In workshop a student said a smart thing about using place in fiction: Tell stories.
This faith in action is ancient as Aristotle, and we might easily replace the word “character” in this passage from his Poetics: “Now [place] determines men's qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse. Dramatic action, therefore, is not with a view to the representation of [place]: [place] comes in as subsidiary to the actions.”
Certainly when you look at a story such as Ray Carver’s “Gazebo,” a place is portrayed as it’s used, like this seedy motel by its managers: “That’s when I got the Teacher’s. We locked up and came upstairs here with ice, glasses, bottles. First off, we watched the color TV and frolicked some and let the phone ring away downstairs. For food, we went out and got cheese crisps from the machine.”
That we might all dine as well. The story is about the aftermath of an affair, so place becomes a remembered-imagined landscape in which dual narratives show what’s been lost:
“Listen,” she goes. You remember the time we drove out to that old farm place outside of Yakima, out past Terrace Heights? We were just driving around? We were on this little dirt road and it was hot and dusty? We kept going and came to that old house…. Those old people must be dead now,” she goes, “side by side out there in some cemetery. You remember they asked us in for cake? And later on they showed us around? And there was this gazebo there out back? It was out back under some trees? It had a little peaked roof and the paint was gone and there were these weeds growing up over the steps. And the woman said that years before, I mean a real long time ago, men used to come around and play music out there on a Sunday, and the people would sit and listen. I thought we’d be like that too when we got old enough. Dignified. And in a place. And people would come to our door.”
As in Carver’s “Cathedral,” the architecture is where human connections form and fail.
Writers don’t usually leave details sitting around like shrunken heads on the kitchen counter, unless shrunken heads engage with the emotional logic of the fiction. I remember a workshop story that made an odd sidebar of a lamp next to grandpa’s chair. Surely real-life grandpa had a lamp like that in his living room, and it was in the story because it was bona fide. No disrespect to real grandpa, but who cares about his lamp? Unless…wait, fictional grandpa loved it? It was the first home furnishing he bought himself, in that short interval between escaping his parents’ house—a stuffy, low-ceilinged bungalow cluttered with dad’s collection of pickaxes and antique brakemen’s lanterns in homage to the vigorous worker, though dad was what we’d now call an asset stripper—and entering into domestic bliss with Grandma, whose complicated aesthetic involves Irish lace, Naugahyde, and ribbon candies? And it turns out the granddaughter, who appears to worship some guy named Taylor Swift, has been nagging him, with grandma’s encouragement, to sell his possession of 56 years in a garage sale? On top of no one believing him about the aliens?
James Wood: “… Chekhov thinks of detail, even visual detail, as a story, and thinks of story as an enigma. He was not interested in noticing that the roofs of a town look like armadillo shells, or that he was confused about God, or that the Russian people represented the world-spirit on a troika. He was drawn neither to the statically poetic nor to the statically philosophical. Detail is hardly ever a stable entity in Chekhov’s work; it is a reticent event."
Wood refers briefly to the opening of Chekhov’s tale “In the Ravine,” quoted here:
“The village of Ukleevo lay in a ravine so that only the belfry and the chimneys of the printed cottons factories could be seen from the high road and the railway-station. When visitors asked what village this was, they were told:
"’That's the village where the deacon ate all the caviare [sic] at the funeral.’
“It had happened at the dinner at the funeral of Kostukov that the old deacon saw among the savouries some large-grained caviare and began eating it greedily; people nudged him, tugged at his arm, but he seemed petrified with enjoyment: felt nothing, and only went on eating. He ate up all the caviare, and there were four pounds in the jar. And years had passed since then, the deacon had long been dead, but the caviare was still remembered.” [translator unspecified]
Eudora Welty: “Location…is not simply to be used by the writer—it is to be discovered…[which] does not imply that the place is new, only that we are. […] Discovery, not being a matter of writing our name on a wall, but of seeing what that wall is and what is over it, is a matter of vision.”
In 1995, my friend Frenchy and I backpacked around Vietnam for five weeks. He’d served two tours in the war, and I was born there, so we both had things we wanted to see. But travel is often mundane beyond belief—more food because it’s mealtime, another temple, a long walk down the same beach road you walked down and back three times earlier in the day. What’s to write about?
