatural echo in his dream: Macondo.”

Márquez’s fictional town of Macondo functions like his magical realist writing: it is simultaneously marvelous and banal. It is a town where the locals gawk at ice, but barely bat an eye at a boy who is perpetually followed by a swarm of butterflies. While Macondo first appeared in Marquez’s novella Leaf Storm, the town is most famously associated with Márquez’s 1967 masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude. That novel follows the rise of Macondo from a tiny village to a large city before ultimately—spoiler alert!—being blown off the map by magical winds. The town is assumed to be a stand-in for Marquez’s (presumably non-magical) childhood town of Aracataca, Colombia. Aracataca actually held a referendum to rename itself Aracataca-Macondo in 2006 to honor Márquez, but the measure failed.

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Un Pueblo, Fernando Botero, 1998, Museo Botero, Colección de Arte Del Banco de la la República, Bogotá, Colombia.

The village from “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
“The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o’clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 26th, but in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.”

Jackson’s shocking and violent short story “The Lottery” is one of the most celebrated American stories of all time. It describes a small American village that conducts a bizarre lottery once a year. The town’s description and the townsfolk’s dialogue are contemporary, but the lottery itself feels shockingly archaic and barbaric. When it was first published in The New Yorker in 1948, “The Lottery” famously triggered a stream of hate mail and subscription cancellations. Why? Well, perhaps because the story’s skewering of the blind and disastrous conformity of small town America hit too close to home. This theme of small-town bigotry is present in Jackson’s other works, especially her masterful novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but nowhere does she so deviously satirize small-town America as in “The Lottery.”

Middlemarch from Middlemarch by George Eliot
“Women were expected to have weak opinions; but the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbours did so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.”

George Eliot’s 1870s novel is one of the classic works of 19th-century British realism, but the titular town doesn’t exist in real life. Subtitled “A Study of Provincial Life,” Middlemarch presents English provincial communities as being narrow-minded and reactionary to social and political change, while also giving a full and vibrant picture of England in the mid-19th century. Before moving to London, Eliot lived in the Midlands-region town of Coventry, which was likely her inspiration for the creation of Middlemarch.

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First Edition title page of Middlemarch, George Eliot.

West Egg from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
“I lived at West Egg, the – well, the least fashionable of the two, though this is a most superficial tag to express the bizarre and not a little sinister contrast between them.”

Like Middlemarch, The Great Gatsby is a largely realistic novel that is celebrated for encapsulating life in a specific time and place. Instead of 19th-century England, it is Jazz-age America in all its excitement and excess. More specifically, the novel is set among the ultra-rich who live and party in the Long Island suburbs of New York City. The classic novel memorably portrays the class dimensions of American life by tying them to location: West Egg—the primary setting—is filled with the “nouveau riche” like Jay Gatsby. West Egg lies across from the “old money” town of East Egg, whose residents look down on the gaudy West Eggers. In between is the poor working class area known as “the valley of ashes,” which the rich witness as a “dismal scene,” when their trains are forced to stop at the drawbridge. The town and social scene was inspired by Great Neck, Long Island, and the parties of the rich that Fitzgerald attended in real life.

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Lands End in the background, The Swope mansion at Sands Point, NY.

The dune village from The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe
“The man looked back over his shoulder at the village, and he could see that the great holes, which grew deeper as they approached the crest of the ridge, extended in several ranks toward the center. The village, resembling the cross-section of a beehive, lay sprawled over the dunes. Or rather the dunes lay sprawled over the village. Either way, it was a disturbing and unsettling landscape.”

Kobo Abe’s Kafkaesque novel The Woman in the Dunes takes place in the most bizarre beachfront village you can imagine. The protagonist is an amateur etymologist who is collecting insects by the water when he misses the last bus back to town. Local villagers take him to their town that is built into the dunes themselves, trapping him with a widowed woman in a house built in a pit in the middle of the sand. He’s then forced, Sisyphus-like, to constantly shovel the sand that threatens to cover and crush them both.

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Still image from the film adaptation of The Woman in the Dunes, Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964.

Arkham from the stories of H.P. Lovecraft
What lay behind our joint love of shadows and marvels was, no doubt, the ancient, mouldering, and subtly fearsome town in which we lived—witch-cursed, legend-haunted Arkham, whose huddled, sagging gambrel roofs and crumbling Georgian balustrades brood out the centuries beside the darkly muttering Miskatonic.”

Every time you read a horror story set in a creepy small town, you can probably thank H.P. Lovecraft. While Lovecraft himself was famously horrified by his time in crowded city of New York, his genre-defining tales of murder, madness, and eldritch alien gods are mostly set in small New England towns. The best known of these is undoubtedly Arkham, Massachusetts. The town is home to many of the famous elements of Lovecraft’s mythology such as Miskatonic University, whose library holds one of the only copies of the dreaded Necronomicon—a book of black magic that spells out the nature of Lovecraft’s horrifying gods—and the Arkham Sanitarium. The foreboding town has been used by generations of post-Lovecraft horror writers including Robert Bloch and Ramsey Campbell, and the Arkham Sanitarium was the inspiration for the famous Arkham Asylum in Batman comics.

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H.P. Lovecraft’s Map of Arkham, drawn by the author in 1934.

Octavia from Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”

As the name implies, Invisible Cities is a novel entirely about fictional cities. Calvino’s 1972 novel is a collection of poetic descriptions of invented cities as related by Marco Polo to the emperor Kublai Khan. Khan’s empire is so large he can’t even visit all the cities he rules over and gets Polo to describe them. However, Polo describes cities so magical and philosophical that they could hardly exist in the real world. Almost any city in the book could work for this list, from Eusapia—where “to make the leap from life to death less abrupt, the inhabitants have constructed an identical copy of their city, underground”—to Isidora, “a city where the buildings have spiral staircases encrusted with spiral seashells.” But  the most unforgettable is “the spider-web city” of Octavia. This city is suspended between two mountains by “ropes and chains and catwalks” and consequently “the life of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will last only so long.”