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Reflecting on last week's diary about Jonathan Evison's The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving and its weakness in the realm of sense of place, my reading during this past week has included stories in Jess Walter's collection, We Live in Water. Walter, whose recent novel Beautiful Ruins was a National Book Award finalist, excels in many aspects of writing, including sense of place.

This sense works in multiple ways. First, there is the reader who knows the setting and who responds to certain descriptions as clues. Walter lives and writes in my hometown, Spokane, Washington. It's not quite like anywhere else. It's a place where David Lynch spent part of his formative years, which is why Twin Peaks makes sense to me. It's also the place where Bing Crosby grew up, is the city nearest to the reservation where Sherman Alexie grew up and is the place where, when the son of the afternoon newspaper editor was convicted of being the South Hill rapist, his mother tried to hire an undercover cop to kill the judge and prosecuting attorney.

The first story in Walter's collection, "Anything Goes", opens with a down-on-his-luck character "flipping through broken-down produce boxes like an art buyer over a rack of paintings" behind a real restaurant in Spokane, where the story is set.

Just naming the restaurant tells me a lot, because I know exactly where the character is at. The restaurant was a local version of Denny's, located downtown just off the freeway, that has a clientele that changed as the hours went by, and who, in the earliest hours of the morning, were far more interested in scoring things other than food. The character, Bit, not only is down on his luck, he's close to hitting rock bottom. That he next goes to the street corner near the freeway exit where Dick's Drive-In is located reinforces this.

Dick's is a local institution. Crowds stand outside in lines to place orders that are not written down, but called out, and for which you can only pay cash. The menu board has been the same for decades. Although it's a place where the rich and famous stand in line with the poor, it's not in the best part of town. It's on the way somewhere else, upscale or down, and it's closer to the bottom. This corner is pretty much a physical symbol for being at the bottom, at it's at the bottom of the South Hill and miles away from the smaller, middle-class North Hill on the other side of downtown.

So even before Walter reveals the details, I know Bit's in a bad place, and not just location-wise. His is a sad story of a family lost. Bit's story does not have the same circumstances as that of Benjamin Benjamin in Revised Fundamentals, but both men are loving fathers whose greatest loss is not being with their children. Knowing where Bit is physically deepens the knowledge of where he is mentally and spiritually.

The last story in the collection, "Statistical Abstract for My Hometown, Spokane, Washington" is simply brilliant. It is a numbered set of paragraphs that recount not only actual information, but also a story of a lower middle-class neighborhood that is accurately portrayed and which provides the setting for a look at domestic violence that is heart-wrenching.

The narrator who is listing the information lives near a safe home for abused women and their children. One Halloween, he sees a young woman carrying a young child. A man is walking beside them and punches the woman. The narrator goes out to try to chase the man off, but the best he can do is stay in between the man and woman, and the man begins to hit himself. It's a small scene that encapsulates the horror and sorrow in family violence.

The story also has stats about bike theft that is so true about the Spokane in which I grew up. In one paragraph, a guy walks off with that narrator's bike while he's sitting on the front step. Bike thefts and even bike theft rings were common. Walter plays it in a slightly comic way, which basically it is. My Spokane was the kind of town where people ripped off not cool cars or electronics, but bicycles. Not even cool bicycles.

We always used to say Spokane is a place we wanted to be from. Although I've had to leave town three times now to pursue a career, and am proud to be working where I am now, when someone asks where I'm from, it's Spokane.

Maybe that's because of sentiments like the ones expressed in this story:

8. I was born in Spokane in 1965. Beginning about 1978, when I was thirteen, I wanted to leave.

9. I'm still here.

And:
45. ... I had a conversation with someone about all that was wrong with Spokane. He said that it was too poor and too white and too uneducated and too unsophisticated, and as he spoke, I realized something: this guy hated Spokane because of people like me. I grew up poor, white, and unsophisticated, the first in my family to graduate from college. And worse, I had made the same complaints. Did I hate Spokane ... or did I hate myself? Was this just a kind of self-loathing? Then I had this even more sobering thought: Was I the kind of snob who hates a place because it's poor?

46. I think there are only two things you can do with your hometown: look for ways to make it better, or look for another place to live.

