Sarah briefly mentioned place in her blog post and that got me thinkin’. Since many folks out there have already weighed in on the Adams article, I decided I would go elsewhere with this post and try to make sense of place in some of the novels we have read.
The notion of place seems to be pretty flexible in postmodern texts. In gothic literature, for example, place is often easily described as antiquated. In genres like fantasy and sci-fi, place also fluctuates but tends to follow some basic rules (outer space, past feudal realms). Many people have posted about how difficult it is to place postmodernism within any strict walls or interpretive confines. I agree that this is tricky and as I’ve read books from The Crying of Lot 49 to House of Leaves to Tropic of Orange, I’ve noticed that there don’t seem to be any conventions that strictly define place in postmodernist writing.
As I looked closer I found that there is little overlap in location: Beloved occupies a small space in the rural South; The Crying of Lot 49 takes place in bustling, crowded cities across California. The size of the places also changes: there are the small confines of a house that can also grow to enormous proportions in House of Leaves; the small (but ever-changing) office where much of Lathe of Heaven occurs; Tropic of Orange sprawls all over LA and in Mexico too, across landscapes both vast (the urban ghetto, the highway systems) and localized (the house near Mazatlan). Places can occupy just about any form in postmodern texts, from rural to urban, small to large.
It’s how place feels to the reader and how it is handled by the characters in the stories that I think give many of the places we’ve read about a common characteristic: they are unreliable, sometimes to the point of becoming untrustworthy. Why do I see some of the places in this semesters novels as unreliable? How does this relate to postmodernism?
I don’t think anyone will disagree that the space in House of Leaves is unreliable. The house shifts, it changes, at times it attempts to trap people inside. However, the novel also takes place in the world of Johnny Truant. Johnny begins the novel with some forays into the city, but by the end, he is as shut-in as Zampano, with drapes over the windows and cardboard blocking the vents. Not only does he not trust his own space, he doesn’t trust the space outside.
In Crying of Lot 49, everything seems to be untrustworthy. Oedipa travels around to different cities, and as she does this, I never feel a strong sense of the location. Each city seems the same. What makes them important is that they conceal the hidden clues she so desperately seeks. Each place sends her to a new location, all another stopping point on a journey that leads pretty much nowhere. Those are some unreliable locales.
In Tropic of Orange place seems to be more reliable than these other two, but is it? Crabs in Mazatlan, located hours’ walk from the sea, signify that something isn’t right. Gun shots on the east side may be an every day part of life, but for Buzzworm, it can all be avoided, the space can be reclaimed–from the beuracrats, from the gangsters who do their best to claim it, from the vicious cycles that occupy that space and keep revolving and threatining to never let anyone out. Gabriel’s unreliable space takes the form of a two-headed monster: the quiet Mexico or the bustling LA where he can continue working as a journalist. These spaces all bring with them a strong sense of unreliability. This is not the house you grew up in or the bustling city that represents opportunity. No, these spaces, even when they’re at their best, are ever-changing, sometimes alien landscapes.
Manzanar seems to be one character who finds the space he occupies–highway corridors–to be reliable. However, upon closer expection, we see that they are only reliable as far as his music goes, but not reliable as a whole. Crashes occupy this wide-lane space and Manzanar also summons images of maps. Maps can be reliable, but for anyone who has used one knows they are subject to change. Unexpected, sudden change that leaves you at the end of a dead-end road, just miles from your ultimate destination in the middle of the night, wondering, “what do I do now?” The maps in this book also have layers–“for Manzanar they began with the very geology of the land…” (57). These multi-layered maps become so thick in their complexity and construction as to render them too numerous and too specific to serve much use at all. In chapter 13 Buzzworm thinks about maps and how little they really do to help. He sums this up with the early line, “if someone could put down all the layers of the real map, maybe he could get the real picture” (81). Only if all the layers are assembled can the maps provide a clear picture–and as the tone suggests, this will never happen. So even maps become unreliable in Tropic of Orange.
Some of the other novels we’ve covered also deal with unreliable places, but I felt that these were some of the shining examples. Places change, but their unreliability in postmodern texts seems to be relatively constant.
In postmodernism many aspects of life (language, morals, truth, etc.) are shown as constructs of society that we all end up buying into. In a postmodern novel, the author may investigate these constructs, and in so doing, help shed some light on their existence (the constructs’), which is usually enough to get people thinking. I can’t help but want to channel Saussure when thinking of place, who wrote about the signifier and signified in linguistics. I believe that while he mainly focuses on words, the same can be said for place. The signifier “home” or “city” will mean many different things to any number of different people (the signified). New York is the symbol of American freedom, LA of opportunity and fame, DC of power. However, to the people who visit and occupy these spaces year round, the cities become many different things. This may be part of the reason spaces seem so hard to trust in the works we’ve read. After all, when a space means something different to everyone occupying it, and seems ever-changing, there isn’t a lot to rely on. Just below the surface the labels we apply to certain locales (the peaceful setting of the South, the emblematic American cities) suddenly vanish. Each person takes something different away from their place. Each one views their place differently as well. I believe this root of unreliability is essentially postmodern becauyse it’s not only the observed that’s important, but who’s doing the observing, how they observe, and what that says about the unique spaces we all occupy and how they shape our unique perspectives.