April 21, 2010

List of the Week: "Settings You Can't Pass Up"

Some settings hold an almost mystical allure for us, enticing us to play tourist in an otherwise inaccessible land or time. This week we ask our staff: “What settings are you a total sucker for?”

Paige Burnham, intern: 19th-Century Time Travel

I love time travel stories where the main character travels in time from the modern day back to the 1800s. I think I like it so much because then the 1800s are described through the narrator’s eyes, in a way that we would see it. Little things that the people of the 1800s take for granted are noticed, both good and bad, like the toilet situation or the fancy plates and silverware. It at once idealizes the 1800s, but also makes me appreciate living in the modern world. I’ll read anything that has time travel to the 1800s, no matter how “low brow” it is, and I’ll probably love it, especially if there’s some romance. I’m a sucker for a boy in pantaloons.

Nell McCabe, graduate assistant: New England

Even before I moved from Western Massachusetts to Columbia, Missouri, novels and stories set in New England have always spoken to me in a way that others don’t. I love books and writers who can capture something about what it means to live in the Northeast: in a small Maine town (Empire Falls and The Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo), the streets of Dorchester (Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone by Dennis Lehane), or even a dystopian futuristic New England town (The Handmaid’s Tale by Marget Atwood). It’s hard to say for sure what draws me to this setting, but I suspect that the familiarity it offers and the glimmer of recognition when a character acts or speaks in a particularly New England way has something to do with it.

Kate McIntyre, contest coordinator: Oxford

What I can’t resist (I don’t try very hard) is anything set at that ancient seat of learning, Oxford.   You’re guaranteed a comedic don. Turn riverward, and you’ll spy punters. Look up and admire the spires. The cast of characters will be highly educated, to the point of great social strangeness. You’ll find that they are all affiliated with colleges whose names sound strange and deeply, deliciously English: Balliol, Brasenose, Keble.

My favorite novel set at Oxford is Max Beerbohm’s nastily charming Zuleika Dobson, in which a beautiful young woman convinces hoards of Oxford undergraduates to kill themselves. The river proves handy. Oxford is also a frequent setting for murder. In a handful of golden age mystery novels, it functions as a sort of extra large country house, enclosing both murderers and suspects in its gates. (Are there, in fact, gates? I’ve never seen it in person.) Mystery-wise, The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin and Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers are stand-outs.

Marc McKee, poetry editor: New York City

I have never been to New York City.  This is a sad fact made ridiculous by the lineage I claim as a poet: the New York School (especially Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara), Federico Garcia Lorca (especially The Poet in New York) and Walt Whitman.  I’m drawn to urban settings generally, the way the edges and glass and roil of humanity interject themselves on the consciousness of the poet, virtually guaranteeing that the poet has to share the page with the world we’ve made, but I’m incredibly susceptible to New York City.  It looms and it looms, its shadows are serious.  Give me a lunch poem like “A Step Away from Them,” and even the grit of NYC shines.  Of course it’s also the province of fiction writers; certain moments of Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude actually let me believe I grew up in Brooklyn at the same time as hip hop, instead of a small town in Texas during the ascendancy of Garth Brooks.  And speaking of hip hop, some of my favorite emcees make their home there or the home of their music, Mos Def and Aesop Rock and many, many others.  I suspect that one day I will go to New York City, but this does not worry me.  Of all the settings in all the poems and books and songs I feel like have a chance of living up to their poetic and/or fictional hype, I feel like New York has the best chance of exceeding my expectations.  It is always on my horizon.

Owen Neace, intern: Texas and the American South

Two settings that I can’t seem to pass up are Texas and the American South, for the following reasons: I love the beauty and sparseness of Texas, specifically how it can be both breathtaking and inhospitable at the same time. But I also love its history: how it was almost its own country, how it kind of is now, all the bloodshed that occurred, all the wars, all the literature that’s been written about. And finally I find its people infinitely interesting. To put it simply, we absolutely do not care about national perception or potential criticism, and whether you agree with our politics and lifestyle or not, that’s admirable, and rare. And to top it off, those politics and lifestyle are extremely unique: we tote guns like God told us the apocalypse is tomorrow, we’re unflinchingly “conservative” on some things, and ridiculously “liberal” on others. I quote these because being from Texas makes you appreciate just how relative these terms are. Also, to harken back to a Texas saying, “In life, there’s only God and football, and not necessary in that order.” This sounds like a joke, but it’s really not.

