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The Fever of Urbicande, Chapter 3

by Julian Darius, published before on Sequart Research & Literacy Organization at Monday 21 November 2011

We’ve previously looked at The Fever of Urbicande‘s prologue, some of that prologue’s implications, and chapters one and two. This time, we’ll continue to chapter three of this fascinating story.

I’ve also previously introduced The Obscure Cities series and discussed its first volume, The Walls of Samaris. You don’t need to read them to understand The Fever of Urbicande, but they’re there if you’d like more.

Chapter 3

This is the chapter in which everything changes. Everything before this has been merely a very careful and clever prologue to what happens here. And it’s here that The Fever of Urbicande reaches beyond the careful and clever — and into the brilliant and the undeniably classic.

It’s also, structurally, a very different chapter from the two previous. Those two chapters confined themselves to a single day, from morning to night. This one begins in similar fashion, then begins to jump ahead, ultimately covering almost a week. Like in any construction project, the groundwork had to be laid very precisely, but now it’s time to reap the dizzying rewards. From here onward, the narrative begins to speed up, ultimately encompassing most of a year, from start to finish.

Appropriate to this extended coverage, at 14 pages, this is also a longer chapter than the two previous, which ran nine and eight pages, respectively.

But this is also the chapter in which the apparent B-plot, the cube, clearly takes over from the apparent A-plot, the question of Bridge Three. Of course, the two are related, at least thematically. But The Fever of Urbicande is a very different story, at the end of this chapter, than it is at the end of the previous one. It’s as if everything that’s so far been implicit is about to take center stage, while everything that was explicit is about to be subsumed within these new developments.

Finally, this chapter introduces the story’s final major character, who will be indispensable to the story’s newly dominant themes.

The chapter begins, like the previous chapter, the following morning, as Robick wakes in his office. He narrates that he has a “violent headache,” apparently from drinking the previous night, after the last chapter’s conclusion.

And then he sees what the room looks like around him.

Robick narrates that the network has grown to occupy “almost the entirety of the room, imprisoning me in its scaffolding.” The scaffolding analogy was implicit near the end of the last chapter, when the network was still a lattice, but the network has now grown to the point where it’s close to that of an actual scaffold.

Robick then notices that “one of its posts passed right through my arm,” precisely as the network had previously passed through his desk. Robick finds his arm “impossible to move.” He writes, “Curiously, it caused me no pain, but I sensed that if I tried to free myself, I would wound myself badly.” And so he’s forced to “wait more than three hours before the network’s growth permitted me to free my arm.”

Once his arm is free, Robick’s still trapped inside the network, unable to exit the room. And so, using the network like the scaffold it is, he begins to climb. He reaches the top, from which he’s able to climb down, across the adjacent cubes, in order to reach the door. Even then, he’s barely able to squeeze through it, because some of the network’s prongs have almost reached the door.

Although we’re only two pages into the chapter, these pages provide a stunning sequence, like nothing that’s come before. They represent a rupture to the narrative, from which it will never recover. They offer a surprise, by showing the speed of the network’s growth, but they also brilliantly demonstrate that growth’s logical implications.

It’s worth remarking how powerfully Schuiten’s artwork is able to convey the events. It’s full of detail, such as a single piece of paper, somehow lifted off Robick’s desk and carried upward, impaled by the network, as seen in the first panel showing the network’s growth. While subtle, this suggests a sense of displacement, visually representing how Robick’s work has been thrown into chaos. The detail and shading Schuiten gives to the network, particularly at its joints, help to make it feel like a real and solid thing, rather than the abstract cube or lattice of earlier chapters. And the large “buds” growing from the network, particularly the top as Robick climbs, recall the tiny “buds” seen earlier and thereby ominously suggest the network’s continued growth.

In the panel in which Robick realizes that his arm is caught, a bottle, presumably of liquor left over from the night before, sits next to him. This both visually reminds us of his drinking, at the end of chapter two, and has something of the incongruent appearance of a single house, untouched after a hurricane, especially when juxtaposed to Robick’s impaled arm. Of course, the network probably passed through the bottle too, during the night, but the fact that it’s intact and made of fragile glass shows how the network works better than any amount of narration.

