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Berit Ellingsen:The Empty City

Our hero is Brandon Minamato. He tells us that his parents are of different nationalities, though he does not tell us what nationality they are. Judging by his last name and his brother’s first name, his father is Japanese. He lives in an unnamed, somewhat (but only somewhat) futuristic city in an unnamed country. He lives in a nineteen-storey high block of flats, built on reclaimed marshland on the edge of the city. There is a train connection to the centre of the city where he works. We do not know what he does but he works in an office where many of the staff have to hot-desk but because he has chosen an unfashionable, heavy trafficked area, he is able to have his own desk, mildly personalised.

The building where he lives is soulless. It is a place to live but it is not home. Behind the deep red walls, bodies were sleeping, dreaming. He found that knowledge very uncomfortable. Yet, at night, looking out over the area, he finds it beautiful.

Recently, to keep himself alive, he has take to extremism. He needed to see how far he could take himself. How long could he work? How long could he go without food? Without sleep? How far could he run? His brother Katsuhiro warns him that he is overdoing it.

It is his cousin Beanie (Beatrice) who gets him to start exploring the city. (Though he has friends, he is quite close to his family.) She takes him down in the bowels of the underground railway system. At first he is worried that they might get hit by a train, though Beanie reassures him there are no trains where they are going. Then, as they venture further into the system, it is Beanie who is worried that they might get lost and he who wants to continue, attracted by the idea of getting lost. Beanie wins and they return. He is disappointed that nothing happened and plans to go back though, as far as we know, he does not.

During the course of the book, he will explore other areas on the edge of the city. There is an area beyond the edge of the city where they had planned to build docks but which they abandoned, as they ran out of money. He visits an old cemetery, with mausolea dating back four centuries and a large building built as a tuberculosis hospital, but then became a psychiatric facility and is now abandoned. He explores it but is suddenly attacked and nearly falls off the roof. The assailant stamps on his hands, breaking his fingers but he manages to escape but cannot find the assailant.

However, he also visits seemingly imaginary places. There is the Coast of Bones, which seems like an uninhabited tropical island (the coast was desolate, a dead man’s stretch.), which he will visit, and nearly die of thirst. There are other strange places he visits, including a visit to his father’s native country.

However, his strangest places are those he visits in his dreams. Indeed, he spends much of his life in dreams, the dreams being very colourful and rarely the same. He has lucid dreams – Dreams where you know you’re dreaming and then changing the dream. These vary from travels to foreign lands to travels to imaginary, Lord of the Rings-like places as well as various adventures.

He then gets these attacks, which he calls blasts or white-outs and later nuclear explosions. These are episodes of brightness. The whiteouts didn’t last long, just a second or two. He had no warning before they happened and no time to be surprised. He has a check-up but everything seems OK.

Gradually, it seems, he is moving away from the conventional, physical world and into an imaginary world. As the title tells us, he sees the city in a different light. The city was deserted. He roamed the streets and wondered where everyone had gone. The stars were faint and distant, and the moon a sickly yellow. Only a few squatters were around, in doorways and on street corners, they looked just as lost as him. He quits his job. What was the point of the so-called life progress if it didn’t lead anywhere?

Now the world played out inside him, instead of him being in the world somewhere. He was completely and irrevocably real. In short, Ellingsen is telling us, the real world, the boring, futile job, the tower block city, the daily commute, the routine, life as many live it, squash us, limit us, and we need to move away in our mind and in our body. She makes a convincing case.

Publishing history

First published in 2011 by ‎ Jnana Press

Other links

Novel’s website