Writer: Efe Levent Artist: Alaa Alhassoun
Guide to Every City
Guide to Every City is a thorough picture of the perennial Every City from the perspective of a fictional Every Travel Writer.
On paper the concept works, I’m sat here reading this in Hackney with the solemn sense that I could be sat in any city I’ve ever lived in and still feel exactly the same, but there’s more to it. From the first sentence, this book feels cathartic for people who are from the places tourists often travel to and muse about the JuXtApOsItioN of tradition and modernity as if they’re surprised that people who hang rugs on the walls also know how to touch type.
The Every Travel Writer (here called Steve, elsewhere called Hugo, Barney, Toby, etc.) manages to fall into every travel writing trap; romanticising what locals find baffling, writing inconvenient infrastructure as attractive quirks, and randomly assigning the words “modern” or “civilised” to whatever things they recognise from their own life and hometown.
It doesn’t just evoke bitterness though. The book is filled with the sort of joyful three-dimensional animal puns Art Spiegelman would be proud of. And while the insect imagery works because every city is literally full of insects, it also highlights the divisions in class and power which the writer sees as fascinating individual character quirks. Where everyone is begrudgingly born into and stuck with some sort of beetle body, Steve’s vision of free-flowing social mobility simply can’t turn someone’s snail shell into a pair of wings. The writer assumes the city’s molluscs are slow, boring, and lacking any innovative, entrepreneurial, creative spirit, instead of simply being born into actual slug bodies. Instead, Steve sides with and relates to the open-minded hopsters who are “incapable of prejudice” after slagging off the sloggers for 2 pages as if they don’t have the weight and possibility of the city on their shoulders (actually to be fair I’m not sure if slugs have shoulders).
And, it helps that the illustrations of all the insects are fucking gorgeous. It feels like a well-thought-out graphic novel and the illustrations are just the right amount of abstract to tell the story while letting you fill in the blanks with your own experiences.
Meanwhile the writing gives us a healthy dose of tourists explaining cities to the locals, and local hopsters repackaging traditions for the tourists who want to dine like the natives but also not really. Steve carries on to write about “local hospitality” with the classic anthropologist tendency to force every cultural casualness into a structural thing you can outline in a forthcoming book chapter.
To those who live in the every cities, the tendency of Outside (mainstream) writers to shoehorn everything into a religion/tradition vs. modernity/civilisation paradigm is as familiar as the divide between drivers and cyclists. It’s no surprise to hear someone praise a city for its centuries of history and ancient civilisation while also saying “it’s pretty backwards isn’t it”. It’s clever and comforting to read a book that acknowledges all of that. Guide to Every City is a witty reminder that these sadly-not-at-all-fictional writers reveal more about themselves than the city they’re writing about. While Steve bravely confronts the startling arrangement modern and awful, we readers start to confront who is writing this sort of shit and why.
Guide to Every City can be purchased here.