When Setting Trumps Character
Great Writing About Place
It begins with a setting. Sometimes it can end there, too—there are works of nonfiction whose purpose is to fully explore a particular part (or parts) of the world. Consider John McPhee’s The Pine Barrens, or the way in which Robert MacFarlane’s The Wild Places takes as its subject the ways that landscapes shape the people around them. Fiction from which a deeply felt sense of place emerges can be more difficult. In some cases, this is because of the nature of fiction: a location abounding with unreality can, in the right novel, be the point of a particular work—think of Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, or Jonathan Lethem’s Amnesia Moon. For both, the essential wrongness of their settings is key: readers may well have, for much of their time with the novel a sense that something isn’t quite right, that some fundamental aspect of the world has been tinkered with.
When veracity comes into play, finding the right balance of details and narrative poses its own challenges. For certain novels, the right use of details can create a deep-seated sense of the setting without necessarily overpowering readers into thinking that they’re reading a long description of a place and nothing else. Call it ambient fiction: fictional spaces that seem to provide the air that the reader breathes. Think, with a nod towards the classics, of how Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca turns its setting into something almost overwhelmingly detailed. Or go even further back: in a 2000 essay, David Gates observed that:
If ever a writer put words together to create in your mind something like virtual reality—a fictive world you could swear you’re inhabiting, teeming with people you could swear you know—Dickens does it in David Copperfield.
Leonard Gardner’s National Book Award-winning novel Fat City, recently reissued by NYRB Classics, provides one prescription for fictional settings. Largely set in and around the small northern California city of Stockton, Fat City follows two boxers, Billy Tully and Ernie Munger, and their trainer, Ruben Luna. For all that its focus is on the world of boxing, however, Fat City isn’t a book about tests of skill or strength. It’s about everyday existence on the margins—and about how the vocations of two of its characters both keep them from those margins and make their lives even more precarious. The tone is established by the first sentence—a common element among fiction like this.
He lived in the Hotel Coma—named perhaps for some founder of the town, some California explorer or pioneer, or for some long-deceased Italian immigrant who founded only the hotel itself.
It’s an acknowledgment that whatever comes next will include a strong sense of place, as it does. But what Gardner does with the novel’s descriptions of its setting is even more complex: he’s able to root them in the novel’s handling of themes and characters. Tully is a man whose boxing days are largely behind him, while Munger offers more promise, but strives to balance that with a growing sense of familial responsibility. For much of the book, they traverse Stockton and its environs—engaging in day labor on nearby farms, wandering the streets looking for a hotel room, and moving from one place to another. The descriptions echo this sense: they aren’t simply lists of details, but they’re accumulations of images the way that someone passing through an environment might experience them. This is how Gardner describes Tully’s trip to a job topping onions:
The bus rattled past dark houses, gas stations, neon-lit motels, and the high vague smokestack of the American Can Company, past the drive-in movie, its great screen white and iridescent in the approaching dawn, across an unseen creek beneath ponderous oaks, past the cars and trailers and pickup-truck caravans of the gypsy camp on its bank and out between the wide fields.
There, you have the same sense of motion that Tully experiences; you have the list of details, a sense of the time of day, and a sense of the community through which Tully is passing. The fact that it’s one sentence adds to the unity of the whole—much like the bus trip, it’s an uninterrupted journey.
This isn’t a quality limited to the three characters at the novel’s center. When a boxer named Arcadio Lucero arrives late in the novel to fight Tully, his trip north from Mexico to California is described in similar terms; though he’s a relatively minor character in the novel’s plot, this focus on him, and the way that it echoes the way that Tully’s routes have been described, helps to establish a connection between them. That same sense of bodies and motion makes another appearance at the end of the novel, as Munger tries to make his way home after a bout in Salt Lake City. Here, he encounters virtually every form of transportation alluded to earlier in the novel, either as passenger or as witness, and it’s a fitting way to bring the novel to a close.
The stories in John McManus’s collection Fox Tooth Heart also establish a sense of place. In some cases, this is through the invocation of pastoral details; in others, it’s through a well-placed image or a telling remark made by a character that proves insightful as to the surrounding community. McManus’s fiction is difficult to pin down: though his characters often exist on the fringes of society, there’s a strain of surrealism running through the proceedings. Elephants speak telepathically; Satanic cults go about their business in secret, and young clones of Thomas Jefferson besmirch one another’s online reputation. But for all of their stranger elements, the worlds in which these are set feel decidedly lived-in; it’s a task for which McManus utilizes a number of techniques.
The first sentence of McManus’s short story “Bugaboo” establishes mood, setting, and character all at once. “I first met Max on my way home from the Gulp, a bottomless whirlpool in the Everglades where people go to commit suicide,” writes the story’s narrator, also named Max. Here, there’s a stylized version of reality, but one still rooted in history—Max’s description goes on to reference Andrew Jackson, the Intracoastal Waterway, and Florida’s history as a state where slavery was part of daily life. It’s of a piece with the overall tone of Fox Tooth Heart, a book that takes its title from a particularly evocative Tennessee Williams quote. These are stories in which the pastoral, historical atrocities, and contemporary bad behavior all collide.