Start with Saigon: Even the name is contentious, something I won’t get into here except to say that when we visited locals were calling it that, rather than Ho Chi Minh Ville. (Welty again: “[F]eelings are bound up in place. The human mind is a mass of associations…more poetic even than actual. …place has a more lasting identity than we have, and we unswervingly tend to attach ourselves to identity…once we have it named, we have put a kind of poetic claim on its existence….”) One wonders if, in the age of state capitalism, the name might flip-flop like Saint Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad/Saint Petersburg, or Tsaritsyn/Volgograd/Stalingrad/Volgograd/Stalingrad (but only six days per year).
Ah, but the story: We’d been in Vietnam three or four weeks, were in love with it but exhausted by planes, trains, boats, minibuses, and scooters; by cultural difference and the barrier of language; by the demands of beggars whose needs could never be met; by people yelling that if we wanted to walk or didn’t agree to buy another bootleg copy of The Quiet American we’d be cussed for being Russians; by the conspiracy of good intentions that we visit the American War Crimes Museum—again. Frenchy was sick and saying two weeks would have been enough, which made my own spirits sag. A long talk with students at Saigon University ended with one asking me sweetly what he should say at a funeral for a child.
That night, at the Tiger Tavern, a British-style pub for a corporate brewery owned by the Dutch, we met “Hamms,” who said, somewhat contradictorily, that he’d been an interpreter for US Special Forces and we could also call him “Mr. Charlie.” “Jeezy Criche,” he exclaimed happily when he heard the name of Frenchy’s old unit, and he ordered us all more black-and-tans on my tab. He said he knew of a place just like during the war, on the former Tu Do Street, renamed, after Saigon fell, Dong Khoi—which translates to something like total uprising street. “Only place that hasn’t changed,” he assured us. “It’s what you want.” He told us he’d meet us there in 15 minutes and disappeared forever.
Frenchy agreed it was generally how things had been: Madame Tat lorded over the bar, selling watery overpriced drinks to ex-pat oil workers and other Westerners in town to do business with what they hoped was another Asian Tiger economy in the making. Vietnamese girls hung on some of the men, who bought them not-champagne at what was, for many Vietnamese, two months’ wages.
Frenchy and I spent several hours sitting at the bar with Mr. Christian, a self-described Danish whiz-kid, now in his fifties, who bought all our drinks in return for listening to his boasts and lies. He said he was in shipping, out of Singapore mostly, and his briefcase, which he kept very close, held all his business secrets, his innovations, his future fortunes, the keys to the kingdom. The briefcase was locked at all times because you couldn’t trust anyone in Asia, he explained. Whenever Christian slowed from fatigue, Frenchy winked at me, asked an interested question, and the talk and drinks kept flowing. Mr. Christian said he had to make sure he got up, got showered, and was packed in time for an early flight; there was a business meeting somewhere. Seoul. Tokyo. Whatever. By the end he was so slobbering drunk he begged Madame Tat over and over to let him pay his tab, even though he’d paid it already—twice. She looked embarrassed not to take more of his money and begged us to remove this terrible temptation from her establishment and see him home.
We carried Mr. Christian crucified between us to the street. He gripped his briefcase like the antidote to death. It was hard to tell where home was, since he could only mumble and point, and when I laughed unkindly he laughed harder under his distinguished white hair, pleased I was in on the joke. There were no streetlights in the neighborhood, and half a dozen guys watched us from a corner. In the heat rose the stink of garbage and human waste. We finally got our new friend to a dilapidated, multi-floored building where the desk clerk seemed to recognize him and provided a key to a room.
But Mr. Christian wouldn’t stay in it. We went in with him, made sure he was comfortable and safe, set his briefcase next to the bed, reminded him of his flight and big meeting, shook hands heartily and thanked him for the drinks, goodbye, goodbye. We closed the door behind us but were only a few steps down the hall when he was out and jabbering. We pushed him inside, goodbye jolly goodbye mate, and pulled the door shut. The door flew open and he reeled out, bounced off the wall and headed for the stairs. Frenchy finally retrieved his key from the room, and we shoved him in and locked the deadbolt from the outside. I could hear him scrabbling at it, but there was no latch on the inside, and the noise grew fainter and then stopped. I slid the key under the door in case of fire. Not that he’d wake up.
The bloody briefcase was sitting in the hallway now.
Mr. Christian was right: You can’t trust certain people in Asia. Sure, it took a little work to get it open, but don’t tell me you didn’t want me to look inside. So I did: Styrofoam nestled two halves of something like a disassembled weapon. It took a minute to figure it all out in the dim passage, but I finally understood what I was seeing: a negative injection mold of a phallus about nine inches long, with a big head. As we left the hotel, two of the guys in the street tried to chat us up and then got aggressive. One put his hand on Frenchy’s back, and Frenchy, who’d finally had enough, spun and shouted, “Touch me again and I will hurt you!”