Literary fiction is comprised of many components, and this may not be high on many readers' lists. But it is on mine. A well-crafted sense of place is one of those foundational storytelling components that grounds the reader to the story because it grounds the reader to the place where the story occurs. When I think of the South, I think of Faulkner and the journey with the casket in As I Lay Dying. My understanding of England is rooted in the hedgerows and in the lime tree-lined avenues. This feeling is even more so for the West.

I don't know if that's because it is my home or because of the utter and complete ties those who love the West feel toward the land. Whether it's the smell of pine trees in 90-degree heat or the crisp blue sky in the subzero winter sunlight, a thunderstorm you can see come towards you across the Palouse or the mist of a soft spring day in Western Washington, being here and being part of the landscape is being fulfilled.

When that sense of place is captured in a work of fiction, that sense of fulfillment is strong, and makes the ties between reader and work, between reader and writer, all the stronger.

A strong sense of place that anchors a reader to a place she knows also is one of the fundamental aspects of a strong sense of self. I know who I am because I know where I came from. When where I came from is accurately shown in a work of fiction, I know the possibility exists that anyone who reads it knows a bit about me as well.

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Tue May 14, 2013 at 07:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I agree! (9+ / 0-)

    I love the descriptions of places and good settings in all kinds of books.

    Thanks for another good diary!!

    Join us at Bookflurries-Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Tue May 14, 2013 at 07:51:05 PM PDT

  •  Testimony: I used to live in Spokane ... (7+ / 0-)

    ... and this diary tells of soberly true things.

    Sherman Alexie was living in Seattle then, but he visited Auntie's Bookstore regularly -- "Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" is painfully accurate too.

    I can't say I'm in a hurry to read about the place again, but is Auntie's still in business?

    Millions of us – the majority – must come together to insist that President Obama and the Democrats stand up and fight for the things we sent them there to do ... Michael Moore

    by MT Spaces on Tue May 14, 2013 at 08:29:27 PM PDT

  •  Which authors bring cities and countries to life? (7+ / 0-)

    This ingredient may come after plotting and character - but it is also an essential part of building a three-dimensional fictional world. When you watch a film that gets the background right, in every detail, you don't have to analyze it consciously - you just find yourself somehow inhabiting this fictional world. A good novel, or a great short story, has to achieve the same thing, with far fewer brush strokes.

    Joyce said that, if Dublin were razed to the ground, it could be reconstructed from Ulysses. This bugs me mathematically, as it cannot be strictly true: Less than 1% of the buildings in Dublin were even mentioned in Joyce's novel. Nevertheless, artistically he did a phenomenal job of capturing the city's essence.

    I'm not sure who best transports me into their sensual world. Joyce excels, as does Tolstoy. The last author who struck me with the power of her enchantment, with intoxicating sensory detail, finely chosen, was Eudora Welty, with her Southern charm. And Moby Dick has every kind of magic in it, including tropical abundance. I found Neuromancer very vivid, but I'm not sure if that put me in a place so much as a weird state of mind.

    It doesn't surprise me that, as you told me last week, "Larry Watson, Ivan Doig, Annie Proulx, Sherman Alexie, Jess Walter and, in Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson", among others, capture the sensual West. Any writer worth their salt would want to trap some of that magic on the page, just as anyone who visits the West is swept away by the power of nature written huge.

    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Tue May 14, 2013 at 09:27:26 PM PDT

  •  For me, sense of place is one of the aspects of a (8+ / 0-)

    story that is easy to take for granted, as long as it's done correctly. Get it wrong, and it stands out like the proverbial sore thumb.  Get it right, and it can be the quiet underpinning that makes the rest of the story flow. Master it, and it becomes another character which deepens the impact of the story on the reader.

    I really enjoyed your diary, bookgirl. You gave us very good examples. It's fun sometimes to step back and analyze how and why different stories affect us like they do.

    "In politics stupidity is not a handicap." Napoleon Bonaparte

    by citylights on Tue May 14, 2013 at 11:38:00 PM PDT

  •  Conversely, which places have been (7+ / 0-)

    well-served by literature?  

