Thursday, May 12, 2011

Daniel Woodrell's lesson in creating a sense of place

Three of Daniel Woodrell's early novels, released in an omnibus edition as "The Bayou Trilogy," cross a border that is for me as real as that to any foreign country.

That's because passages like this, from early in Under the Bright Lights, give me a vivid feeling of being in a place distinctive and different from my usual surroundings, and that's what crossing borders is all about:
"He had tried to explain that the bar was the center of the neighborhood in which they had grown up, and the regulars were neighbors first and threats to society second. ... Such explanations were regarded as suspiciously metaphysical by his superiors."
The book's early pages remind me of novels about which some readers complain that the characters do nothing but crack wise. Maybe I'll grow weary of this as I read more, but so far the voice is so distinctive, it has such a knack of making amusing even ordinary remarks not intended as jokes, that I'm happy to go along for the ride. Here's one more example, and then a question:
"Duncan smiled at her. She was a drinker with good looks picking up speed downhill, which was his usual game, but she was Pete's woman."
Neither of these two passages includes physical description of Woodrell's fictional city of St. Bruno, but each gives a brief, sharp sense of the novel's human setting. And now, the question: Physical description is one way authors create a sense of place. What are some others?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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25 Comments:

Blogger Yvette said...

Well, sometimes just the name of a place is enough especially if the place is real. For instance all I need to read is the word 'Seattle' and I more or less know what it must be like even though I've never been there. I'm fond of books set in the Pacific Northwest, so I'm already halfway there in my imagination.

But other than physical description...I don't know. Maybe atmospherics. For instance in ROGUE ISLAND, the fabulous debut by Bruce DeSilva that just won the Edgar, he gets the flavor of Providence (and its environs) by talking about the people and the almost incestuous political chicanery that goes on. From that alone we 'get' what the place must be like. Don't know if that qualifies.

Also, there is a 'tone' that an author can take. Occasionally I've read books where everything seemed to take place in very tight quarters (literally or figuratively) so that the book has an almost claustrophobic feel to it and the reverse is also true, of course.

May 13, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

I just realized, belatedly, that my example of Bruce DeSilva's handling of 'setting' is similar to the Woodrell examples you gave. I'm getting dotty in my old age.

I'm assuming you wanted something different.

May 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, your comment suggests another question: Can some places be so familiar that an author must struggle to break free of stereotypes? Victorian London is an obvious candidate.

Contrary to your self-diagnosis of dottiness, the DeSilva example is precisely the sort of thing I had in mind. It creates a sense of place other than by describing its high buildings or dark shadows or gorgeous sunsets.

May 13, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

My wife teaches a course on Race And Class In American Literature at Monash University and she showed Winter's Bone as the film at the end of the course. Its one of the few unpatronising Hollywood films about poor white Appalachia that has been made in recent years. Yes its a crime story with a lot of bad people but they have a sense of morality and a code of honour that Hollywood often ignores or laughs at.

May 13, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Smell and taste are very evocative of place.

Think of Salvo Montalbano's savoring a nice mullet "boiled and dressed in olive oil, lemon, and parsley." Yum! Suddenly, the reader is transported to the Sicilian coast.

I'm re-reading some of Raymond Chandler’s stories for the umpteenth time. Including one of my favorites, Goldfish, 1936.

In the first 2 sentences of the story he sets the scene by suggesting a smell:

"I wasn't doing any work that day, just catching up on my footdangling. A warm gusty breeze was blowing in at the office window and the soot from the Mansion House Hotel oil burners across the alley was rolling across the glass top of my desk in tiny particles, like pollen drifting over a vacant lot."

Then he has more explicit fun with the sense of smell later in the story:

“A little rye," I said. "Know anybody that keeps goldfish?"
"Yeah," he said. "No."
He poured something behind the counter and shoved a thick glass across.
"Two bits."
I sniffed the stuff, wrinkled my nose. "Was it the rye the 'yeah' was for?"
The bald-headed man held up a large bottle with a label that said something about: "Cream of Dixie Straight Rye Whiskey Guaranteed at Least Four Months Old."
"Okey," I said. "I see it just moved in."

I’m also working my way through Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series.

"Meyer had never liked the smell of hospitals. His mother had died of cancer in a hospital, and he would always remember her pain-wracked face, and he would always remember the smells of sickness and death, the hospital smells that had invaded his nostrils and entrenched themselves there forever." The Pusher, 1956

And one of my favorite passages, this one from the first 87th Precinct novel, Cop Hater, 1956.

"The smell inside a tenement is the smell of life.
It is the smell of every function of life, the sweating, the cooking, the elimination, the breeding. It is all these smells, and they are wedded into one gigantic smell which hits the nostrils the moment you enter the downstairs doorway. For the smell has been inside the building for decades. It has seeped through the floorboards and permeated the walls. It clings to the banister and the linoleum-covered steps. It crouches in corners and it hovers about the naked light bulbs on each landing. The smell is always there, day and night. It is the stench of living, and it never sees the light of day, and it never sees the crisp brittleness of starlight."

