The Book of Flying | “The City in the Mountains” [pt.1]

a novel

by Keith Miller

“’My labor is listening to the stories of sad men. Tell me'” (Miller, 119).

Pico finally comes to the end of the forest and as soon as he does, he finds himself in a strawberry field, and from there, he makes his way into a wonderful city. The people there “strode swiftly and wore long coats of blue or black wool against the chill, scarves about their throats, and all held umbrellas aloft” (104).

First, their description (and the environment) gives the impression of individual people, each one wrapped up in their own existence.

Second, the colors seem a bit gloomy, and the fact that they try to keep the rain off, alludes to the strong ambiance of gaiety — cafes, bookstores, artisans — that make up the mood of the city. It’s supposed to be a good place where seeming bad or inconvenient things (such as rain) are kept at bay.

Also, while reading, one factor about the city’s inhabitants that I thought was important was Pico’s observation that they “all were young” (105).

Additionally, when Pico arrives, he sees himself in the steamed glass of a bakery and is struck with how much his appearance has changed. He’s thinner, has earrings and a tattoo. But it’s not just a visual change; he now has to assess himself anew after all the experiences he’s had, for

“The journey through the forest marked on his skin as his footprints had marked the skin of the forest. The words of the forest inside him as he had left words behind. A long time he stood before the glass, turning this way and that, trying to enter the new body before him, this body of scars and angles, this foreigner” (105).

Even Pico recognizes that he’s changed from the librarian poet who set out to acquire his wings. And I might agree with him.

He might not have been good at recognizing what Adevi needed, but as a result of her death and the others he met in the forest, he’s definitely, I like to think, changed. I like to think he’s a little wiser about how he treats others, how he thinks of them, and how he respects them (especially women).

Also, just from a plot point of view, his coming to the city in the mountains signals the second stage of his journey. He went through the forest; now he’s back in civilization, but a new kind of one. He’s gone through the murky locale of transformation and has re-appeared in a new form. Think of it as how in fairy tales, most changes or events happen in the woods (Little Red Riding Hood, ??)

Once the rain passes, Pico relishes the blueness of the sky and finally gets a full taste of the city. There is a stench of Orientalism (at least I think so), to the description of it at full life:

“Fire-eaters gushed hot bushes over the heads of the crowd, spraddle-legged sword-swallowers sucked steel, a boy mounted a ladder balanced on the soles of a prone man, handstanding on the topmost rung. A man tore coins with his fingers, another passed coins through the ears of children” (106).

Reading those descriptions immediately made me think of Orientalist cliches. Heck, most of them appear in American films, from the 1924’s Thief of Bagdad to Disney’s Aladdin.

One little detail that made me pause was Pico’s belief that “here…Zelzala had unfolded her table with it’s violet cloth, before a stranger lured her to the forest by the ardor of his heart” (106).

It wasn’t that she couldn’t have come from this city, which seems likely, but I question whether the incubus “lured her…by the ardor of his heart”. Or if he did, he did so for the sake of his own pleasure and not for any concern for Zelzala as a person. Of course, considering some of my interests in writing, perhaps he did care. Who am I to say?

At first Pico revels in the city and its wonderful atmosphere. But then hunger begins to be a problem. By luck, he finds change in the street and is able to buy breakfast.

After filling his stomach, he browses through the extensive outdoor bookshops and absorbs the ambiance of the city through its stories, for they

“had something of the claustrophobia of those dense alleys, the endless diversions interspersed with warm interiors. He began to know a little of the hearts of these city folk, their pent up emotions, their reverence for duels, suicides, fraught loves triangles. At the edges of the tales he glimpsed the white peaks of the mountains and the dark fringes of the forest but these were never penetrated. They hung like ponderous ornaments on the fabric of prose, mute and meaningful. And he sensed something else else beneath the tales, some force that gave them power, evident in fearful glances and unheard murmurs, in the absence of certain words, in the avidity for unnatural death. Melancholy processions, rites rich with hidden meaning, girls curdling suddenly mad, a road, untraveled, curving away from the city to an untold destination” (111).