The sequence in which Robick climbs the network is composed of thin vertical panels, which both accentuate his climbing action and make the reader feel something of the claustrophobia Robick must feel. The geometric precision of the network there helps make it feel mathematical and impartial, and the fact that it’s shown to be on a slant, depending on the point of view, subtly reminds us that it was left at an angle on Robick’s desk and has expanded accordingly — an idea later made clear in the narrative itself.

That’s not to say that Schuiten’s art is perfect here. In particular, Robick’s descent from the top of the network isn’t clear enough, relying upon the reader to note the curvature of the wall and to realize that this is the same door seen earlier, rather than a new one on some previously unseen balcony level. But that’s a minor complaint, in a sequence that manages to be stunningly entertaining while also, in so many details, suggesting the network’s nature and that nature’s implications.

We can only speculate how Robick might have escaped, had the network already reached the door. Of course, Schuiten and Peeters wouldn’t have done so, because it would have removed Robick from the action. And because Robick’s arm is caught for over three hours, he would have needed to have overslept by longer than that for the network to have possibly have prevented his exit. But had the original cube been positioned closer to the door, this might have been a very different story. And it’s thoughts like these that illustrate the sense of contingency upon which the story rests. Everything that happens, from here onward in the story, flows directly from what we’ve already seen. And even something like the placement of the cube, in those first two chapters, while essentially random, has profound implications.

Another implication, completely logical given what’s already been established, is that Robick’s arm is trapped inside a post. It’s a particular highlight of the sequence, and yet it’s only logical that some part of his body would be caught, given that the length of each cube is only slightly wider than a man. In fact, the network probably passed harmlessly through his entire body multiple times, as it grew through the night.

This also provides another demonstration of the network’s properties. Clearly, (1) it’s growing cubes adjacent to the ones already present, and (2) the entire structure is simultaneously and homogeneously enlarging in size. But we’ve also seen that, (3) as it grows, it passes through objects without affecting them, as if it’s somehow out of phase with normal matter. We saw this earlier with Robick’s desk, and now we see that this ability to harmlessly pass through matter doesn’t treat organic matter any differently: Robick suffers no physical damage from a prong passing through his arm, although it surely passed through arteries. Indeed, had the network passed directly through his heart or his brain during the night, there’s no indication to suspect that it would have had any negative effect on him.

But these properties are accompanied by another, seemingly contradictory one: (4) while the network doesn’t affect and isn’t affect by matter it expands into, to the extent that it doesn’t push those objects when it grows into them, any object that touches it is affected by the normal laws of physics. Thus, Robick was unable to extract the lattice from his desk. Because while the network didn’t affect the desk, the moment force is applied against it, it’s very much adjacent to the molecules making up the desk. Similarly, while the network didn’t hurt Robick’s arm, he realizes that he would have hurt his arm, had he strained to free it. When the cube moves, it moves as if it’s out of phase with the surrounding matter — or “indifferent” to it (to quote Robick from chapter two). But when anything else touches the cube, both that something and the cube are very much solid and in sync with normal matter.

This is why Robick and others were able to carry the cube and place it on his desk in the first place — it’s still subject to gravity. But when it moves, it does as if it’s isolated abstractly in space, immune not only to the surrounding matter but to gravity itself. Hence, it doesn’t suddenly fall through Robick’s desk or his office building.

It’s a fascinating set of rules. To them, we may also add that (5) it feels cold like metal, but lacks metal’s weight or texture (as Thomas observes in chapter two); and (6) it’s apparently indestructible (as Robick observed on the first page of chapter one), having apparently broken the drill bit that first unearthed it.

This indestructibility, combined with the fact that it passes effortless through things yet all attempts to affect it are subject to normal physical laws, presents an obvious problem. How do you stop such a thing? And if you can’t, what are the implications, as it continues to grow?

As Robick escapes into the corridor outside his office, the size of those implications are beginning to dawn on him. The night before, Thomas seemed alarmed by the network’s implications, while Robick understood them only abstractly, celebrating them as if the network were a scientific curiosity. Now, having had his arm imprisoned inside the network and having had to struggle to escape his own office, those implications are no longer abstract for Robick. Indeed, he narrates that “Thomas had been right,” and he sets off immediately to ask him “what measures to take.”

