Thursday, September 24, 2009

Mindful of Your Surroundings

I've talked before about how setting is often a character of its own in many of my books, and in many books in general. Writers not only have a way of percieving character and human nature, but there's also this strange ability to understand the soul of a place relatively quickly. I'm not saying one can know a place inside and out, or that some places aren't more complicated and take more time, but in general a few days in a city or area is enough to get a fair understanding of what that place's soul is like. 

Two books I've recently read provide great examples of this. Both involve foreigners writing about a place they are spending time in.

From that moment on we saw, rising to the surface, the terrifying nature of white men, exasperated, freed from constraint, absolutely unbuttoned, their true nature, same as in war. That tropical steam bath called forth instincts as August breeds toads and snakes on the fissured walls of prisons. In the European cold, under gray, puritanical northern skies, we seldom get to see our brothers’ festering cruelty except in times of carnage, but when roused by the foul fevers of the tropics, their rottenness rises to the surface. That’s when the frantic unbuttoning sets in, when filth triumphs and covers us entirely. It’s a biological confession. Once work and cold weather cease to constrain us, once they relax their grip, the white man shows you the same spectacle as a beautiful beach when the tide goes out: the truth, fetid pools, crabs, carrion, and turds.

In this passage, Celine not only recognizes the trans-formative nature of place (in this case; Africa) but also the affect place has on the psyche. Product of our environment for sure, in Celine's view. Or, I suppose, more a question of 'When in Rome'. Granted, Celine always has an uncanny way of seeing the worst in humanity, but that doesn't make his observations any less true. There is a biological element to his observation in that we adapt to be better suited to our environment (both psychical and social). To back up his claim, I will use the words of our nation's own Celine, Hunter S. Thompson regarding the desert heat. "I've never been able to properly explain myself in this climate."

The other passage I wanted to bring up was from Crime by Irvine Welsh. Besides being a great page turner of wonderful writing (as all of his books are) there was another interesting angle to this book. Reading it as an American, you get to see our bizarre nation through the eyes of one of the world's best writers. He did an amazing job capturing the absurdity of American culture and particularly the area of southern Florida, which is more absurd that most.

SUVs rumble by with slow menace, the unstable nightclub bouncers of the automobile world.              Page 145     

They drive through residential blocks, broken up by parking lots and strip malls with low-yielding enterprises like cheap insurance brokerage, electrical repairs and pet supplies stores.  Page 151

I just chose these two examples because I thought they were fun but also insightful. The first is just right on. No explanation needed. The second is more insightful I think. It's not only a simple encapsulation of our suburban sprawl, but also a deft comment on our so-called world class economy, which when you look behind the curtain, is nothing more than a marginal exchange of personal services on par with a third world nation. We just pass money around back and forth, luckily for us, there's a lot of it to pass. It's funny how someone that's not from here could see those strip malls that way, where as more Americans might not look close enough to realize most of the stores they support are essentially useless.

I don't necessarily think writers are smarter, they are just more observant than most people. Or perhaps, it's just that we feel the need to shout out into the world the things we see like Walt Whitman and later Alan Ginsberg suggested. Maybe we are just loudmouths yelling out the things most everyone else silently knows and accepts and shakes their heads hoping we'll shut up already. Sorry. We can't. It's biological. 

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