May 13, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Elisabeth

When I see the words "nice" and "mullet" next to one another in a sentence I think oxymoron or rather more unfortunately my mind is thrown back into the 1980's when Billy Ray Cyrus had inflicted his hair style but not yet his obnoxious offspring on an unsuspecting world.

May 13, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Adrian, I know what you mean. OK, we'll take out "mullet" and substitute it with "anchovies," which Montalbano likes prepared the same way.

May 13, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I don't actually get a lot of sense of place from novels. What usually happens is that I imagine some kind of completely made up, provisional space, and then, if I've had the good fortune to actually visit the place in question, I can go back and realize how much I've really gotten wrong.

I never really got the mullet, but then I assume there are some people who do, and admire the look a great deal. There are a lot of fashion statements I don't really understand.

May 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, this book is a story of the South, another region of people laughed at in sophisticated parts of the country. One review said the novel works despite its cliches, which raises all kinds of interesting questions. Quite a number of the characters talk colorfully, for instance, which I supposed renders them liable to some of the same stereotypes as Irish people and Raymond Chandler's narrators. But I've detected little condescension and no patronizing insistence that they're all simple but good. Some of these folks are bad characters, and some of the novel's city folks call their backwoods fellows "peckerwoods," for instance.

May 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, don't forget Camilleri's L'odore della notte and the interesting difference between the titles of its American and British editions.

I've also read that psychologist's say smell is the sense most closely associated with memory, which may be of interest.

May 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I've never eaten mullet, but I'm sure it's better as a fish than as a haircut. Camilleri has Montalbano eat with great reverence for his food. The scenes are a pleasure to read.

May 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I never really got the mullet, but then I assume there are some people who do, and admire the look a great deal. There are a lot of fashion statements I don't really understand.

Seana, I've recently given voice to some thoughts about haircuts in my post about car chases. Mullets are as awful as some of that 1970s coiffure.

Oh, yes, you do get a sense of place from novels. "Completely made up, provisional"? Yep, and how could a sense of place be otherwise if you've never been there?

I had a great deal of trouble defining "sense of place" when I had to write about it in the work of Arnaldur Indriðason and Camilleri because each creates a sense of place in such a different way, neither of which involves a sense of physical space exclusively or even primarily.

May 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, I enjoy Camilleri's food scenes even when he has Salvo eating something I wouldn't touch in a million years.

I don't think I've ever eaten anchovies except in the dry, oversalted version served on pizza. For a while in my youth, I would order them in pizza just because I enjoyed the sound of the word.

May 13, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Yeah, I think I'm talking about the limits and compensations of description.


Great v word: meamory

May 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Meamory has Joycean overtones of a suckling babe's first recollections.

A made-up, provisional space is the only kind books can give us, I'd say. Whether the real space matches up is another question.

May 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

What I really mean is that physical description is not the only way to build a sense of place.

May 13, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

It isn't, but go ahead and convince me that it isn't crucial in getting across a specific place in the real world.

May 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I could never convince you of that. But Arnaldur's novels taught me that there was more to place than physical desctription. He'll describe some Icelandic housing tract or hotel or mountain, but what the landscape does is far more important than what it looks like: It swallows people, and sometimes it yields them back up.

Then, when I had to write about Camilleri's settings, and gave myself agita trying to come up with physical desctiptions before I realized that that's not what conveys the strongest sense of place in his books, either.

May 14, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I'll have to pay attention to that when I finally get around to Camilleri.

May 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't think it's something you pay attention to. I simply found myself enjoying the books, then tied myself in knots when I tried to analyze my own enjoyment.

In Camilleri you get the dialect, the jokes, the caustic political asides -- all kinds of things that create a convincing imaginary world.

May 14, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Peter, I'm just now responding to your earlier comment (been having Google Blogger problems) re: can a place or setting be TOO familiar. I mean, what can you say about New York that hasn't already been said?
Substitute Victorian England or Venice or...

And yet, if the writer is clever and talented enough, there's always something. Laurie R. King does it in her Holmes/Russell books set in the early part of the 19th century. She creates a 'familiar' world that is, at the same time, refreshed and a bit unfamiliar, though specific of its time.

Jim Fusilli did this with NYC in his wonderful trilogy plus one, featuring Terry Orr, writer turned amateur sleuth. At its core the books harbor a heartbreaking secret (not revealed until book 3 -TRIBECA BLUES) which, to my mind, over-shadows everything else that happens, even, in a way, 9/11.

And by the way, Donna Leon also does this witn Venice in her Commissario Brunetti books.

May 14, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Also meant to add. When it comes to NYC, A.J. Rozan and Reed Farrell Coleman also manage to set their stories in a NYC which is indivisualized by their own imaginations.

May 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or Paris ...

Reed Farrel Coleman writes about some of the less familiar parts of New York, which helps. He's arguably a Brooklyn writer in particular rather than a New York City writer.

The recent Sherlock Holmes movie was full of Irish voices, a side of Victorian London that I'm not sure comes through in many depictions of the city. That was something of a fresh take on a familiar place.

May 14, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

You probably know the Irish reference in Hamlet?

"Now we have him, pat."

(Sorry, I know it's ridiculous.)

May 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Yes, by Saint Patrick, but there is, Horatio."

May 18, 2011  

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