As it turns out, workers at the Nike factory in Saigon eventually got caught using the company’s silicone rubber to make black-market dildos. Mr. Christian’s empire: not the geo-political ambitions of a quiet American, just the masturbatory greed of a drunken Dane.
I’m surprised at how much of this could work, despite every detail but one being nonfiction: the words “Dong Khoi” as cognates in English for coy penis; the deflation of the revolutionary “total uprising,” now no more than a few cents of stolen corporate plastic; certain diacritical marks over Madame Tat’s name would, an internet dictionary tells me, make it mean “to die out…to be extinct”; Mr. Christian, that old retrograde, namesake of 18th c. mutiny, standing for an ironical religiosity echoing Hamm’s “Jeezy Criche”; the odd multiplicity of “tiger,” which could be subtly reinforced by Christian thinking he’s a real tiger but being merely a tool with a big head. Get it?
Maybe all that could be worked up in a scene in some farce or satire, as commentary on the debauchery, impotence, and sterility of colonialism’s end, but it wouldn’t be easy. James Wood says in Irresponsible Self, his study of humor in the novel, “Both Rabelais and Cervantes assume as funny such happenings as killing sheep, beating men to death, two men vomiting in each other’s faces, a pack of dogs trying to mount a woman, and so on.” Wood talks about laughing at versus laughing with, and how the modern novel, with the “huge exception” of Shakespeare, is where laughing with comes from. In my story, there’s much laughing at, and an invitation for readers to sympathize with put-upon First World protagonists, leaving the Vietnamese as hookers and petty thieves, their darkened city mere backdrop. Vietnam becomes “the sort of place” where adolescent stuff like this happens, instead of the “sort of place” where:
“My mother was not like the other girls in Ba Xuyen. Born in the scalding heat of the equator, she had, after all, been named [Tuyet] after snow. And so she was by nature rebellious. And I became the perfect expression of her rebellion. // The moment I was born, I was already blessed with long, Buddha-shaped ears, so long that the rest of my face had to grow into them. …I could immediately hear gasps and sighs of the startled neighbors who had gathered to watch the event of my birth. […] How many other people in this world can remember the sounds of their birth?”
--Lan Cao, Monkey Bridge, excerpted in Nimrod International Journal: Vietnam Revisited (U of Tulsa, 2004)
“Customers broke out in gossip when the special news report ended, some openly wept over their uneaten soup, others, their faces ashen, pushed their chairs and stood up and left without paying. Mrs. Tran didn’t care. She began to remover her jade bracelet, gold Buddha necklace and two earrings, then wrapped them in a white handkerchief. She handed the tiny bundle to her daughter, Nga, the dreamy-eyed teenager who was busy staring at the bright street outside, where flame trees bloomed red and orange, and where people rushed here and there in a state of panic. // ‘Stop daydreaming, my child,’ Mrs. Tran scolded her, ‘put this away and write this down. Get pen and paper. You should have memorized it by now, the way you devour poetry, but I know you haven’t. And may Lady Buddha Quan Yin protect us all.’”
--Andrew Lam, ibid
“He would have to learn for himself the real background that held you as a smell does: the gold of the rice-fields under a flat late sun: the fishers’ fragile cranes hovering over the fields like mosquitoes: the cups of tea on an old abbot’s platform, with his bed and his commercial calendars, his buckets and broken cups and the junk of a lifetime washed up around his chair: the mollusc hats of the girls repairing the road where a mine had burst: the gold and the young green and the bright dresses of the south, and in the north the deep browns and the black clothes and the circle of enemy mountains and the drone of planes. […] I wanted to keep the sight of those silk-trousered figures moving with grace through the humid noon….”
--Graham Greene, The Quiet American
Welty: “It may be that place can focus the gigantic, voracious eye of genius and bring its gaze to point. Focus then means awareness, discernment, order, clarity, insight—they are like the attributes of love.”
One of literature’s chief glories: the illogical weight of meaning—how that stranger’s smile while you were putting quarters in the meter in Key West saved your life. What one hopes to find in writing is a place where all the fundamental forces of narrative nature—action, character, point of view, and details that range from fact to sign to symbol—gather to hold something “worthy of our past,” as Calvino says, something that shows “that species was ours.”