Place in Fiction, Part 1

Cogitations is all.


January 28, 2014

Eudora Welty says, “Place is one of the lesser angels that watch over the racing hand of fiction,” though she quickly adds that “place can be seen…to have a great deal to do with…goodness, if not to be responsible for it. […] The truth is, fiction depends for its life on place. Location is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of ‘What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?’—and that is the heart’s field.”

As I mentioned in my last post, we’ve been talking a lot in workshop about representations of place. We live down the road from a famous city that invites notice, that wants to be discussed and remembered, in a region that prides itself on easily-named features and whose people are often distinctive. I don’t know why a writer wouldn’t make an attempt, eventually, at a story set here.

But that's the perpetual problem, isn’t it? “[T]he business of writing,” Welty says, “and the responsibility of the writer [are] to disentangle the significant—in character, incident, setting, mood, everything—from the random and meaningless and irrelevant that in real life surround and beset it.”

I mean, there it is: Life is all cranberry juice and road repairs and sisters-in-law and unnecessary litigation. How to portray something true and integral to the human drama? For writerly visitors to other people’s houses, the problem is similar to finding souvenirs: What authentic local thing can’t you buy on the internet anymore? What’s ginned up for the tourist trade? And who wants another t-shirt bearing a corporate logo?

To state the obvious, true in fiction isn’t often the same as factual. Those people eat 12.4 gallons of gumbo per capita per annum. It was 50 and sunny yesterday; today it’s 28 and all the bridges are icy and closed. Who cares? George Saunders says, “I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters. He enters in one state of mind and exits in another. The writer gets no points just because what’s inside the box bears some linear resemblance to ‘real life’—he can put whatever he wants in there. What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit.”

Even our resident New Orleans native insists that if a fellow writer wants to pick up and move his city’s dump for the sake of story, it doesn’t matter in the least. He’s absolutely right, of course, though it’s important that readers of a certain kind of realism not stop to question why acres of landfill seem to start only two blocks from the center of the French Quarter. Cues for spatial awareness, along with markers of chronological and psychological time, often do matter.

David Lodge points out in The Art of Fiction that the attempt to make us “see” place is relatively recent; he says it’s the Romantic Movement that did it, so Tom Jones’s London has little “sensory impact,” while Oliver Twist’s does.

Styles are cyclical, and few would attempt Victorian-style set pieces of description anymore. But place still matters. The disclaimer at the start of Catch-22 says, “This island of Pianosa lies in the Mediterranean Sea eight miles south of Elba. It is very small and obviously could not accommodate all of the actions described.” The novel then goes ahead and works hard to show just how the men and women of the US Army Air Forces inhabit the now-fictional island, its tent cities with the airfields beyond them and the mountains in the distance, its sleepy, sexy beaches that offer respite from the war, the hope of love, and hijinks: “McWatt was crazy. He was a pilot and flew his plane as low as he dared over Yossarian’s tent as often as he could, just to see how much he could frighten him, and loved to go buzzing with a wild, close roar over the wooden raft floating on empty oil drums out past the sand bar at the immaculate white beach where the men went swimming naked.”

But because everything turns to death in the novel, so one day must this idyllic refuge: “There was the briefest, softest tsst! filtering audibly through the shattering, overwhelming howl of the plane’s engines, and then there were just Kid Sampson’s two pale, skinny legs, still joined by strings somehow at the bloody truncated hips, standing stock-still on the raft for what seemed a full minute or two before they toppled over backward into the water finally with a faint, echoing splash and turned completely upside down so that only the grotesque toes and the plaster-white soles of Kid Sampson’s feet remained in view. On the beach, all hell broke loose. […] McWatt [climbed]…in a slow oval spiral that carried him far out over the water…and far in over the russet foothills…and a great, choking moan tore from Yossarian’s throat as McWatt turned again, dipped his wings once in salute, decided oh, well, what the hell, and flew into a mountain.”

Much writing of the last decades has ignored that Realist need for verisimilitude. In Chapter 9, “The Dinosaurs,” of Italo Calvino’s wonderful Cosmicomics (trans. William Weaver, 1968), this is almost the only detailed description of place: “When we had passed a moraine of stones, uprooted trunks, mud, and dead birds, we saw a deep, shell-shaped valley. A veil of early lichens was turning the rocks green, now that they were freed from the ice. In the midst, lying as if asleep, his neck stretched by the widened intervals of the vertebrae, his tail sown in a long serpentine, a giant Dinosaur's skeleton was lying.”

The cosmic narrator, who here takes the form of the last living dinosaur, hiding among the Pantotheres of the Early Cretaceous, usually speaks of the landscape in the most general terms: “The world had changed: I couldn't recognize the mountain any more, or the rivers, or the trees.” That flat quality goes with the fantastical tone (as a kind of fairy tale it just doesn’t bother much with specifics of place), and when there is noticeable lushness, it serves to punctuate both idea (“But the appearance of the skeleton left its mark, for in all of them the idea of the Dinosaurs became bound to the idea of a sad end, and in the stories they now told the predominant tone was one of commiseration, of grief at our sufferings”) and emotion (“I had no use for this pity of theirs. Pity for what? If ever a species had had a rich, full evolution, a long and happy reign, that species was ours. Our extinction had been a grandiose epilogue, worthy of our past. What could those fools understand of it?”)

When ancient Qfwfq says, at the end, back in his usual mode of description, “I traveled through valleys and plains. I came to a station, caught the first train, and was lost in the crowd,” his magical foreshortening of time and space is nearly shocking and helps finalize the story’s sense of marvel, loneliness, independence, and alienation.

Despite its Apocalypse Realism, what’s most of The Road’s machinery of setting but repetitions of the words ash, black, gray, burned, and cold? (In my memory of it, only one place name is mentioned: "A log barn in a field with an advertisement in faded ten-foot letters across the roofslope. See Rock City.") There are specific, localized things—a sailboat wallowing in the surf, a ruined gas station, the cab of a semi, a backyard survival shelter—that serve as mini-stages for the characters to perch on, but they’re there mostly as plot devices to keep the characters alive, and to remind us of what’s lost in the post-apocalyptic world. That is, they too are ideas floating in a generalized sense of place as ruin. A barn provides tiny sustenance, just when the characters would die if it wasn’t found, but more importantly for us, the protagonist “stood there thinking about cows and he realized they were extinct….” That most prosaic of details is one of the more emotional places for me in the book.

This is probably where place gets most interesting in literary writing: How far it rises into consciousness, how we’re forced to consider it, and to what purpose. Denis Johnson’s story “Emergency,” from Jesus’ Son, has drugged-up losers abandoning a busted-ass truck on a back road and staggering around in a blizzard—one of them perhaps with premature baby rabbits in his shirt—and discovering an abandoned drive-in theater the narrator mistakes for a military cemetery. Surreally, speakers are playing “tinkly music [while onscreen] [f]amous movie stars rode bicycles beside a river, laughing out of their gigantic, lovely mouths,” and that time or another, “A bull elk stood still in the pasture beyond the fence, giving off an air of authority and stupidity.” The collage of bunnies, broken-down truck, cemetery, abandoned drive-in, snow, pasture, fence, and elk form a poem of connotations. We know exactly where we are, even if we don’t know (or care) which town we’re in. We’re in the place where the supposed dignity of American life gives way to “stupidity,” unsettlement, and danger. This is what’s meant by show don’t tell, because data will never provide the satisfactions and recognition, the subtlety and innate measures of consequence, that characters in motion in a landscape can.

To be continued….

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