Sunday, February 22, 2009

Significance of Place in Urban Fantasy
And Burke's Robicheaux Novels

The lyrical pose of James Lee Burke is no less evocative when he writes about the West, where he has lived and taught for many years. Yet I found myself unable to complete Swan Peak, the first time I have not completed a Burke book. My fascination with New Orleans led me to his detective Dave Robicheaux mysteries. The stories he sets anywhere else do not have the same effect on me. How even can the title, Swan Peak, compare with the gleeful rhythms and visions conjured by titles such as

  • The Tin Roof Blow Down
  • Pegasus Descending
  • A Morning for Flamingos
  • Jolie Blon’s Bounce
  • A Stained White Radiance or, my personal all-time favorite,
  • In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead.

The dream of New Orleans is so deeply rooted in my soul I cannot trace its sinuous hold. Did it start because I had studied French from first grade until I was 20, and New Orleans is the only French-speaking city in the United States? If so, why did I not fantasize about Quebec, practically next door to my upstate New York hometown?

Was it the novel, Dinner at Antoine’s, on the library shelf that hinted at a place in America as foreign as France? By the time I discovered Dr. John in his voodoo chant regalia and the Mardi Gras Indian bands, such as the Wild Tchoupitoulas that were briefly popular in the 1970s, my interest in New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA) was cemented.

The first time my marriage broke up, I threw just about all the clothing I owned in the backseat of a beat-up Beetle (what else? in that era), crunched some uppers and drove to New Orleans in 24 hours. My first sight of the antebellum mansions along the Gulf Coast – now swept away by hurricane Katrina – is so strong that I have dared not visit that ravaged area since my last drive there in November 2004.

No wonder I have been drawn to Charlaine Harris’ Southern vampire series, with its Louisiana locale. None of the urban fantasy writers I have lately been reading are stylists of Burke’s caliber. I would rather read, perhaps, any tale set in the NOLA environs than a lyrical story set in Montana. This set me thinking about the role of place in the urban fantasy genre in particular and in compelling writing in general.

Ilona Andrews’ heroine inhabits a parallel Atlanta, a city I know a little after six years at the University of Georgia in nearby Athens. Harry Dresden inhabits Chicago, a city I’ve visited twice for conventions, backdrop for the V.I. Warshawski mysteries and sometimes seen in films. Kate Morgan, Kim Harrison’s witch, lives in Cleveland. Any of these places could be named Anywhere, USA, for all that sense of place matters. They are cities, concrete wastelands that look gray even on a sunny day. Character and plot hold my attention in these stories, not sense of place.

How important is place for a well-told tale? In the hands of a master word slinger, place is another character permeating every action with its history. Could Casablanca happen anywhere else but in the exotic locate of wartime Morocco? No other city but New Orleans has a street or A Streetcar Named Desire, the pulsing sense of place that throbs throughout Tennessee Williams play. The seething undercurrents of race and sex of the old South collide with the weather to create an explosive brew in Williams’ The Long Hot Summer. Weather and place also catalyze the drama of the film Key Largo.

Joshua Meyerowitz wrote an important book of media analysis, No Sense of Place. He persuasively argued that television had dissolved social norms between on-stage and back-stage. We have the outworking of this theory in the current craze for reality TV and the plague of social networking, in which nothing is too personal to be made public.

Me, I embrace a sense of place. I love where I live, and I am clinging stubbornly to this toehold in the sun despite the harsh economic climate. I escape into worlds of urban fantasy in which demons are no less dangerous but contained with charms and incantations, circles of salt, blood rituals, and alliances with creates that never were. These are other worlds with a verisimilitude to my own but different enough that it is the world of fantastical beings and events that captures my attention, not details of the cityscape. Harris’s Louisiana alone stands out as distinct. I hope that James Lee Burke bring Robicheaux back to Iberia parish and all things Louisiana.


June Saville said...

Place can be crucial to a story, but that place need not be (in reality)particularly exotic or dramatic, to my mind.
One of my favourite little volumes is 12 Edmonstone Street by our wonderful Australian author David Malouf. Its place is the sprawling Queensland house where he spent his childhood. The chapter spent under the house is rivetting.
This great 'word slinger' imbues that place with a stunning personality.

ellen said...

I agree with you that a sense of place acts as an additional character, and that New Orleans has an outsize personality of its own. However, I must say that even a much more modest locale, such as the maligned Cleveland, will also have its impact on a story. While New Orleans may encourage an magnify the eccentric and fanastic, a backdrop of Cleveland will attempt to control and erradicate idiosyncracies. Depending on the story, the location can serve as encouragement or antagonist.

TropiGal said...

I really like what both June and Ellen have added. I do think that a quite ordinary place, even the dusty space under a house, can become quite magical and extraordinary in the hands of some writers.

Thank you, Ellen, for bringing to my attention the way that location can, as you put it, control and highlight the unusual and the strange. This makes the settings of Chicago and Cleveland artful, wonderful choices for books about fantasy worlds. I love it when I can get a new perspective on something, and both these posts made my day.