Why Place is Character

There’s this idea that we are born as a discrete unit, placed onto the surface of the world, moving around in a fleshy little body. The world is just a map that you land on, randomly spawned like a character in a video game. And that idea is quite convenient for anyone who subscribes to a broadly liberal world view, because it allows us to believe in the ‘accident of birth’, an idea that ‘I’ could have been born anywhere and happened to fall out here and now. But unfortunately, each of us only has an identity at all thanks to our surroundings. The social psychologist Dr Bruce Hood writes that ‘keeping you alive is not the sole function nor the responsibility of the brain… When you take a closer look at our planet and all its life forms, it soon becomes apparent that the original reason why living things evolved brains was for movement… Arguably the main reason that the brain evolved was to navigate the world – to work out where you currently are, remember where you have been and decide where you are going next.’1

The earliest knowledge we have about our species is where we were. Place came before culture, before consciousness. I am here, therefore I am. We only have brains in the first place as a way to situate ourselves, to retain and manipulate our sense of place, which is one of the reasons why we have such prodigious spatial memories (if you don’t believe me, Google memory palaces). It is not an accident that I was born here and not over there, because I literally wouldn’t be me if I was born over there. From this perspective, it’s impossible not to think of each of us as products and prisoners of a particular time and place.

So often, writers talk about creating character and creating place as if the two are completely separate enterprises – it’s that view of the character as a little ball of impulses, rolling around and bumping into things. If you subscribe to that view, place can only ever be a colourful, two-dimensional backdrop, like the plywood sky that the boat bumps into in The Truman Show. But to me, it is impossible to understand your character if you don’t understand their surroundings, since that character is an expression of the place.

In my second novel, Let Us Be True, I focused on two characters that find each other in Paris in 1958, just as the French Fourth Republic, founded after the Second World War, is in crisis. They find each other, and begin to fall in love, but neither of them knows anything about the other’s past. We know they weren’t always living in Paris. But where did they come from? Where were they during the war? And how did they end up here? Is Paris a home or a hiding place?

For each of us, understanding our place in the world – finding ourselves – is the key to escaping our present situation. What is a situation, after all, if not where we happen to be sitting?

 

First published on Nut Press

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A strange, wise novel

George Saunders is the most lauded short-story writer living today, revered in America to the point of canonisation. Among many other accolades, he has been awarded a Macarthur “Genius” Fellowship and named by TIME magazine, in a characteristic departure from reality, as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

He rose to prominence in the UK in 2013 with publication of his short story collection The Tenth of December, a bright, brilliant firework of a collection, which received rave reviews and won the inaugural Folio Prize (now the Rathbones Folio Prize). This made his debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, one of the most anticipated books of 2017.

Saunders’s stories often follow a certain structure: refusing to explain their rules at first, they seem strange and impenetrable; gradually, a world recognisably like our own is revealed, but in some way estranged or uncanny; the story and its conventions begin to converge purposefully and forcefully; and finally, out of nowhere, we are hit with a wave of compassion, the very last thing we expected of an ostensibly experimental story. Even when we do learn to expect it, the sheer aching sympathy of his characters challenges you to be better, kinder, more humane.

Lincoln in the Bardo follows this same broad structure, charting one night in the graveyard where the young Willie Lincoln, son of Abe, has just been interred. Although Lincoln Sr features, it is really young Willie who is in the bardo, a Tibetan word for an intermediate state between lives in Buddhism, similar to the Christian limbo. None of the characters there are able to acknowledge that they are dead, delicately referring to “that previous place” and calling their coffins “sick-boxes” as if they are merely resting up for a return. All here are restless souls, snagged on some troubling detail of their past life like Williams the hunter, who sits caring for the great pile of animals he has killed.

There is a touching trio of elders who take Willie under their wing: roger bevins iii, a young gay man covered in eyes; hans vollman, who lugs around a “tremendous member”, having been taken ill while anticipating his marriage-bed; and the reverend everly thomas, who is adamant that this is no place for a child, and that Willie must depart as soon as possible, for whatever the next life holds. Except Willie won’t go. He is waiting for his father.