And regarding the South, there’s a lot of commonalites with Texas. In addition to its physical beauty and literature, I guess the main infactuation I have with it is its grotesquery. Also, and this is probably the main catalyst for most Southern literature, there’s the slave history. I simply cannot resist reading about this, and how the South almost unknowingly destroyed America and recreated the backwards classicism of medieval Europe, AND how now, it’s such a thriving economic region. I find the whole history of it really enthralling.

Michael Nye, managing editor: European Summers Abroad

This is easy: the college student’s summer abroad in Europe.

Let me clarify now: these stories are not good.  I’ve written them.  I’ve written about my summer abroad, in both essays and in “fiction.”  I’ve read thousands of these stories, both in writing workshops as an undergraduate and a graduate.  I’ve also read these stories as an editor of literary magazines, at Natural Bridge, at River Styx, and here at The Missouri Review.  They are always the same story.  They all essential go like this:

A boy/girl who is misunderstood/heartbroken/naïve goes abroad one summer to England/Spain/France to find his-herself/seek adventure and ends up either lamenting his/her soulmate who abandoned him/her back in the States or ends up meeting his/her soulmate who is a super-awesome European who is just so ethereal.  Invariably, they spend a lot of time in the story walking around and in pubs and endlessly namedropping avenues, museums, and famous restaurants.

So why do I fall for these stories?  Why do I go ahead and read all thirty five pages of these stories (and these stories are always twice as long as they should be, even if they were wholly original, which, again, they are not) when I know exactly what is going to happen?

Because I’m an optimist.  Because these stories are honest and heartfelt.  They may be melodramatic and clichéd, but the authors don’t know that yet (they will; the authors of these stories are almost always twenty three years old).  They capture setting and it infuses the characters with energy.  Because there is tragedy—these stories are never funny—and there is something verging on adulthood for the characters, and for the writer, the sense that the world is bigger than he/she yet realizes.  You know that you are reading work by someone who is going to write for the rest of his/her life no matter what, and there is something captivating about being the audience for this awareness, this hopeful claim on the world.  One day, the writer of the My Crazy Summer Abroad will look back on the story and cringe.

And yet, these stories always take the reader to the streets of Barcelona, the café of Paris, the ruins of Italy, and stay in those places, live in those places, refuse to abandon the sense of location (does anyone read Eudora Welty’s “Place in Fiction” anymore?) and the way place shapes us characters in fiction is often, sadly, forgotten.  The writing in these passages may not be good for the story, but the writer, always, clearly, is at his/her best in these moments.  And I’ll take those moments.  You never know what will come next from this writer: the next story might be the one that makes The Leap.

Dan Stahl, office assistant: Hollywood

How to explain my preoccupation with Hollywood? As a city, Los Angeles ought to appall anyone who has outgrown Disneyland, but perhaps the very qualities that make L.A. preposterous in real life make it compelling in art. “City” may be a misnomer — the place feels more like a metropolitan movie set, with its insistent sunshine and vacant sidewalks. (Most Angelinos learn how to drive before they learn how to walk.) This public artificiality and impersonality have resulted in what I consider some of the most engrossing and, ironically, affecting films over the past several years: Crash, Mulholland Drive, L.A. Confidential. The books that fostered my initial interest in Hollywood — Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust and Aldous Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan — exhibit, like the movies above, a morbid fascination with their setting. I guess I could risk further embarrassment by addressing music, but who still remembers Hole?

Sarah Strong, intern: Victorian England

I find the energy and vitality of the Victorian era compelling, with its frantic tensions between different social groups and within those groups. I’m drawn to stories with a lot of power play in them, and I associate that kind of socio-political grappling with Victorian England. Rapid pacing and scientific/technological progress set against the extreme conservatism of Victorian middle class mores has come to define the era for me. It’s an age of transition, of looking backward and forward at the same time, and it is exciting on many levels. Throw in the Victorian obsession with the occult, and you have a natural setting for the supernatural to merge with the scientific, amping up the tension with a note of the inexplicable. Books (and movies, for that matter) drawing on this era are irresistible to me, whether they are young adult literature—Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty, for instance—or thick tomes of fiction like Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. And of course, there are the contemporaries.

Nathan Zaring, intern: The Gothic

I’m a sucker for dark settings.  If there are castles, curses, or strange creatures, I’ll probably read it, no matter how bad it is.  But that isn’t to say that I forgive all stories as long as they have those elements.  I actually feel that I’m harsher on those types of stories (as I’ve read so many).  It’s a strange paradox.  But, truthfully, it’s that way for me in more than just setting.  I’ll read a much lower grade of science fiction or fantasy story simply because it is sci-fi or fantasy, while I’ll pretty much only stick to what I feel is upper-quality fiction in most other genres.

So, dear Internet Reader, what settings captivate you?

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