Forgive my hiatus. I’ve just finished my first week at my new job as an adjunct community college instructor, teaching three sections of freshman composition.
I’ve had much I’ve wanted to write in the past few weeks, but some of those ideas have passed.
Anyhow, this morning I was reading Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (number 21 on my 100 novels list) and I noticed something about this novel–how insignificant of a role setting seems to play. It not only seems true for this book, but also for the last book I read–Karen Boren’s Girls in Peril.
The Color Purple begins with its protagonist, Celie, writing letters to God about her life and the lives of those around her. I was only vaguely aware of what the setting was. It was clear only that this was a poor black community, probably in the South and probably sometime after the Civil War and Emancipation. But how far beyond has been a question I’ve pursued since reading. Celie/Walker only begins to give clues as the narrative progresses.
The best I can gather is that it’s some time in the early 20th century, and probably in the 20s or 30s. Celie’s sister Nettie talks about visiting Harlem during its renaissance, which occurred in the 20s. But other than these clues, there isn’t much there there.
I’m about halfway through the novel, and the strongest sense of setting comes from the letters Celie finds from Nettie, who is a missionary among the Olinka tribe in Africa. But even in those letters Africa itself seems no more than something we see in old movies and the Olinka, as Nettie describes them, seem like an Everyman tribal people, not really distinct. Of course Nettie isn’t an anthropologist and is selecting particular details to give an overall picture to Celie.
The overall lack of a vivid setting seems to me a weakness in this particular novel. Walker’s use of Celie as a narrator has a lot to do with this weakness. We see only through her eyes and she gives us mostly snapshots of the interactions between characters. It’s hard to get to know her or the other characters, because much of what she describes is the sexual interaction between the characters, and even that seems vague. It’s hard to get a sense of how the world around her affects her. Or does it? Her narration has sort of an autistic feel to it.
In Girls in Peril, the setting is vaguely a Midwestern town in the summer in the mid to late 70s. The narrator is a collective "we" of pre-adolescent/early adolescent girls and the book itself is reminscent of Jeffery Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, which also uses a collective "we" narrator, only of boys rather than girls.
Unlike Eugenides’ book, which presents a vivid suburban Detroit neighborhood, Boren’s girls live in a vague Midwestern suburb, or small town; it’s difficult to be sure. These girls could be anywhere. Nothing really stands out as peculiar to the Midwest, whereas Eugenides develops a neighborhood that is particular and peculiar. It’s hard to imagine the characters in another setting and the setting itself helps bring the characters alive. Boren’s characters are vivid and as a collective "we" do seem like a troop of girls, but other than the curious Jeanne Macek, with her extra thumb, nothing about them really stands out. They aren’t really a part of anything like the boys in Eungenides’ book are a part of their neighborhood.
The homogenized American setting proves to be valuable, though, in Leah Stewart’s The Myth of You and Me. It fits with the protagonist, Cameron, who’s father is in the Air Force, and so she has always been used to moving around, one place like another; her settings, or lack thereof, have influenced her character. She isn’t used to staying in one place for long or with people for long. When she goes to work for the retired historian Oliver in Oxford, Miss., his home becomes the first place that’s really been a true home for her. Living in his home, in which history is so important, helps develop part of Cameron’s conflict–to find a place in the world for herself; it becomes part of her quest to reunite with her friend Sonia.
I like vivid settings in novels and they can add to the character, in most cases. What do you like about setting? Does a vivid setting draw you into a book? As I’m revising my novel, I’m seeing how the characters to some extent are affected by their setting–Austin, Texas, mostly–and I find myself affected by my setting as well (Central Texas in the summer) and I find I keep making digs against the 100-plus degree heat we suffer every summer here. (I’m ready for some cooler weather.) I think if I were writing a science fiction novel, there would be a desert planet in there somewhere.