Writing Abraham Lincoln is like playing Hamlet – fraught by competing, contested interpretations, impossible to begin anew – and Saunders confronts the historicity of the novel with a polyphonic, argumentative chorus. Different observers tell us Lincoln’s eyes are “gray”, “gray-brown”, “bluish-brown”, “bluish-gray”, “blue”; he is both “the ugliest man I had ever seen” and, to another, “the handsomest man I ever saw”. Saunders is not reverent towards Lincoln, whom he depicts at one point riding his nag with his long legs hanging down like “some sort of man-sized insect”. But we do not hear Lincoln Sr’s testimony directly – we literally inhabit him, as roger bevins iii and hans vollman sit within him to understand his thoughts.

The novel is not, as is being suggested, a masterpiece, but it does reveal Saunders’s many great qualities, not least of which is the hard-won gift of empathy, and his emphasis on the importance of “kind little words, which are of the same blood as great and holy deeds”. It takes a couple of chapters to attune yourself to the clamour of voices, but the reward is a strange, wise novel, truer in its expression than many ostensibly historical novels, and a reassurance that America has survived a war with itself before.

First published in New Humanist, Spring 2017. You can subscribe to the magazine here.

Book review: Against Everything

Against Everything: On Dishonest Times (Verso) by Mark Greif

Mark Greif is a founding editor of N+1, a New York magazine founded in 2004 which, in retaliation against a prevailing culture of irony and indifference, declared in its first issue that it was “time to say what you mean”. Greif and his co-founders appeared to be answering the call of David Foster Wallace a decade earlier, when he had written in the Review of Contemporary Fiction that “the next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of ‘anti-rebels’, born oglers who dare to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values.”

Twelve years on from the magazine’s launch, Greif has amassed a collection of sober and enquiring essays on topics as diverse as gym culture, hipsters, the function of police and learning to rap. The author has described Against Everything as “a cultural argument in linked essays”, building up a picture of a society moulded, often unconsciously, by the logic of consumer capitalism. It is not a far cry, in its concerns, from another book Verso has published in the same month, by Stuart Jeffries, arguing for the importance of the Frankfurt School. But although informed by theory, Greif’s argument is mercifully light on jargon, opting for philosophy in plain English and careful deliberation over the everyday.

The first section of the book reflects on “the rules of food, of sex, of exercise, of health, [which] give us ways of avoiding facing up to a freedom from care that we may already have within reach.” These are areas of our lives which, he argues, are no longer governed by necessity but by fetishisation, private needs turned into public, monetised performances: deferring the convenience of food by seeking out arcane ingredients, sexualising youth as a way of commoditising the body, turning exercise into a public pursuit of something other than health. Since we no longer struggle for survival, we create artificial obstacles, impose new rules of struggle, to lend our lives meaning.

These essays are an earnest attempt to examine the points of friction between capitalism and our daily lives, as well as an attempt to discover their resolution. Greif has always been a remarkably prescient and insightful essayist – in 2006, he had already begun to write about issues, such as Universal Basic Income, that would reach the mainstream only after the financial crisis and the resulting Occupy movement – but his elegance has grown with time, leaving behind his earlier flirtation with portentousness (“Let the future, at least, know that we were fools… Record our testament[!]”). Some of the most rewarding passages in the collection are, therefore, the most recent, such as his essay on policing, or his editorial update to the essay on reality television, which brilliantly dissects the bland horror of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

And yet his anti-capitalist heroes are not necessarily those of the 20th or 21st century. In a series exploring the “Meaning of Life”, Greif rejects the accrual of hedonistic experience or mere objects, and harks back to the first Greek philosophers, the aestheticism of Gustave Flaubert and, particularly, the perfectionism of Henry David Thoreau. For a writer ostensibly against everything, Greif finds an unexpected solace in the lives of others as an antithesis to one’s own life, synthesising a new self and continuing the search. As he points out, “the instant for philosophy is always now, and every day, because some of us need a lifetime for it. We are slow learners.”

First published in New Humanist, Winter 2016. You can subscribe to the magazine here.