Editor’s note: The following is an imitation, however humble, of the work done by Italo Calvino in Invisible Cities. The book is a compendium of the various towns in Kublai Khan’s empire, relayed to us in by the explorer Marco Polo. Polo’s descriptions of the cities take the form of brief prose poems, focusing on their feel, their architecture, and their spirit—many are fantastical and strange, paradoxical and sublime. Rather than dreaming up a city of our own, we took a town you’ll recognize and gave it the Calvino treatment. One is a study in details remembered and forgotten; the other gives a tired trope a literal spin.
**Princeton, by Zack Newick, Dale Scholar**
In Princeton there is a University that takes the city’s name, takes everything. When you are in other cities and you hear this city spoken of, its name announced, its title heralded, your memories conjure up the school that sits there and nothing else. There are stone archways and sculptures like alien shrapnel and cannons stuffed into the grass. There is singing in these archways and children climbing on these sculptures and jugglers straddling the cannons in the grass. There are boys in topsiders and girls in blue jeans and boys in blue jeans and girls in topsiders sitting in libraries and on benches and on each other reading books and eating sushi and talking about beer and vodka and rum. There are learned professors who smile at students they had once, a year or two before, and now remember only for the jokes they told their wives and husbands about their peculiar employment of commas and semicolons. There is a street called Nassau that navigates the northernmost end of Princeton, ending it.
But no—that is only what your memory tells you, that Princeton ends at Nassau. You come back after many years and your son is walking with you by your side wearing a little black sweater with orange letters and he is curious, curious like you were not when you were eighteen, nineteen, twenty, and you stopped at Nassau for a razor and some condoms and then turned back. He pulls you by the hand, caring little for the University and wanting the city, the city that shares the mantle of Princeton but that you’ve forgotten. He pulls you along until you’ve left your memories and are making new ones, and you see uniform houses and three gas stations in a row and a cluster of men smoking cigarettes at each other and saying nothing. You see a boy walking six dogs and a soccer goal out on the curb for the garbage man and a Chinese restaurant that is probably very good but was too far from Princeton for you to ever go to. You take your son to the restaurant and have scallion pancakes and wonder at all the cities that you know but that you’ve never known.
**Princeton, by Giri Nathan**
There was learning, and it was good. And as they watched the libraries aching toward the sun, and the funds trickling in, and the generations of fine young men marching in and out the gates, the gods of Princeton conspired to weave a delicate tracery over their domain. Slowly over the visible architecture of the campus rose an invisible one, as the sticky filaments arced overhead and cohered into a gentle dome: a semi-permeable membrane that hummed and breathed with the collective pulse of its quiet dwellers. A protective barrier so that the fine young men—and, one day, their fine young sons—and, one day, their fine young sons—could sit in the shade of old oak and vine to dust off tomes and ponder parataxis and topology, free of the unseemly and inchoate pursuits, pretenses, misunderstandings, clashes, and oppressions of the world outside. Tyrants could swallow earths, empires could dissolve, forests could combust, children could tumble into graves, and the fine young men could proceed undisturbed. Only when these worldly happenings were subsumed by way of history into the books that inhabited their libraries, and were fit to be learned by scholars and transmitted to them, would the bubble dwellers become aware, and then only with a sigh—O, this world—and an elegantly argued monograph. Within this subtle membrane the conditions would always remain ideal for the pursuit of knowledge, a stasis calibrated carefully by the divine above. Equilibrium was a crass ideal; refined thought could swell to fill the bubble to capacity, but by no wicked osmosis could the rot and clamor outside ever enter it.
Lest this aerial architecture turn brittle and crumble, exposing its inhabitants to the cruel world, it was replenished often; the gods invited the generations of fine young men to retreat annually into the membrane, bringing their families and prodigious energies. Once safely ensconced in the bubble they funneled their rabid vitalities back into its soil, through beers drunk, and urine passed, and wealth flung, and songs sung, all of which surged back into the turf, into the fine mycelium below, and up back into the faint orange dome above.