Reading The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick for a creative nonfiction craft lecture during the final residency for my MFA program gave me a greater appreciation for Hardwick’s work and changed the way I read. One essay from the collection,“Locations: The Landscapes of Fiction,” taught me to give more attention to objects and places in fiction instead of just viewing them as props that help set the stage or fill space. Using works from Hawthorne, Fitzgerald, Wharton, and others, Hardwick explores the connections between interior and exterior landscapes in American fiction and the characters who inhabit those landscapes. She writes about how the landscapes created by these authors inform readers beyond establishing the setting. Hardwick writes:
The landscapes of fiction, the houses and things, are a shell for the creation of human dramas, the place for the seven deadly sins to do battle with probity and reality or outrageous demand and vanity. The shells, the habitations of America are volatile, inventive, unexpected, imponderable, but there they are, everywhere.
Dwellings—and the objects found in these dwellings—help form characters and their stories. Layers of landscape are placed around and within stories for readers to examine in order to grasp deeper meanings, like the rings of a tree.
Manhattan is not altogether felicitous for fiction. It is not a city of memory, not a family city, not the capital of America so much as the iconic capital of the century. It is grand and grandiose with its two rivers acting as a border to contain the restless. Its skyscrapers and bleak, rotting tenements are a gift for photographic consumption, but for the fictional imagination the city’s inchoate destiny is a special challenge. Those who engage this “culture of congestion” today need a sort of athletic suppleness, such as we find in Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities and E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.
Anna Qunidlen must possess the athletic suppleness Hardwick mentions; Alternate Side, a novel that unfolds in Manhattan, still contains elements of memory and family in addition to plenty of congested restlessness. Quindlen introduces the reader to the vacant lot around which Alternate Side revolves in the opening pages:
In the line of narrow townhouses that made up their side of the block, standing shoulder to shoulder like slender soldiers of flawless posture and unvarying appearance, there was one conspicuous break, a man down, a house-width opening to a stretch of macadam turned into an outdoor parking lot. It held only six cars, and since nearly everyone on the block wanted a space, it had become a hot commodity, a peculiar status symbol.
All of the residents on the block vie for one of the vacant lot’s six parking spots close to home. Those lucky enough to score one are obsessed with the lot and their spots. Convenience and comfort are powerful drugs. Feeling superior to your less fortunate, parking-spot-bereft neighbors is a powerful drug, too.
Quindlen explores themes connected to race, class, privilege, friendship, and family in ways that are only possible because of the empty lot she plops down in the middle of a rare dead-end block in Manhattan. After an act of violence occurs for reasons connected to the lot, the lucky six are no longer allowed to park their cars there. The relationships between various residents begin to unravel. Their homes start to fall apart as well, and the emptiness of the lot reflects the emptiness of some of the marriages and friendships on the street.
Early in the novel, Nora (the protagonist) contemplates the old New York of her youth compared to the current New York: the New York of her married-for-several-years-with-two-kids-in-college days. Quindlen writes:
It was crazy, but there was a small, secret part of Nora that was comfortable with trash on the street. It reminded her of her youth, when she’d first arrived in a nastier, scarier, dirtier New York City and moved into a shabby apartment with her best friend, Jenny. A better New York, she sometimes thought to herself now, but never, ever said, one of the many things none of them admitted to themselves, at least aloud: that it was better when it was worse.
Nora longs for a different New York, for a past version of herself—when a vacant lot wasn’t so important, when much of what her life has become wasn’t so important. Nora later discovers, thanks to the lot—the shell for the creation of her human drama—that people and circumstances aren’t always what they seem to be.
The hotel-cum-addiction-recovery-facility in Denis Johnson’s “The Starlight on Idaho” (from The Largesse of the Sea Maiden) serves as another notable shell. The main character in this epistolary short story, Cass, is going through detox in the Starlight Addiction Recovery Center and writes several letters to various people, including God and Satan. Cass writes a letter to his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, Bob:
Dear old buddy and beloved sponsor Bob,
Now hear the latest from the Starlight Addiction Recovery Center on Idaho Avenue, in its glory days better known as the Starlight Motel. I believe you might have holed up here once or twice. Yes I believe you might have laid up drunk in room 8, this very one I’m sitting in at this desk writing this letter …
And in a letter to his father and grandmother, Cass says:
Do you remember when the Starlight was a motel? I remember when it was a motel and whores used to sit out on the bench at the bus stop across the street, really miserable gals with blotchy skin and dents in their head after getting run out of San Francisco … I mean you wouldn’t cross the street for them, but I guess once in a while some desperate character from one of these rooms in the Starlight would make the journey. Do you know what? I’ve had one or two minutes here when I might’ve done it myself. But the whores are gone, the bus-stop benches are empty. I don’t think the bus runs past here no more.
The Starlight helps make this story what it is. Johnson uses the Starlight as an additional character in the story, one that has gone through its own turnaround.
At the end of the story, readers learn that Cass has been told several times that he shouldn’t have survived some pretty terrible situations. But he’s still alive and he still hopes this round of recovery will stick. Perhaps some past frequenters of the Starlight Motel have ridden by—probably by accident—and noticed buses no longer serve the area; maybe they thought the motel would be abandoned and condemned but instead discovered it’s still alive, now a place where people go to recover, where people who should be dead have another chance at redemption.
I’ll keep paying more attention to locations and landscapes when I read and write now. Maybe I’ll include locations that have traits that mirror those of my characters or locations that represent a sort of redemption my characters desire for themselves. Maybe I’ll introduce locations that are unexpected, inventive, volatile.
Image: Flickr/Stephen L Harlow