On Maps and the Knowability of Cities

I’m sitting here staring at the map for my new novel, Razorhurst, which comes out in Australia and New Zealand in July. The map is a thing of beauty. I’m a little teary looking at it. I’ve never had a map in one of my books before. Let alone such a gorgeous one:

Map designed by Hannah Janzen

Map designed by Hannah Janzen

As you can see the map does not cover a large swathe of territory. Razorhurst is a Sydney novel but that map is not all of Sydney, it’s not even all of Surry Hills, the suburb (neighbourhood) where Razorhurst is mostly set.

It’s a tiny, tiny part of Sydney, which got me thinking. I say I know Sydney better than any other city in the world and that’s true. But I hardly know Sydney at all. The Sydney I know is a handful of suburbs (neighbourhoods). I rarely go any further west than Marrickville, further north than the city, further east than Paddington, further south than Alexandria. I’m the total opposite of this bloke valiantly striving to walk every street in the city. My New York City is similarly constrained.

Worse, even in those parts of the city I claim to know well, there are so many lives going on that I know nothing about. This is brought home to me most vividly at my gym. My gym is known for being a crim gym, also as a weightlifter’s and body builder’s gym, and as a gay gym. I don’t fit into any of those categories. I’m not an enforcer for any shady business men, while I’ve lifted weights I’ve never done it in competition, I’m so very much not a bodybuilder,1 and I’m not a gay man.2

I’m fascinated by those first two groups because they live in worlds I never intersect with except at the gym. Their Sydney is not my Sydney.3 I’ve never been anyone’s enforcer. Never been involved in any kind of robbery. Never sold drugs. Never done whatever else it is that those guys do that I don’t know anything about because I am so not part of that world.

I do know a bit more about bodybuilding because the bodybuilders sometimes talk about it.4 What I’ve overhead is mostly about what they can’t eat in the lead up to competitions and them fretting about their body fat percentage. I’ve also overheard loads of stuff I can’t make sense of because I don’t know enough of the specialised language of their world.

Bodybuilder 1: I just need to get down to 4%.
Me: 0_o
Bodybuilder 2: You’ll get there! Stay away from tuna. Fattiest fish ever.
Me: (not out loud) If you’re only 4% body fat how do you not die?! Tuna’s too fatty? Um, okay.
Bodybuilder 1: I miss salt way more than fat.
Bodybuilder 2: I miss salty fat. Food with flavour.
Me: 0_o
Bodybuilder 3 (under her breath): Weak. So weak.
Me: 0_o

Hmmm, I digress.5 My point is that there is so much going on mere metres from where we live that we know nothing about. People who live their lives in the shadowy illegal economy. People who work the night shift, going to sleep just as I’m getting up to write. Engineers! Actuaries! Vampires!6

There are as many different Sydneys as there are Sydneysiders. Hell, there’s more than that because visitors experience a whole other Sydney. I have been known to say that I am unfond of London and also of LA. My London is always rainy and the people are really rude. My LA consists of me being stuck in a car feeling like I’m going to throw up. I’ve only been to both cities a handful of time and know them hardly at all. My London and LA are awful. But I have many friends who adore both places. Who can’t understand why I don’t like London/LA. When I describe my LA/London they just stare at me. It doesn’t resemble their city at all.

The map above is of my imagined Surry Hills of the 1930s. It’s a map of my Razorhurst, a place that never existed except within the fevered imagination of the tabloid Truth.7 We all know novels are imaginary. But I often think that the places we live are also imaginary. My Sydney isn’t like anyone else’s. Neither is my New York City. They exist almost entirely in my mind. In how I interpret (and interact with) the place I live in. Maybe cities are secretly novels. Or vice versa.

Either way I love cities and novels and wish I could know and understand them so much better than I do.

TL;DR: Look at the map for Razorhurst! How gorgeous is it? Very. Cities are vast and complicated and unknowable.

  1. What? I like the way my skin is not orange. []
  2. I’m not the only one at my gym who doesn’t fit those categories. My gym contains multitudes. []
  3. Though I will admit in writing Razorhurst I borrowed from some of the things I noticed about the blokes in the gym rumoured to be crims. I spent a lot of time watching how they walk and talk. I was discreet about it. They are very large, scary men. []
  4. Sadly I have never overheard any of the (rumoured) crims discussing their business. And if I did wouldn’t I have to report it to the police? And wouldn’t they then hunt me down for being a stool pigeon. (Am I the only one who imagines a stool pigeon is one that poos a lot?) I don’t want to die. []
  5. Yes, those who’ve been reading me for awhile are aware I always digress. What of it? Digressions are fun. Like footnotes and being more than 4% body fat. I overheard one of the bodybuilders just before a competition complaining that his feet hurt because they weren’t padded enough. THE HORROR. []
  6. Possibly. []
  7. I quote from Truth a bit here. []

7 comments

  1. Shannon on #

    Loved this post! Absolutely loved it grin beginning to end. You are so right–and I never thought about it in those terms before- -that our cities are our own. You could apply that theory to everything. My restaurant is not their restaurant, my art not theirs, etc.
    Thank you!! Going to try and think about this and how others go through their lives this week.

    • Justine on #

      Thank you.

      Definitely. I have that experience all the time. Friends ranting against a restaurant/book/person I love dearly and how they describe it is as if it was an entirely different restaurant/book/person.

  2. Susan Loyal on #

    My LA is the same as yours. But one of my closest friends loved it with such a passionate love that she uprooted her life to move there. Every time she talked about her city, I thought, “Why does she think it’s a perfect hybrid of San Francisco and New York? It’s nothing but a traffic jam!” But somewhere beyond that traffic jam, there’s a city that has everything and buzzes with energy and contains a really great person.

    Also, juxtaposition magic has occurred. I will be stuck all weekend thinking about vampires who are actuaries. Or actuaries who are vampires. It’s not a bad combination, if you stop to think about it.

    • Justine on #

      Many great people. I know I’ll never see that LA unless I learn to like cars and, well, really don’t like cars. But at the same time, as you say, it’s cool to think about how wonderful it is to other people. I’ve always thought it would be fun sometime to try and write LA from the pov of someone who loves it.

      Vampires sure do love to count. :-)

      • Susan Loyal on #

        *snort* I was thinking more of the extended data set they could accumulate.

  3. rockinlibrarian on #

    Hah! My Paris is an awful unfriendly place– I know everyone has a completely different Paris than me! Whereas I’ve always dreamed of going to London, so if I ever do I sure hope I don’t find yours! (No desire to visit ANYbody’s LA, really).

    Congratulations on getting a map in a book!

    • Justine on #

      Thank you! London is THE WORST. No sunshine EVER. And everyone is so rude. Here’s hoping you have a totally different experience. :-)

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