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Building A World In Novels

When we read LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN, many of you remarked that you felt Colum McCann had created a "whole" world. Certainly, he created a thickly structured world, from Park Avenue to a housing project in The Bronx, from the top of the World Trade Center to the subways underground. Those social and physical layers gave the book a feeling of depth, or breadth, or fullness.

We might say the same about David Mitchell's THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET, a world created in the Dutch trading post of Dejima and the surrounding Japanese countryside --although I would argue that Mitchell's thick layers were created not by stratifying society but rather by mixing literary genres: a Gothic ghost story, a love story, a mystery, a thriller, a historical novel, a military novel, a romance, a tragedy, all piled on top of one another.

Some authors go further. They don't just create a world in a single book; they spread that imagined world among many books, using a group of novels to paint a much larger canvas in their fictional geography.

The best example is William Faulkner. He set the vast majority of his novels and stories in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, built and peopled entirely by his own imagination--or as he scrawled in pen on one drawing of the county, "surveyed and mapped by William Faulkner." He imagined his square of land, peopled it, and worked inside it his whole life, offering tales of the families that lived in this race-haunted place. We'll think a lot more about all this when we read a Faulkner novel this fall.

Eudora Welty, one of the South's consummate stylists, followed in Faulkner's footsteps, writing many of her novels and stories around the doings of the families in her fictional town of Morgana, Mississippi. However, Welty does not feel as constrained as Faulkner. She sets many stories outside her imagined geography--and even in those stories and novels about Morgana, she lets the characters roam freely from their home base.

Then there's Louise Erdrich, often considered Faulkner's heir apparent--not in terms of their writing styles, mind you (Faulkner was more ornate, as opposed to Erdrich's simple style); but in terms of her geographic imagination. Frankly, I feel she's more in the spirit of Eudora Welty with her careful painting of the inner life. Erdrich's characters are bound by history, yes; but they are also caught and liberated from personal foibles. Nector Kashpaw in the flames of Lulu Nanapush's house, for example. There's also a quietness in and about Erdrich's writing which very much reminds me of Welty.

In any event, Erdrich has set many of her novels on a small Chippewa (or Ojibwe) reservation in North Dakota. We did read SHADOW TAG a while back, her latest. Although that novel did deal with native Americans, it's a bit of a departure, not part of the same plot of imaginative land that holds LOVE MEDICINE as well as THE BEET QUEEN, TRACKS, THE LAST REPORT ON THE MIRACLES AT LITTLE NO HORSE, and THE PLAGUE OF DOVES. In fact, LOVE MEDICINE is the first of her "reservation" novels.

Yes, many novelists have had iconic settings: Dickens and London, Joyce and Dublin, Tolstoy and the Russian countryside, Colum McCann and New York. But these writers were or are attempting to portray an actual place in their fictional work, the setting a bit of "verité" for the imagined characters.

In contrast, Faulkner, Welty, and Erdrich make up a place out of whole cloth. Yes, they use their own backgrounds as the basis, but the place itself is part of the fiction.

They take their cues from the French novelist Honoré de Balzac (1799 - 1850), who limned the conflict between Paris and its environs in an astouding 91 novels and stories that fall under the larger rubric of THE HUMAN COMEDY. In these novels and stories, the French countryside begins to depart from its actual measurements and become part of Balzac's imaginative work.

Balzac was in turn a major influence on Anthony Trollope, who explored his fictional Barchester, England, in six novels.

Still and all, it was in the twentieth century that this notion of many novels painting a single place became its own art form. Consider it the "geographic imagination": the creation of a place, not just characters. Louise Erdrich is a master of the form. Without a doubt, the reservation itself functions as a character in her novels.

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