Recently (May 2, 2019), CrimeReads did a fine piece on The Importance of Setting, but its focus was on whether it made sense to choose a real place or to invent one.
It’s an interesting read (and of course it added to my TBR pile!), but I’m fascinated with stories that use their settings almost as characters in their own right. Why did the story happen in one place and not another? Could the same story be told in a different locale? Why is this place different from any other?
Some of the most recent novels I’ve read–Buzz Killer by Tom Straw; Below the Fold by R. G. Belksy, Hipster Death Rattle by Richie Narvaez; Record Scratch by J.J. Hensley and August Snow by Stephen Mack Jones–all use the landscape of their chosen city very well. For Tom Straw and R. G. Belsky, it’s New York City; for Narvaez it’s Brooklyn (Williamsburg); for JJ Hensley, it’s Pittsburgh; and for Stephen Mack Jones, Detroit.
I’m drawn to their subtly (and not-so subtly) expressed exasperation with how cities are changing. Since people started gathering in them, they’ve been a place of excitement, diversity and exchange, teeming with stories, with filth, and above all, a mixing of people. The writers listed above struggle with where we’re heading, and their protagonists and stories reflect that uneasiness.
Change has always been a constant, but this time feels different, they seem to say. In Buzz Killer, Macie Wild struggles with the notion that New York has become “a tale of three cities,” with little or no connection to one another; Belsky’s Clare Carlson struggles to synchronize a former New York’s giddy sense of possibility with what we see now. JJ Hensley’s Pittsburgh and Stephen Mack Jones’s Detroit are wistfully rendered, detailing and juxtaposing what was…with what is. (My only quibble with Hensley is that when casting about for really violent, dangerous thugs, his Yinzers import a group of–of course!–Philadelphians, as clearly among the worst. C’mon! Cleveland’s closer. They don’t have head-breakers?)
I liked that Hipster Death Rattle focused on Williamsburg, and the fraught changes happening there. It put me in mind of where I live. When people ask where I live, I say South Philly, because I don’t want there to be any doubt about what I mean. It’s distinct from the suburbs (obviously) and from Center City, the Northeast or, say Fishtown. It’s changing, too, but it’s still a mix of people (mostly) getting loudly along. Stoop culture still prevails and a dense web of family and extended family live throughout the neighborhood, just around the corner, up the block; and that family life is still largely enacted in public.
This isn’t where I come from, but it’s where I’ve chosen to be. So far, I haven’t written anything that’s set mainly here in Philly, though parts of both Faithless Elector and Dark Network take place on Catharine Street. But, like the authors and their work I’ve discussed above, I feel that there’s something coming.
Invent a place or work with what you’ve got? There’s freedom in making it all your own, certainly. But there’s more source material in a real place.
NOTE: I’ve begun posting reviews of the books I’ve read, and they can be accessed here. I also post them on Amazon, Goodreads and BookBub.
Link to REVIEWS