Shells for the Creation of Human Dramas: Living, Breathing Settings in Fiction


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.

Hardwick devotes a good chunk of “Locations” to fiction that takes place in New York City. She writes:

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

Searching for Complexity: Motherhood in Fiction

- | 4

Summers are hard. Every June I swear I’m going to get a full-time office job so I can justify sending my kids to a day camp for the entire summer break. Every July I Google “cities that have year-round school.” Every August I try to climb out of the hole the sweltering days of the previous two months hammered me into—days of Alabama heat and my children fighting with each other and asking me what they can eat and needing me to take them places.

Several summers ago I began to slip into a bad headspace where I thought I was too much for my husband, where I thought I was not enough for my kids, and where I wondered how in the hell am I going to make it another day. I met with my therapist and told her I’m just too messy and too complicated to be a good mom. She said, “No. You’re a complex mom. And you recognize your complexity.” In that moment I embraced the “complex mom” label. It helped when I found myself playing the comparison game with other moms around me who seemed like naturals—who seemed to handle the meals, playdates, fights, errands, decisions, and everything else so much better than I. But even with the comfort my label provides, it’s still lonely at times.

So I’m on a quest to surround myself with additional complex mothers. I’m going to seek them in novels, in stories I can enter during these months when my own complexity seems to shine brighter. The women I’ll turn to can’t hear me when I talk back to them, but they can be my companions.

Three books I’ve read recently provide several examples of complex mothers. With strong writing, compelling plots, and emotional depth; Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips,
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, and Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran explore the theme of motherhood. While the women in these novels face very different circumstances, their complex humanity shimmers through narratives that examine elements of family, love, and loss.

Fierce Kingdom’s main character, Joan, is not afraid to tell her four-year-old son, Lincoln, the truth. Even though she gives every ounce of her energy to protect him from harm, she won’t lie to him about the nature of evil. During Joan and Lincoln’s time trapped in a zoo that’s being terrorized by young men, they come upon an elephant who has been shot. Joan considers her options. Phillips writes:

She could tell him that the elephant is asleep. It is probably the kinder answer, but she does not want to say it. It is somehow insulting to him to lie straight to his face when he has made it through these hours with her, jawbone to jawbone, hand to hand, and also she wants to say the words to someone and he is the one who is here.

“It’s dead,” she says.

“Oh. Did the men kill it?” he asks.


Phillips portrays Joan with a significant amount of respect for her son even though he’s a young child. This approach to motherhood is messy. It would be easier for her to lie to him and help create an illusion of safety—especially when Joan and her son are in danger. But Joan’s high regard for Lincoln’s personhood nudges her to be truthful.

While Joan and Lincoln are dodging those intent on harming others, Joan has an opportunity to help another mom and her crying infant. Phillips writes:

The mother and baby are thirty or forty feet away from where she and Lincoln are huddled. Joan could easily call out to them. She could tell the woman that the men are likely close by. She could warn her to stay outdoors, to not set foot in any of the exhibit halls because the men are hunting there. She could share this hiding place, which she is beginning to believe is as shielded and safe and unexpected as any place in the zoo.

But after Joan thinks through it a bit more Phillips continues: “She does not call out. She does not say a word.” Joan’s primary goal is to protect Lincoln. Joan weighs the potential consequences of inviting the woman and her baby to join them in their hiding place and she decides it’s not worth the risk. She doesn’t worry about doing the right thing for anyone else. Without apology, she does what’s best for her own child. Watching Joan’s story unfold from this decision is further proof that Phillips has created a multidimensional character. Joan’s experiences in the zoo form her into someone who might make more compassionate choices.

In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward weaves a web of unhealthy dynamics between Leonie and her children—her 13-year-old son, Jojo, and her toddler daughter, Kayla. Leonie is addicted to drugs and hyper-focused on her children’s dad, Michael, who’s been in jail for a couple of years and is being released. She fails her children in many ways for many reasons, but all is not as it seems. During a trip to pick Michael up from the jail where he’s been incarcerated, Kayla gets sick and vomits several times. While they are stopped at a gas station, Leonie decides to do what her mom taught her to do and forage for something that can help Kayla heal. Ward writes:

If the world were a right place, a place for the living, a place where men like Michael didn’t end up in jail, I’d be able to find wild strawberries. That’s what Mama would look for if she couldn’t find any milkweed…

But the world ain’t that place. Ain’t no wild strawberries at the side of the road. It ain’t boggy enough up here. But this world might be a place that gives a little luck to the small, sometimes shows a little mercy, because after I walk awhile down the side of the road out of sight of the gas station…I find wild blackberries, Mama always told me they could be used for upset stomach, but only for adults. But if there was nothing else, she said I could make a tea and give it to kids.

