Monday, December 8, 2014

Setting: what you think you know

I took a hiatus from my blog this fall--hello again! For my return post, I've got an unusual way of addressing "place" and "setting" in a novel I was blown away by this year--A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain by Adrianne Harun.

The novel could be labeled as an example of magical realism, but that would be simplifying it. More so, it takes a concept--Devil's Hopscotch, a sinister version of the familiar childhood game, in which innocents fall prey to Old Scratch himself--to analyze the much more difficult concept of life in a hardscrabble mountain town, where poverty, racism, and despair aren't quite enough to explain the mysterious disappearances of local Native American girls and the tragedies of five local youths: Leo, Bryan, Ursie, Jackie, and Tessa. Leo narrates their tale as the inevitable outcome of the Devil's insidious interventions, but the story is interspersed with small chapters that use local folklore and the wisdoms of Leo's deceased Uncle Lud to weave the book's meta-perspective and challenge the reader's perceptions of the characters and the labels we might apply to them based on their origins.

Random drawing found on Drawception. Love it!
My favorite such chapter is entitled, His Playground. One of the unusual ways in which the novel addresses setting is that Leo never discloses the exact location or name of his Canadian mountain town, and in this chapter, he disabuses the reader of any notion that he or she can fully answer the question, "Where are we?" while also insisting that we're not completely without knowledge of the place. Here's a snippet:
You know where we are. You do. Even Uncle Lud...declares there's no need to tell you where we are. You've heard of this place. The news was all over it for a while. And they'll be back, Uncle Lud guesses. That's the thing about places like this. People come here to get lost, but all that means is that they want to do whatever they'd like without anyone interfering.... 
If we give the name, if we say, here we are in Canada, in Terrace or Kaslo or Avola, or we tell you that here we are hidden away like a bunch of bush bunnies in Alberta, you'll say, nah, I passed through there on my holidays or my aunt lived near Smithers or my entire band's been here for more generations than your family has years, and that's not the Terrace or Kaslo or the Peace I know. And you'd be right...."
 This accomplishes about a million different things but here are the top 3, I think:
  1. It's a clever way of making the tale feel even more universal and magical.
  2. It points out that the minute we identify a place (especially if we already do happen to know that city, town, or country),we think we know it and will make all kinds of assumptions--even in fiction, and more surprisingly, even if we live there in real life!
  3. It implies that, despite the anonymity Leo offers, we really do know the specific place he speaks of, but we will pretend we don't so we don't have to acknowledge any potential responsibility or complicity.
For Harun's purposes, this is a great way of negotiating specificity and universality and somehow making it all ten times more interesting--it's also a great way of making the setting support a novel with a very complex voice and narrative. Or, as Leo says, "You see, here's a place where a singular story won't suffice, if one ever could."

Quotes from my Kindle version: Adrianne Harun. A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain. New York, NY: Penguin Books; 2014.

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