09 May 2010

Here, there, somewhere else

I can't remember if Lorrie Moore ever names the state in which her new book, A GATE AT THE STAIRS, is set, but most of it takes place in a city called Troy. Often tagged with the phrase "the Athens of the Midwest," Troy is the home of the big state university where the book's narrator, Tassie, has been studying, and when we're not there, we follow her home to the small town where she grew up.

Troy probably resembles a lot of cities, but I had decided for myself pretty early on which city it was. Moore would probably disapprove of this, but then she shouldn't have borrowed the historical event Tassie's dad jokingly refers to, one I'm pretty sure didn't happen in every Midwestern college town, and assigned it to Troy.

What are the advantages to setting a novel in a fictional place? Freedom of invention, to begin with. It's more critical for fantasy or science fiction works, I should think, but any author might want to add streets or even neighborhoods in which to place her characters without the interference of "But that corner isn't zoned for a restaurant in real life." (Tassie nannies for a couple in the book, one of whom owns a restaurant.) If the author is writing about a real-life event, altering the landscape of an existing city may not be enough to protect against libel charges -- or pesky reviewers who point out how similar Book X is to News Item Y. Then again, it's easier to make up a small city than a large one, and region makes a difference, too; I suspect going to your agent with a realistic work set in "a major East Coast city" wouldn't go over well, but the Midwest can be a little... more hazy in the minds of other people.

I don't think I can get out of this topic without throwing in a mention of Yoknapatawpha County, one of the most famous fictional places in American literature. (So here it is.) I wonder whether critics of the day probed him for details of the "real" Yoknapatawpha or even journeyed to Lafayette County, MS, the widely accepted real-life analogue, to examine it for his reading public. Maybe our mania for 'realness' is more recent, more of a fad, driven by the fact that we can Google "real location of TITLE" and give ourselves an 'answer' that way.

I couldn't even engage with Troy, the fictional city, but it didn't affect my enjoyment of the book. Late in it Moore pulls off this one revelatory sequence to make a creative writing major fret (aided by the fact that no one had spoiled me for it, so I will follow suit) and for which I could mostly forgive its earlier linguistic frills.


Wade Garrett said...

Madison, WI, by any chance? I know that Moore teaches creative writing there. Lovely? Yes. The Athens of the Midwest? That's a stretch.

Ellen said...

The phrase "the Athens of the Midwest" is used in the book with varying degrees of irony depending on how people feel about Tassie's achievement in getting there (including herself). I haven't heard that one particularly, but it strikes me that something similar might be said about any flagship campus of a state university held in high regard by its residents. I believe Moore taught at Iowa for a while, which would definitely count for that.

Wade Garrett said...

"I used to teach creative writing at the University of Iowa; now I teach creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison" must sound, to some people, like the little girl in Annie Hall who said "I used to be a heroin addict; now I'm a methadone addict."

Ellen said...

That was uncalled for.

Wade Garrett said...

I kid because I love! Madison is beautiful - not the best place to have a career as a lawyer if you are not from Wisconsin originally, but I would gladly move back there if the right situation presented itself. A beautiful city, full of intelligent, politically aware people? Sign me up!