But no sooner does he leave his building than he realizes “the scale of the disaster.” In a large and beautifully rendered panel, we see Robick’s place at the left. Although we couldn’t see this from inside Robick’s office, the network has already grown through the spherical walls of his building, presumably on the side on which his desk is situated. It hovers in the air between Robick’s and the building next door, like a strange lattice sticking out into space.

It’s another panel of marvelous detail. In the background, we can see the industrial smoke of the North Bank. We also see the strange adjacent building as a whole, including two massive statues and a staircase, after the architectural fashion that seems to predominate in Urbicande, that’s so absurdly long and pompous that it seems to comprise most of the building.

To Schuiten’s credit, he chooses a distant, objective shot here, rather than a close-up on the network emerging from Robick’s building, as might have been the temptation. That helps to make Robick seem dwarfed not only by the architecture (likely his own) but by the situation. It also helps us to understand that the network, while amazingly large compared to the previous night, is still small compared to the city’s skyline, which explains why it hasn’t yet become the focus of the authorities.

To get a better look at the network, Robick ascends the adjacent building’s outer staircase. The network has already actually reached and slightly penetrated that building, which Robick calls “the contaminated house.” At the top of the staircase, Robick can touch the network, but it intersects with the building at a higher point. Presumably to get a better view, he climbs onto the network. There’s a very tall pane of glass, and the network begins to intersect with the building near its base. But when Robick looks inside it, he sees a bed and a pool, on which a man (apparently middle-aged) is having sex with a woman, in the presence of three other women, all apparently younger and in various stages of undress.

The wavy lines emanating from Robick’s head suggest that he’s shocked to see this, and he quickly descends the staircase, looking embarrassed, as if he doesn’t want anyone to think he’s a peeping tom. But in the next panel, as he walks in the garden in front of this building, he’s unmistakably hanging his head, as if in shame.

It’s a very strange moment. To their credit, the French are far less squeamish than the English-speaking world about sex and nudity, and there’s nothing odd at all about such imagery appearing in a comic book that’s not aimed at children — and which neither carries any warning labels nor comes encased in a plastic bag. But there’s no denying that this single panel represents a remarkable tonal shift, even to the less prudish among us.

The image is confined to a single panel, taking up a little less than the middle third of the page. Until that panel, the narrative has had absolutely no nudity, not even in its statuary, and no discussion of anything sexual. It’s been an intellectual story, about the intersection of architecture and politics, the importance of integrity in an artistic design, two friends with somewhat different perspectives, and an odd cube with interesting properties. At the point in which this image appears, that cube has suddenly advanced — and fascinatingly so. The reader is thoroughly immersed in the abstract, intellectual ideas it represents. Then, out of nowhere, comes a panel showing group sex.

It’s almost as if this jarring panel is a window into another world, one very different from the one Robick — and the reader — are in.

And that’s completely intentional. It is literally a window, after all — one Robick stumbled onto by accident. One gets the sense that what he sees represents an underbelly, an invisible life occurring inside at least some of these pure, semi-fascistic, imposing buildings. And based on his reaction, this is a world from which Robick is very much removed.

That’s not to say this isn’t a world without any appeals to him, however much he’s used to living the aloof life of an urbatect. Nor is it to say that the sexual abandon represented by the image is entirely unconnected, at least thematically, with the network.

After all, if one looks closely at that panel, one sees that a single prong of the network penetrating the clear, reflective windowpane. That windowpane extends upward, beyond the panel’s border, where more of the network may well intersect with this building. But because of the way the panel is framed, we’re left with a single, phallic prong of the network, protruding through the window, from Robick’s direction towards the people having sex.

In fact, as if for emphasis, it’s not even clear why the network would have such a long prong, at this particular point in its design. The prong seems to stretch forward, towards an adjacent cube that doesn’t yet exist. Yet we can clearly see other “buds” in the same image, and none appear as long.

The symbolism is obvious, once noticed, but many readers may not immediately do so, partially because the prong is at the top of the panel and partially because the eyes naturally gravitate to nudity and sex. But if we’ve seen anything about this series so far, it’s that details are important. For example, those little “buds” Robick noticed turned out to have profound consequence.

It’s not immediately clear, however, why the man Robick sees would be enjoying the attentions of no less than four quite attractive women. We might speculate that he’s a man of wealth and power, and that’s probably true. But there’s another, more mundane explanation: the building is a house of prostitution.