    St. Petersburg is one.  It's got the first chapter of Pushkin's Onegin and "The Bronze Horseman"; Gogol's Petersburg Stories (especially "Nevsky Prospect"); Dostoevsky's White Nights and Crime and Punishment; Bely's Petersburg; Akhmatova's Poem Without a Hero, etc.  It's a very well traveled city as far as great literature goes.

    Paris is another.  From Hugo's novels to Queneau's Zazie, Cortázar's Hopscotch, Perec's Life a User's Manual, etc.

    New Orleans is not one.  It appears in a lot of fiction, but I think only Toole's Confederacy of Dunces and some of Walker Percy really captures it in any recognizable way for me.  Tennessee Williams's stuff set there is often great, but very much a fictional construct in his head.

    Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

    by pico on Tue May 14, 2013 at 11:56:28 PM PDT

    •  Interesting factoid about Dostoevsky (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      bookgirl, pico, Brecht, RiveroftheWest

      that I never thought about until I read it.

      Moscow never appears in any of his novels (well, I think there's a scene in TBK where one of the Brothers talk about the possibility....

      •  Yeah, it's almost never there. (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Brecht, RiveroftheWest, Chitown Kev

        And he was born and raised in Moscow!  He has a few shorter works that take place in the Moscow periphery, but that's about it.  Tolstoy at least sets chunks of his novels in the city.

        Then again, there's a long tradition of writing about Petersburg in a certain way (basically, Pushkin's "Bronze Horseman"), whereas Moscow never had that kind of tradition.  There are occasional 19th century works set there, but when I think good Moscow literature, I think 20th century: Bulgakov, Platonov, Erofeev, Pelevin, etc.

        Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

        by pico on Wed May 15, 2013 at 05:35:08 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Interesting diary. Off the top (5+ / 0-)

    of my head, Amitav Ghosh'swork gives a great sense of place, especially The Glass Palace and The Hungry Tide.  His latest, River of Smoke, brought the foreigners' quarter of Canton straight from the page into my memory.

  •  I was born in Tennesee, (7+ / 0-)

    grew up in Michigan, have spent most of my adult life in New England.  I have certain benchmarks for stories that tell me specific details about those landscapes. I know when authors get it right, when they, perhaps, might be writing from a carpetbagger's point of view.  

    Although I have traveled extensively in the UK, I have to rely on the author's rendering of sense of place.  As an example, Ian Rankin's Edinburgh is not the Edinburgh I know and witnessed.  When he writes about the council estates and the underbelly of the city, I do not question his authority.

    Sometimes I feel that authors use landscape details for filler, and I want them to get on with the story, because the long descriptions of the environment do not seem to be related to the formation of the characters' lives.

    For places that exist only in my imagination, I can be easily transported to an environment when the author  
    is masterful with descriptive prose that tells you so much about the characters.  I am thinking, just now, about a novel by Nadine Gordimer (of course I cannot remember the title) where the main character falls in love with a man on a working visa in South Africa and moves with him to his country, participates in an extended Muslim family which lives on the edge of a desert.  When her husband gets a job in the US, the woman, who often walks from her home to view the desert, decides to stay with his family instead.  The desert is, without doubt, one of the important characters.

    Just waitin' around for the new Amy Winehouse album

    by jarbyus on Wed May 15, 2013 at 04:54:31 AM PDT

  •  Ivanhoe, etc (6+ / 0-)

    Sir Walter Scott once said of himself "A good writer needs to create a plausible environment, and believable characters to inhabit it.  It's too bad I could only do one of those things".  

  •  Tom Perrotta captures suburban Boston very well (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pico, Brecht, Portlaw, RiveroftheWest, bookgirl

    in many of his novels, stories etc....one of the reasons I enjoy his work.

    "I'm a white male, age 18 to 49. Everyone listens to me, no matter how dumb my suggestions are." --Homer Simpson

    by dhshoops on Wed May 15, 2013 at 07:40:08 AM PDT

  •  Thomas Mann's Death in Venice (6+ / 0-)

    gives you a great description of the city.

    But Mann himself had never been there.

    I was a resident of Padova for over a year (20 minutes away by train) and I've been to Venice 20-30 times, and Mann nailed it.

    Henry Miller's Greece in Colossus of Maroussi was spot on as well.