In “Bugaboo,” questions of landscape repeatedly move to the forefront. The narrator has a fondness for free-climbing mountains, and the title refers to a mountain range in British Columbia. And while the tone of it varies considerably relative to “Gateway to the Ozarks,” which follows it in the collection, they share certain qualities, including a certain geographic feature. Carl, the story’s protagonist, is a clone of Thomas Jefferson living in the Southeastern United States; he, too, has a fondness for mountains.
The wind on his naked skin might feel magnificent, but what he sought climbing Thistle Mountain was serenity. Gazing into a wild but consistent landscape dotted with fiery blooms, he lay still.
It’s a quality that helps make him seem empathic, even as the story heads into an absurd territory, a funhouse riff on Orphan Black with a group of teenage boys sniping at one another online. Here, landscapes and perceptions of them are woven even more deeply into the story’s plot: Carl takes on the task of editing his home region’s Wikipedia page to make it seem more inviting, and thus to acquire status in the eyes of his fellow clones.
McManus can also convey a space or an image with a deft phrase—a character in one story is described as “smelling of Cheetos and motor oil;” a bar’s blinking neon sign emblazoned with Busch serves as useful shorthand for the location in another. And even when working in a more restrained mode, as in the story “Cult Heroes,” McManus can find the surreal in certain landscapes. “He laid his bike on the gravel beach and stood in awe of the colored canyon wall that rose before him,” McManus writes as one scene opens, and it’s perfectly cinematic, a study in contrasts that echoes those found in both the story around it and the collection that contains it.
Rachel Caine, the central character of Sarah Hall’s novel The Wolf Border, spends much of the book engaged in very particular task: re-introducing the grey wolf into the county of Cumbria in northern England. Hall is a writer whose ideas affect the form of her fiction. The Wolf Border finds her, nominally, at her most constrained, but that’s a bit like saying that William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition is restrained relative to Idoru or Neuromancer. That’s true, but it’s also a deeply relative statement. Sometimes she experiments with structure (as in How to Paint a Dead Man); sometimes, the setting delves outside of the realistic (as in Daughters of the North). Here, the setting is contemporary, but the juxtaposition of humans and animals helps raise questions about communities, the nature of authority, and veracity.
The Wolf Border begins in Idaho, where Rachel is working on a similar project. Soon, she is summoned back to the area where she was raised; not long afterwards, she accepts a job offer from an English aristocrat to engage in what may be a quixotic task. And as the novel proceeds, landscapes are juxtaposed: Rachel’s childhood in Thatcher-era Great Britain contrasted with her extensive time in the western United States, and that in turn contrasted with her current project, and the parklands in which she works. It all leads to plenty of evocative prose: like Gardner, Hall often describes a landscape in a way that a character moves through it, although Rachel’s forms of transportation are more varied than those utilized in Fat City.
Hall’s descriptive powers regularly impress over the course of The Wolf Border. Her description of Rachel, in her new residence after taking the position in Cumbria, looking at her surroundings gives both a sense of her own mindset and that of the landscape surrounding her.
She sits on the bed and looks out. The quince’s leaves agitate in the wind. It seems too far north for such a tree, but the estate also has its forcing houses, an orangery, alongside the traditional meadows and the rose beds. A small grey bird is creeping up the trunk, pausing, creeping up again. An ersatz paradise, she thinks.
Note, too, the way that agitate imparts a character to the leaves themselves. In a different context, this might not work; for someone whose life’s work is looking at the connections among all members of an ecosystem, it seems exactly right. There’s so much there: both a concise description of the space around Rachel and an essential guide to how she herself interprets it. For a book in which questions of perception take an increasingly key position, this, too, is fitting.
The Wolf Border is set over several seasons, and one of the subtler things that Hall does is showcase how certain spaces change over time. Here, for instance, is her evocation of the end of winter:
When the weather lifts, it feels as if a dire, convulsive event has passed: miscarriage or seizure. There is a sudden upswing in temperature, ten degrees and more, alarming in its own right. Meltwater flows over the measled remnant snow. The earth is left slack and raw, streams trickle in the road, downhill, into culvers and under cattle grids. Pools of water all over the landscape flicker like poured metal.
It’s a near-perfect example of prose suggesting perception. Rachel is a scientist, with the accompanying focus on evidence, on data, and on empirical knowledge. But as the novel continues, certain elements of ambiguity also come into play, and it’s here that having a sense of the world as she sees it becomes intrinsic and vital.
A description of a setting isn’t an easy thing to create. In some cases, it may not even be needed for the story being told. But in these three books, those descriptions are essential. Whether using a singular detail or a memorable onrush of images, these books help show that a setting need not be a static aspect of a book; instead, it can be vital to the themes of the story being told. Why have a location be a kind of character when it can be so much more?