Aside from the foreshadowing this provides for what will happen to Pico, I like the sense that stories are not just words, but what is unsaid, what is feared and valued in the society or place where the stories are written. Stories can be powerful doorways into understanding and knowledge.

Of course, Pico’s full belly doesn’t last long and he ends up in the city’s back alleys.

There he comes across two men striking a woman in the face. In what I consider an improvement on his previous behavior to women, Pico tells them to stop. And specially that they’re “‘making her cry'” (113). This shows his growing empathy for others and how they would feel, rather than what he thinks is best for them (as he did with Adevi). I’m impressed.

His attempts at bravery only get him into more trouble and he’s sent to prison. While there he realizes that “the cage is the ultimate horror” because it restricts movement and freedom (115). In my notes, I have this emphasized as important and I’m not sure what else I have to say about, other than caging anyone, physically or emotionally, is cruel.

Later, the woman he saved, whose name is Solya, takes him out of prison to where she lives.

While he adjusts to his new surroundings, there was this little gem that stood out to me:

“Girls who are fires. Adevi had been a bonfire, roaring, riotous, ravenous. Get too close and you’re a cinder. Zelzala had smoldered like a coal under ashes, like incense-soaked sandalwood. But Solya was a candle flame, clear, bright, steady, a candle flame in a window in rainy weather” (126).

It succinctly expresses major female’s life and self; how they are different and distinct. I also generally like the fire metaphor, if only because of certain story ideas of my own.

Although, I can’t shake the feeling that fire as a metaphor for women could exotify or sexualize them, except I can’t pinpoint how. I can see how it would make them deadly and powerful and authoritative, which would be good. I’ll just leave this as a thought and see if anyone reading this thinks of anything.

Finally, Pico learns Solya was a tightrope walker who attracted the attention of a painter named Zarko. They became lovers and he painted pictures of her.

But her popularity detracted the crowd of other street performers, so a sword-swallower cut her rope. She fell and “would have died had she not landed flukily in a barrow of chrysanthemums but even so she broke both her legs” (129).

To explain this, the text tells me that “[a]rtists are slaves to attention and lacking an audience their gestures are the knocking of dead twigs in a barren brake” (129). I think it’s odd to say I’m a slave to attention and yet I can’t deny that an artist without an audience isn’t really getting anyway. Since sharing or communicating something is often a part of art.

Solya’s bones heal unevenly making her unable to practice her craft. Because of this and because she is not the image Zarko fell in love with, he abandons her. As Solya tells Pico, “‘He’ll even fuck me if he’s drunk enough'” (130). Pico (rightfully) protests this, but Solya says it’s just the way life is and she’s grateful for what she still has.

Basically I agree with Pico — Zarko’s a jerk. Or at least, I can’t say he loved her as a person if her inability to walk a tightrope destroyed the beauty of her personality and self to him. Jerk.

next week, artists and stories are explored further. 


source revised for tense and part of speech

  • spume: vto eject or discharge as or like foam or froth; spew
  • aperturen. an opening, as a hole, slit, crack, gap
  • reeksn. 1. a strong, unpleasant smell; 2. vapor or steam
  • baizen. a soft, usually green, woolen or cotton fabric resembling felt, used chiefly for the tops of billiard tables
  • garrulousadj. 1. excessively talkative in a rambling, roundabout manner, especially about trivial matters; 2. wordy or diffuse
  • ferrulen. a ring or cap, usually of metal, put around the end of a post, cane, orthe like, to prevent splitting
  • prestidigitatedv. the act of sleight of hand
  • flukily: adj. obtained by chance rather than skill
  • quirtsn. a riding whip consisting of a short, stout stock and a lash of braided leather.

Solya: “’I could no longer walk the rope, don’t you see? Zarko had fallen in love with an image of bright hair against stars. That girl was gone'”  (130).

Works Cited:

Miller, Keith. The Book of Flying: A Novel. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2004. Print.


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