    There are two kinds of people in this world. The kind who divide the world into two kinds of people, and the kind who don't.

    by upstate NY on Wed May 15, 2013 at 08:24:29 AM PDT

  •  Provocation: are there great writers (5+ / 0-)

    who don't create a very good sense of place?  I think I could make a case for Borges, who isn't much interested in place (per se) as he is in ideas, so his best works are often in an abstract anywhere, and it doesn't seem to matter much.  I'd argue that Nabokov is a borderline case: the sense of place in his fiction is more firmly bound in the people who inhabit it than in the space itself (e.g. Lolita's banal American wasteland comes through its banal American middle class characters; The Gift's Berlin comes through the Russian émigré community living in it, etc.)

    Any others?  Or is sense of place a dealbreaker for other people?

    Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

    by pico on Wed May 15, 2013 at 10:28:28 AM PDT

    •  You could write richly without much sense of place (5+ / 0-)

      if you wove other details so thickly that the reader never looked up to see the thinness of the scenery.

      Borges and Nabokov both keep the intellect simmering on other matters. Milan Kundera and Paul Auster do the same thing (they both strike me as a bit thin, lacking in realism - but they can engage). Lots of SF dives into ideas and fails to put carpets and drapes in (e.g. Asimov). But we're getting farther from great writers.

      Does Austen really paint much scenery, or does she mostly assume it, and focus on her emotional/moral matters?

      Balzac, Dickens, Flaubert and Tolstoy showed how valuable the fully-drawn (and in the latter two, carefully filtered) sensory world was in drawing readers in, and most everyone after them followed suit. So I'd look first for threadbareness in earlier great writers, and later in modernists and posts who were more concerned with other threads. Does Kafka build place, or just mood?

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Wed May 15, 2013 at 12:17:16 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I'm a writer of the West and South (5+ / 0-)

    so I have a particularly complicated idea of place (and of self). I craft stories with an eye toward place but don't want it to take over. Maybe I've read too many place-heavy stories of Wyoming that don't bring their characters to life. In fact, the landscape becomes more lively than the people.

    Your attitude toward the place you write about has a big impact. Sometimes you can love a place too much. There's a story about Faulkner that I haven't looked up but have used many times. He was at a book-signing in Montana many years ago. A woman said to him: "I wish that our Montana writers loved Montana the way you love Mississippi." Faulkner's reply: "Madam, I hate Mississippi."  

    If you're ever in Cody, WY, just ask for Wild Bob

    by Cheyenne Mike on Wed May 15, 2013 at 11:28:29 AM PDT

  •  Any suggestions? (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Brecht, Portlaw, RiveroftheWest

    Looking for good stories set in the interwar years (1918-1940) in England. Evelyn Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, etc. as a start. Who else? Any ideas?

  •  Just wondering (4+ / 0-)

    You say these stories feel real to you because you know the places the writer is describing. How real do you think they'd be to someone who has never been to Spokane?

    I know I always feel a bit irritated when someone writes about Los Angeles or some other place I have lived and clearly gets it wrong. I also feel pleased and involved when they get it right. But if I have never been, how would I know?

    Just for example, whenever I smell baking bread and car exhaust together, I think of Paris. That may be a personal thing for me. Los Angeles is the scent of hot concrete. No matter what other smells you encounter in L.A., the flat carbon dioxide smell of over-heated concrete lurks underneath, like the lingering, dry, side-of-the-mouth taste of tannins in a wine. People who have never been to L.A. think it's all about the smell of smog, but they're wrong.

    This is how I think about a sense of place. Not what's there in a physical sense, not the buildings or the neighborhoods, but what it feels like to be there. If you can evoke the sensations of a place, the places you describe can be real or not, it doesn't matter, the reader has a sense of place, anyway.

    •  When it comes to Jess Walter and Sherman (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RiveroftheWest

      Alexie, the person who doesn't know their setting would still get a vivid sense of it. I feel that way about Annie Proulx and I've only driven through Wyoming a couple of times.

      It is true what you say about those sensations. I get a more vivid sense of L.A. thinking about that smell of over-heated concrete than I do in all the filmed montages of palm trees and multi-lane roads.

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