Friday, April 18, 2008

A sense of place in a place that looks like no place?

My former colleague Dave Knadler, of Wichita, Kansas, commented recently that he liked Scott Phillips' novel The Ice Harvest (and the movie based on the novel), but that "it could have been set anywhere. You don't get any feeling for the Midwest in general or Wichita in particular."

A few days later, I heard an interviewer on the excellent Out of the Past podcast series tell Phillips, a native of Wichita, that: "One of the things that really worked for me in the novel was the Wichita setting."

So, what is The Ice Harvest's setting? It's nocturnal, wind-swept, snow-covered and dyed pale orange by streetlights. It's strip clubs and restaurants set in unprepossessing shopping malls. It's the protagonist, Charlie Arglist, banging in frustration on the door of of a fast-food chain restaurant that's shiny, bright and closed. It's largely anonymous, in other words.

But here's Phillips in the same interview, asked if he had ever considered writing about a more typical noir setting than Wichita:

"No, because the only town I wanted to write about Wichita. I wasn't going to name it as Wichita, but ... Dennis [McMillan] said no, you have to call it Wichita because that's what it is ...

"The aircraft plants drew thousands and thousands of single men into town ... You get a lot of single guys in a place without a corresponding number of single women, you get a certain type of vice."

Perhaps, then, the story's sleazy anonymity reflects the city's history and therefore its setting. It is Wichita, though perhaps a Wichita the local Chamber of Commerce might not be eager to promote.

And now, readers, your question: What other novels, stories or movies create a sense of place through their very anonymity? What other odd, unexpected ways do writers use to create vivid settings?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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