Earlier today I went for a walk, a long walk like I used to take before the pandemic. I walked around and around the nearby neighborhood, and at one point I stood at the top of Holborn Road. My dad lives on this road.
If I were to describe it to you, make it real for you, how would I do it? You’d have an idea of what it was like if I said it was a road like many others in suburban American neighborhoods. But would you have a better idea if I said it curved gently back and forth as it went down at a gentle incline, punctuated every so often with a cul-de-sac and, eventually, another road feeding into it, before reaching the bottom of its decline and turning broadly to the left, where it ran up another short rise before meeting with the neighborhood’s main road?
What if I spent pages describing everything about it? The texture of the road, of the sidewalks, the look of each individual house and its address, the make and models of different mailboxes, the types of trees that crowd up behind some of the houses at certain points, the cars parked in the driveways or on the curb, the way sound carries from one end to the other, the bushes in the front lawns, the dogs yelping at passersby in the back yards, the smell of the mulch in the summer, the lawns strewn with kids toys and Little Tikes vehicles, where you’d see the sun rise and where you’d lose it behind the cluttered horizon – all of this and more, and not in a list, but in an anatomy, a patient ordering of all this information across pages and pages – maybe in a separate part of the book, its own appendix to which you’d refer before beginning the section that takes place in Streetsboro – would you know it better, then, going forward into whatever I had to tell about it?
And also how much do I know about Holborn Road, or anywhere else? I walked through it just a couple hours ago and I can’t remember most of what I saw while I was there, and I don’t even have the plea of unfamiliarity to fall back on: I spent whole years of my life living there, seeing and seeing the street and its houses and people so many times.
In lots of literature, the sense of place is conveyed in ways less ordered and exhaustive, more oblique and “artistic.” When I took that class with Chip Delaney, he alluded to a suggestion from Theodore Sturgeon about writing building detail in a place, which (paraphrasing) was Only describe the things your characters would see and interact with in the course of whatever story you’re telling: the things their consciousness and needs actually come into contact with.
(I read a passage in Anna Karenina this week (I can’t find it now ), some lines of minor description detailing the appearance of a certain place on Levin’s farm. And whether the fault of Tolstoy, the translator/editors, or myself, it made no literal sense whatsoever; it was utterly functionless in situating me in the scene.)
Sometimes a sense of place is conveyed indirectly through characters. The logic here is that, if you believe that people are impacted by the place they live in, you can create an image of that place merely by faithfully depicting the characters that live within it. This is the approach John Kennedy Toole takes in A Confederacy of Dunces, which has this reputation as the New Orleans novel. I’ve read that book five times, and I’m always surprised at how little description of the city there actually is in it. The only place I remember as being vividly conventionally described is the Reilly house on Constantinople Street. And when I went to New Orleans a couple years ago there was no reverberation of pre-familiarity from having read and loved that book, although I do feel like I understood in some degree ineffable qualities about it.
(And also in that case there’s the long desert of years between New Orleans today and then to consider, the impact of modernity and commercialization and disaster. I wasn’t able to make it out to Constantinople Street itself.)
And what about the shallow things we bring to a book? Is Dublin well realized in Ulysses, or is it mostly a function of a two-dimensional conception of Ireland/Dublin we carry in our head, a magpie’s grab of bits and fragments from all over, reinforced by the relatively scant scene-setting descriptions in the book itself, that creates this surety that no book has ever captured the city better before or after?
Even the Pequod in Moby-Dick, which encompasses a lot less square acreage than either Dublin or New Orleans, gets really only a single chapter describing what it looks like, ad is rarely brought up in any visual sense again after that. But Moby-Dick‘s obviously not a book concerned with realism in the immediate sense under examination here.
One of the keys to establishing a real sense of place might be repetition. Because places do repeat: they come up again and again for us as we return to them in daily routine; in the cases of enduring locations in our lives, we commit these repetitions for years. For literally corollary: there’s the what feels like dozens of times Patrick O’Brian describes the sounds of rigging whistling in the wind, or the sails of a ship tightening, bellying out; so that eventually you have this reflexive awareness of this imagery in your head, and populate scenes in which they’re not directly mentioned yourself, automatically, just as you populate your house with all the things that it contains without having to take direct inventory every time you walk in.
The question of creating a place is important, because to create reality as I know it is to invoke the concatenated correspondence between places and people; the impacts and violences they inflict on each other. And, on a petty level, because Ohio is my particular grudge, I want to pin it in place on the page forever, so that it’s particular petty ugliness – and, too, its random moments of beauty – won’t be forgotten.