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"