As Robick walks, head lowered, through the garden in front of the building, a voice calls out to him by name, congratulating him. It’s a woman, and she explains that she’s his neighbor, although “it’s true one never sees you in my house. It must haven taken an exceptional event to bring you in this direction.” She’s teasing him, obviously, about not being a good neighbor, but her phrasing suggests the truth. She continues in the same vein, playing with Robick in a way we haven’t seen anyone do. “But how you export your inventions now! And you send them even to my house!” She clearly means the network. But here again, despite her playful tone, her words (“it must have taken an exceptional event” and “even to my house”) suggests that she understands her lack of social respectability — and why a man like Robick wouldn’t pay her a visit.

We’ve already seen, in his letter that serves as the story’s prologue, how careful Robick can be with rhetoric. Whether or not he previously recognized the nature of the building next to his, he certainly does now. His unfamiliarity with the world he’s seen, combined with his embarrassment, emerges in the extreme formality of his words: ”I assure you, madam, I had nothing to do with the phenomenon that has come to touch your… establishment.” He keeps his head slightly lowered, his expression grave.

The woman diffuses his nervousness expertly. She begins with flattery, even hinting that she’s harbored a secret obsession for him:

Don’t be so modest! I’ve often observed you returning home, lost in your thoughts, without even raising your head. And I say to myself, “This man is a genius. All these places in which we live, it’s him who has constructed them.” But now, discovering your latest invention, I understand that you are a lot more: an artist, a poet even! It’s a pleasure to speak with you.

Robick might be especially susceptible to this flattery because it signals a respect for his accomplishments that he hasn’t gotten from the High Commission, nor perhaps even from Thomas. We may well suspect that he hasn’t gotten it, more generally, from the city’s more elite circles in which he travels.

Continuing, the woman now pivots rather expertly: “Well, explain to me how your invention works! I’ll doubtlessly understand nothing, but it would please me to listen to you, Eugen…”

It’s perfectly reasonable for her to assume that he’s more intelligent than her, at least when it comes to the network she thinks he’s invented. Yet this mixture of self-deprecation and flattery is an old tactic of seduction, playing off the listener’s ego while inviting a complement, or at least attention. Applied to intelligence, it’s a particularly female tactic of seduction, because male intelligence is generally considered attractive while female intelligence generally isn’t (if not, to some men, a negative). So in devaluing her own intelligence, she loses little. And Robick, who obviously suffers from pride, would hardly be seduced by someone confidently asserting she could certainly understand, when she doesn’t even understand what this would involve. Sweetening the deal, she promises that his explanation will please her. This helps explain why she might wish to hear something she expects not to understand, but it also suggests that she values male intelligence highly, underlining what she’s already implied in saying she has watched him returning home.

Of course, her devaluation of her own intelligence also allows her to invite herself into Robick’s space, by requesting an explanation of the network. And it puts him off-guard: she’s clearly intelligent enough in both business and seduction, though perhaps not mathematics, yet she’s encouraging him to underestimate her intelligence.

But calling Eugen by his name allows her to pivot once again, establishing intimacy: ”may I call you Eugen? And on that note, call me Sophie. Not this ‘madam,’ which puts me off.” It’s a familiar tactic, but it’s particularly successful here, where it comes off like an afterthought following a string of flattery, putting the awkward Eugen at ease.

This dialogue consumes three panels, but Schuiten doesn’t simply fill them with static images of Sophie talking. Instead, he pays attention to gesture and mannerisms. In the first panel, as she begins to flatter Robick’s intelligence, she leans forward, as if asserting herself confidently. This also forces the downtrodden Robick, who had been leaning forward himself (in his case, in embarrassment), to straighten his posture. In this and in the second panel, she gestures with an open palm, which signals submission rather than assertiveness and also subtly helps to put Robick at ease. In the third panel, she touches her fingers lightly to her chest, as if emphasizing how much him explaining the network would mean to her.

Schuiten also pays attention to dress. Sophie at first seems to be heavily clothed: she wears an exotic jacket that effectively incorporates a thick scarf into the lapel. The same fabric is used at the end of the jacket’s sleeves. Later, we see that the jacket rises up behind her neck, framing her head in an almost regal design. The jacket looks thick and, while stylish, is also imposing. But in these three panels of Sophie speaking, her jacket slips open for the first time, revealing that she’s dressed far less imposingly underneath it. In fact, not only does her dress underneath show off her cleavage, but her breasts slip out of the design, exposing a nipple three times in these two pages of dialogue with Robick in the garden in front of her establishment.