Even though Leonie is in a hard place—strung out, consumed with Michael, and inattentive to her children, something in her wants to bring restoration to her sick child. She tramples over weeds and brush to find the blackberry bush. She follows through with her plan and boils it at the attorney’s home, adding sugar and food coloring so Kayla will drink the tea.

After Michael is out of jail, they all go to Michael’s parents’ house to introduce them to Michael’s children for the first time. Michael and his dad get into a fight and Leonie has a choice to make. Ward writes:

…and part of me wants to go grab Jojo’s hand and pull them out this house and leave them fighting. And another part of me wants to open my mouth and laugh, because it’s all so ridiculous, all of it, and I look over at my son and I think for sure he’s smiling, for sure he can see how stupid all of it is, but he ain’t looking at them tussling. He’s looking at me, and I see a flash of something I ain’t never seen before. He’s looking at me like I’m a water moccasin and I just bit him, just sank my teeth into the bone of his ankle, bit it to swelling.

Even though it’s uncommon for Leonie to go out of her way to care for her children, she approaches her son who sees her for who she is—a mother who would put her children in this situation—and she pulls him and Kayla out of the house. While Michael and his dad are still hitting each other, she opens the door and takes her children down the porch steps and into the car, away from danger.

Two of the mothers in Lucky Boy—Soli, a birth mother, and Kavya, a foster mother—face harrowing circumstances at different points throughout the book. Their relationships with their child provides comfort—but Sekaran doesn’t sugarcoat their roles as mothers. While Soli is separated from her son, Ignacio, her thoughts turn to him. Sekaran writes:

She comforted herself by remembering Ignacio, cataloging her memories of his body—the birthmark on his chunky thigh, the sprouting of two teeth, how he liked to chase the broom when she was sweeping. When she couldn’t stop herself, she thought of all the times she’d put him on the floor and ignored his cries, when she had dishes to wash or onions to chop, when his twenty-pound heft was just too much for her, when all she wanted was to move without impediment, to be free to lie down on a sofa with a glass of cool water and the slow meander of her thoughts.

Sekaran paints a picture of a loving mom who also wants breaks from caring from her son. Soli is separated from her son and would do anything to be reunited with him, but even in her grief there remains a realistic portrayal of the complexities of motherhood. Soli adores her son, but she still wants some autonomy. She nurtures him, but she isn’t able—and doesn’t want—to hold him every second of every day. She desires physical and emotional respite.

Sekaran presents mothers who are fragile and needy but also ferocious protectors and providers. And her plot produces opportunities for additional ambiguous and conflicting layers. Sekaran creates a situation where one can’t help but ask “Which mom should I pull for?” She plunges her readers into that question writing, “Kavya was aware, of course, that there was a mother out there who had missed [Ignacio’s first steps]. But the thought of this woman, angel or devil, whoever she was, sent a chill through her. She grew hollow and painfully cold at the thought of another woman wanting what she’d come to think of as hers.” Because readers have the perspectives of both Soli and Kavya, their responses to the question of who to root for may be complicated. With Sekaran’s excellent characterization of both women, one can build a sold case to support either outcome. That tension—and the story—wouldn’t exist with a narrative full of simple, flat mothers.

Joan, Leonie, Soli, Kavya, and other fictive mothers’ complexities place them in muddled gray areas. In the midst of difficult circumstances or bad choices or what feels like an inability to care for their children well, complex moms—in fiction and in life—do what they can in the moment, have opportunities to grow in wisdom, and sometimes become even more tangled up as time passes. While I make my way through these summer months and my own gray spaces, I’ll keep these moms and their stories nearby. And maybe this summer won’t be so lonely after all.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.