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Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas

The life (and near-death) of the Big Easy, inventively mapped.

January 16, 2014

Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, by Rebecca Solnit, University of California Press, 176 pp.

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Reviewed by Peter Lewis for The Barnes & Noble Review

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Even the toughest city has a soft side, where you can crack the concrete like a weed and leave an impression, make your mark, if for no other reason than your soul's sake. That's local color -- and why cities have eight million stories to tell, naked or otherwise.
 
"New Orleans is all kinds of unfathomable," write Rebecca Snedeker and Rebecca Solnit in their introduction to the deep-dyed, fine, and unconventionally drawn Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, "a city of amorphous boundaries, where land is forever turning into water, water devours the land, and a thousand degrees of marshy, muddy, oozing in-between exist; where lines that elsewhere seem firmly drawn are blurry; where whatever you say requires more elaboration; where most rules are full of exceptions."

The New Orleans they chart is unfathomable "because no two people live in quite the same city." The twenty-two vignettes in this collection speak to that individual appreciation in twenty-three distinct voices, yet whatever the topic -- apothecaries, lead poisoning, lemon ice, institutional abominations, sugar, bounce music, environmental calamities, shifts in the road, bananas -- they burn bright, both breaking and gladdening your heart; and the handsome cartography is illuminating in the best tradition of maps: taking you there, for better or worse.

The 22 pieces – calling them essays feels too formal for such intimacy – are shaved to concision by their length, typically a couple thousand words, and project a sense of quickening as well as a close familiarity with their subject and place. New Orleans may be porous as a sponge – in many ways, from its acceptance of refugees to water-charged soil types – but the writing here has a high specific gravity, a chewiness that makes you want to pay close attention and count your bites. The writing commands that time slow here and jump there, and to simply disappear when you enter the various maps. As Richard Campanella remarks, the "history of New Orleans is essentially the story of overlaying orderly orthogonality on unruly curvaceousness." That memorable juxtaposition provides embracing cartographic backdrop, while special points of consideration sting (slave pens), sing (Sugar Boy Crawford records "Jock-a-Mo/Iko-Iko" in Congo Square), and stagger (the jackstraw of oil and gas pipelines). Photographs, cartoons, and spidery line drawings as spooky as sharks' eyes complement the map art.
 
The coverage sweeps where it wants, like the storm surges that bedevil the city. There are stories and maps of carnival krewe parade routes; the rapacious histories of the sugar and banana trades (one extirpating the cypress forest buffer and the other, our friends at United Fruit boasting that "anything less than nine inches won't do"); corridors along which live oaks canopy the streets; the peregrinations of Tennessee Williams; the complex checkerboard of the city's segregation; prisons (a growth industry); the birthplaces of New Orleans' rambunctious variant on hip-hop; Houma migrations; the evolution of St. Claude Avenue; tuba bands; Arab neighborhoods; the dance of seafood and sex; and places that attend to the crazy, even if it's all in their heads.

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