Literary Cartography

Friend of The Education of Oronte ChurmDinty W. Moore has been getting attention for a story he recently published at the journal The Normal School, out of California State University at Fresno.


January 22, 2010

Friend of The Education of Oronte ChurmDinty W. Moore has been getting attention for a story he recently published at the journal The Normal School, out of California State University at Fresno.

Mr. Plimpton's Revenge: A Google Maps Essay, in Which George Plimpton Delivers My Belated and Well-Deserved Comeuppance” tells Dinty's amusing tale involving a Datsun with "clay fenders," various drugs, and multiple, paranoiac run-ins with Paris Review founder and writer George Plimpton.

(Maybe there’s a whole genre in this: Crossings with Plimpton. In my case, the rich young attorney brother of my young rich professor invited our MFA class to a party in honor of Plimpton when his book Truman Capote came out. The idea was that the release party, held during the Miami Book Fair, would be a Black and White Ball like the one Capote infamously hosted and which is described in the book. This latter one was held around the rooftop pool of the toniest hotel on South Beach. I remember Mr. Plimpton as tall, gaunt, and slightly perverse-looking. He wore a black tuxedo and an ornate black silk mask shaped like a frilly butterfly that covered most of his face but his lips, and his distinguished white hair was a little mussed and sweaty in the heat. He looked like an ambassador fresh from the orgy room. He was, as he’s always described, gentlemanly and gracious, even when the women in our cohort, including a novelist I could name but won’t, and my companion, the future Mrs. Churm, discovered the delights of the Cosmopolitan and sloshed down 4,200 of the neon-colored drinks then said awful things about Allan Gurganus, whose was standing right there.)

The Washington Post, for one, loved Dinty’s story, though its writer does question if the use of the Google Map was distracting. “Even in 2010, not everything written on the Internet has to be interactive. Right?” he says.

The idea of using Google Maps goes back a ways. The Lawrence Journal-World thinks it might have produced “the first example of Google Maps within a story on a traditional news site.” And a couple of years ago, Penguin Books posted at their site We Tell Stories a story by Charles Cumming that used the satellite image layer of Google Maps. (See snapshots from the story at io9, since the original won’t load for me now at the Penguin site.)

It’s a fair (and, it seems to me, large) question, to ask when illustrations or interactivity bring something to the party in textual stories. The writer at io9 makes a case for certain science-fiction stories working well with Google Maps, based on plot. “If the [Cummings] story is about a man being tracked and followed, then it is also told in a way that allows us to track and follow, clicking onward through maps of the man's experience.” Dinty’s essay seems to meet this criterion too, since it’s about the surreal tripping (literally) over the same man in different geographies.

As the io9 writer admits, there are limitations, as there are with any form. In considering whether readers of science fiction would want to follow the path of characters in, say, the novels of William Gibson: “[M]aybe all of that is a bit cheesy…too much like the origins of D&D, replayed all over again in an era of satellite mapping…like some bad dot-com fantasy, where handheld devices will give us access to things we've never experience [sic] before….”

I’m tempted, though…. What if there were a writing contest for this sort of thing, hosted by some blogger? With cash and prizes? Best original essay, short story, or poem that uses a Google Map, or one of the Google Maps mashups, in an integral way in its telling? Judged by someone with—yes—street cred in this sort of thing?

Regardless of all that, take a look at this interesting discussion of the Joyce Walks mashup, which provides a different sort of mapping opportunity for readers.

Maybe it’s already being done in more ways than I’ve seen, but the use of these maps could be interesting for all manner of literature. Imagine reading Graham Greene’s The Quiet American in Vietnam and following Fowler around Saigon, where many names of streets and landmarks were changed after 1975. Or following the maps drawn from Farewell to Arms by the scholar Michael Reynolds, but in greater detail and with supreme accuracy. One might—almost—be tempted to buy an iPhone. If that's what it does.


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