Monday, June 6, 2011

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Importance of Place

One of the key ways Midwest Gothic separates itself from the other forms of Gothic is, obviously, through place. The Midwest is nothing like New England or the South. However, simply saying it takes place in Nebraska or Indiana is not enough. A strong sense of place is essential. The people, the places, in addition to details about the land, must feel like the Midwest.

Bryan Furuness' "Adios, Ramon Gonzales" is one such story. We are told, "April is a hard month in Chicagoland, raw and blustery, but generally everyone's happy that it's not March anymore." Here we have place, not just because of the mention of Chicagoland, but because we have information about the mindset of the people living there. As the story progresses, we see that those conditions reflect the characters. On the particular day this story is set is "the first nice day of the year," rousing hope in the people. They are out washing cars, tending to lawns, and Revie rides his bike about town. We learn this is a place where the "stupid casserole lady" makes unwanted visits, where people take "neighborliness seriously," where the air is "ripe with mill smoke," and most telling where they say, thank you "out of habit" after being shown a picture of the body of a boy who had been hit by a train. These moments solidly root us in the Midwest, meaning if you took out the reference to Chicagoland, you'd still be able to tell the story is in the Midwest. Even as more of the sadness and tragedy surrounding the train accident and Revie's life is revealed, the story never loses its grip on place as these losses are reflected in the weather, the town, and the people.

The same can be said for Dan Chaon's "Big Me." The protagonists in both this story and the Bryan Furuness story share a very active imaginative life, which, while probably not exclusive to Midwestern kids, certainly seems to be a large part of a childhood lived in the Heartland. Whereas Revie lived not in the city, but certainly within its reach, Andy O'Day in "Big Me" lives in Beck, a small town in Nebraska. That fact is emphasized at the start of the story, "a 'town' we called it." This is just one of the many details to put us in a specific place. We have people using push lawn mowers and Andy's family "all eating silently, grimly, as if everything were normal" to tell us what the people in Beck are like. The description of the land behind Andy's house pushes place even further, "behind our house was the junkyard, and beyond that were wheat fields, which ran all the way to a line of bluffs and barren hills, full of yucca and rattlesnakes." This gives the impression of a place that stretches out infinitely, filled with potential danger. Yet the town feels insulated, although filled with just as much danger, except it has the mysterious stranger rather than rattlesnakes. Without the details that conjure place, in this case Nebraska, "Big Me" would be happening in a generic setting and would lose all its power to tell the story of Andy O'Day and Beck.

Both the Chaon and the Furuness stories share a creeping sense of dread, which not only impacts the characters in profound ways, but is mirrored in the descriptions of the people and the landscape. This helps take these stories past being just Midwestern and makes them Midwest Gothic. Ultimately, place is important in Midwest Gothic for the same reason it is important in Southern Gothic because the lives of the people and their environments are impossible to untangle. How those places are invoked and identified is not always an exact science, but after reading Flannery O'Connor or the stories mentioned here, you instinctively know the people, the towns, the regions they are centered around. You can feel it.

Read "Adios, Ramon Gonzales"
Read "Big Me"

Sunday, January 30, 2011

On Sherwood Anderson and the Gothic tradition

Sherwood Anderson may be the writer most strongly identified with Midwestern literature—his Winesburg, Ohio is a canonical representation of life in the Heartland. Anderson’s stories make a bridge between Southern Gothic and what we identify as Midwest Gothic—in Southern Gothic literature, the grotesque elements are generally extravagant, played up in a Grand Guignol fashion, and the secret scandals and mysteries featured in Southern Gothic stories are often “open” secrets, known to all but spoken of in scandalized whispers behind closed doors or across backyard fences. In Anderson’s story “Hands,” Wing Biddlebaum’s freakishly spastic hands flutter cartoonishly and are the subject of teasing and laughter in the town where he now resides—he tries to keep them hidden, but they are the very model of an open secret, in that everyone already knows his shame. Of course, the bigger secret of his hands is one that Wing has managed to keep hidden, at a great cost to himself. The melodramatic nature of both the physical details and the finally revealed secret in “Hands” places the story closer to Southern Gothic than to the Midwest Gothic tradition that will emerge.

Anderson’s “The Untold Lie,” on the other hand, is a true early example of Midwest Gothic style. In this story, details of the Midwest landscape play a significant role, the vast beauty of the fields coming to symbolize the oppression of a disappointed man in a life he can’t escape. In “The Untold Lie,” nobody knows the secret of Ray’s unhappiness—it’s hidden behind the jovial, monotonous routine of his days. In a brief moment, he’s confronted with the opportunity to make known his true feelings—it’s like a corner of a pretty tapestry being pulled back to reveal something sad, dark, and neglected underneath. And then the moment passes, the curtain drops, and Ray’s veneer of contentment settles back into place. The implication of the story is that all the people of this place may share the same unhappiness (Hal seems to be cultivating a near-exact replica of Ray’s life), but the masks of genial tranquility everyone wears keeps each man alone with his discontent—a discontent that is at once ordinary and unbearably sad.

Read "Hands"
Read "The Untold Lie"

Friday, January 28, 2011

Midwest Gothic Anthology

We have some exciting news about a new project and we can't wait any longer to share it. Since the spring of 2010, Jodee Stanley and I (Brian Kornell) have been at work putting together an anthology of Midwest Gothic stories. I first presented the idea of Midwest Gothic at the 2009 Winter Wheat Festival. All of the details are far from set. In the coming months we'll bring you more details as they are available.

In the meantime, you might be asking, "What is Midwest Gothic?" Excellent question. Here is our short description:

Often, too often, many people consider the Midwest to be synonymous with boring. But look again; things are more complicated than they first appear. Look closer still and you’ll see the Midwest is not just a place to flyover or pass through to more exciting destinations. There is a literary movement quietly happening: Midwest Gothic.

While Midwest Gothic shares many similar traits with Southern Gothic and Gothic literature, such as the grotesque, characters with strained mental states, and elements of the supernatural, it is not just a mere transportation of these elements to the Midwest. Two key ideas inform Midwest Gothic: restraint and the unspoken. Emotional restraint keeps characters from revealing their secrets and also isolates them from others. A lot is left unsaid between Midwesterners–this is how they can be outwardly friendly, surrounded by people, yet still be utterly and hauntingly alone. Geography mirroring the psychological landscape is also an important element in the Midwest Gothic aesthetic. At first, the flatness of the landscape appears one-dimensional, static, and dull—until you realize the vastness is overwhelming, limitless, and eternal. The void can swallow you. Running underneath all of this is a current of horror, which is sometimes overt and sometimes only alluded to or implied.

Stories in the Midwest Gothic vein refuse to comply with the plain and ordinary expectations of the region and reveal the darkness and complexity of the Midwest.