Book Review: Adam Camiolo on Boundless as the Sky by Dawn Raffel

“You need humans to do what humans can’t do.”

Dawn Raffel’s newest work of compact prose and deep imagination, titled Boundless as the Sky, is a sincerely humane response to one of postmodernism’s most abstract masterpieces. It’s a powerful story. The book is a web of vignettes directly patterned after Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and culminates in a multifaceted account of the fascist jaunt into the Chicago World’s Fair. Raffel sets out to explore not just imagined landscapes, but the unseen denizens who live within them. Her work finds new ground in the surprise of discovery, the wonder of achievement, and the horror of people lost within labyrinths of their own construction. Raffel’s challenge to Calvino is not just reflected in her title, which may as well describe the amount of ambition one would need to undertake such an endeavor, but in her epigraph and overall composition.

The stark contrasts to Calvino begin immediately with a preamble, titled “The Author,” who commits an act to “bring back the dead” through their writing. As the book begins, Raffel weaves in entries describing fantastical cities and societies just as Calvino does. However, even in the very first entry, Raffel stakes out her claim. “The City of Serena” introduces us to a world of women entirely cloistered within their own apparel in accordance with an unforgiving society. Soon after, the scope of the book begins to widen. 

We are quickly introduced to another city, this time reduced to refugees after a climate disaster. What came before is slowly forgotten by its survivors and its arbitrary roles soon fade into memory. Raffel’s focus on marginalized people only becomes more apparent as she flits across worlds and timelines. The elderly are spotlighted, as are people who in later stories are employed (in 1930s Chicago) as freaks. Premature babies are nurtured for in a cold exhibit for a paying crowd. A woman watches her partner confess his sins behind a wall of storytelling. But Raffel’s strongest passages are reserved for the women of her worlds, both imaginary and real:

The women were sedated, cut open, sewn up. They were instructed to relax.

Can you hear the body sing?

The women awoke to find their ovaries discarded, wombs cast off, and really, why not. What use for them now?

The blood is not the sea. Your eyes are not stars.

A pause is not pregnant.

Often in these passages, Raffel forgoes the distanced they and forcefully adopts first-person pronouns in a way difficult to imagine Calvino attempting:

Our bellies were vacant, our nettled sex drawn ….

Our babies, not children, nor listeners they—grown tall and lithe or sinewy grown cheeky and willful—our babies created new uses for us.

As Part One continues, the cities become more and more tied to the real world while also veering more fantastical. “The Balloonist,” a tale borne from a tragic painting in the Hungarian National Gallery, is one of the most complete vignettes in the collection, tracing an arc of an eccentric noble through his delightful adventures and into his exit from history. It’s similar in palette to The Grand Budapest Hotel in its melancholy and forgotten grandeur. 

Part Two maintains Raffel’s inventive streak. Ditching Calvino’s template for something that reads like a particularly coherent fragment of Against the Day, Raffel locks into the real-world setting of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933. We are granted access to an assortment of performers from “Midget City”—spurned lovers, a trio of friends, and a doomed future aviator—as they await the long-delayed interruption of fascism into their Century of Progress. These character studies, brief glimpses into the arrival of an Italian seaplane armada, minor brushstrokes of personal dramas, and the sepia-toned somberness of disappeared world, stayed with me long after I put the book down.

On a purely craft level, Boundless as the Sky often reaches rarified air. Raffel climbs to her creative heights when her characters feel their most complete, as if we were peering down into entire histories from 50,000 feet. Stumbling upon these thermal columns throughout the collection is simply joyous and elevates the entire work. Take, for example, the fortune teller who defers defensively to a cryptic response in “The God’s Honest Truth” found in Part Two:

If she could, she would give him back the dime. She would tell him to have all the fun he can have. She would hug him if she could. But she can’t, she’s a professional. This is her job.

She says “The sky is the limit,” and now he is happy.

And that is all we need, really. Raffel’s deft writing often leaves us with complex moments that, with hindsight, take on entirely new dimensions. It is the context of long-since-gone people, their lives, their struggles, their moments of unbelievable triumph now since overshadowed, that make these stories and cities so beguiling to behold. And, after all, when our history is considered, what could possibly be more impossible than the truth?

Boundless as the Sky, by Dawn Raffel. Montclair, New Jersey: Sagging Meniscus Press, January 2023. 146 pages. $18.00, paper.

Adam Camiolo (@upandadamagain) is a writer, and occasional firefighter, who lives in New York. His work can be found in the Schuylkill Valley Journal, The Daily Drunk, The Foreign Policy Book Review, and he contributes to

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