Like Sophie’s rather slick rhetoric, it’s hard to object to this because it’s just subtle enough that it’s hard to accuse her of calculation. After all, she spotted Robick in the garden and didn’t wear this outfit for his benefit. She may simply not notice that her breasts are slipping out of the dress, or she may be so comfortable with her body and with nudity that she doesn’t care. Certainly, both her initial playful tone and her verbal informality suggest this latter alternative. But it’s hard not to notice that, as she touches her fingers to her chest and explains how his explaining the network would please her, her left nipple is showing. Her gesture towards her heart is also a sexual one, encouraging him (and the reader) to notice her breasts.

Perhaps all this very effective rhetoric, both verbal and visual, is not calculated on Sophie’s part. Then again, her job involves putting men at ease, if not outright seducing them, and this argues that she’s not entirely oblivious to what she’s doing. But whether we see this play of dialogue and image as evidence of Sophie’s skill or as a happy confluence, they’re certainly masterful on the part of Schuiten and Peeters.

They don’t completely removes Robick’s awkwardness, however. He begins his response by saying “I assure you… Sophie…” But in using her first name, even after a pause, he capitulates to her intimate tone. (Although they still use the formal vous for “you” instead of the familiar tu.) He insists that he “had no part” in the creation of the network. But all the same, he invites her over to look at “some calculations that might interest you.” As he does so, his mannerism completely changes, gesturing actively, whereas he previously seemed withdrawn and inhibited. Whether or not she’s attempting to seduce him, he appears here to recognize an opportunity.

Whatever her intent previously, consciously or not, Sophie immediately recognizes what he’s doing and calls him on it. “Are you in the habit of taking young girls to your place to observe phenomena like this?” she asks. If she’s attempting to seduce him, she certainly plays innocent. But then, as the “camera” closes on her, she says, “It’s true that I’m no longer at all a young girl.” And she laughs. And then she announces, “Let’s go,” adding the caveat that she can spend “a few minutes and no more.” She explains, “I must concern myself with my clients,” reminding us of her occupation, and adding that she wouldn’t want her clients to become concerned by “your new invention.”

They walk towards Robick’s building, and that’s the end of the sequence, when then cuts to the next day.

It’s not entirely clear whether Eugen and Robick have sex that night. At the end of this chapter, she kisses him, and he seems a bit shocked. But the sequence here strongly implies the possibility of a sexual encounter.

Notably, the final tier of panels on the page is five in number. As Sophie responds, calling Eugen on his invitation, the “camera” closes in on her, as she says that she’s no longer young and then laughs. This framing suggests that we’re supposed to imagine her mental state, as if she’s realized his intentions but decided, uncharacteristically, to have a little fun anyway, in part because it is so uncharacteristic for her. The panels then pull out again, until Sophie and Eugen are tiny figures, walking away from us — which suggests that they’re leaving us and we won’t see what follows.

There’s even an architecture to the way the figures are placed. In the first three panels, we can draw a line across the tops of the figures’ heads, and it rises until it reaches its peak in that central, third panel. From there, the figures descend more rapidly, at a steeper incline.

For all of Robick’s concern for architectural symmetry, Schuiten has managed to incorporate this same symmetry into his panel designs, where it serves narrative functions, altering our reading of Sophie and signalling the change of scene that will come with the end of this page.

Perhaps we cannot fully tell whether Eugen and Sophie have sex or not, following this sequence. Nor can we say with complete certainty whether Sophie is consciously seducing Robick from the start or if she truly does have a realization in the third of those final five panels in this sequence.

What we can say with certainty is that the network is already bridging the gap between worlds… and changing Robick. It led him to look in that window, and it led him to have what was, for him, a very unorthodox conversation.

This is what happens, inevitably, as the network expands. And it’s why, while this sequence certainly does take a sudden turn, that turn is part of the story of the network. The network may be mathematical, but its effect is inevitably social. And notably, its first such effect is to expose Robick’s repression and to put him in dialogue with someone from an entirely different social milieu.