Jamie Edgecombe has been Literature Works / Plymouth University Writer in Residence since October. Working with English and Creative Writing students at the University, Jamie has been exploring the benefits of walking a story’s setting to the writing process. Read his guest blog post below, where he asks…
Plymouth Noir – like, really?
-Landscape associates people and place.
-Landscape is not a mere visible surface, a static composition, or passive backdrop to human theatre…Landscape has meaning.
-Landscapes are grasped by humans, and by others, as bodies and minds permit.
-A landscape’s meaning is complex, layered, ambiguous, never simple or linear.
-Context structures landscape and language. Context comes from the Latin word contexere, to weave, an active root that belies its static common meaning. Context weaves patterns of events, materials, forms and spaces… Context is a place where processes happen, a setting of dynamic relationships, not a collection of static features.
-Context structures meaning.
-Cultural contexts may also be enduring.
-Landscapes are a vast library of literature.’
These statements were gathered from Anne Whiston Sprin’s essay, “One With Nature”: Landscape, Language, Empathy , and Imagination, Sprin’s contribution to Landscape Theory, the wonderfully discursive and polyphonic collection of transcribed debates and accompanying essays, edited by Rachael DeLue and James Elkins. Landscape Theory is the output of a conference, a ‘conversation’ (in the words of DeLue), about the nature and importance of landscape theory, which took place in Cork in 2007, a round-table discussion that included a walking tour as part of its proceedings. Sprin’s comments, in fact the whole book, have influenced my understanding of what constitutes setting in fiction: what literary landscapes are and can be. After all, how different is setting and the nuanced signifier landscape, anyway?
One thing is for certain, I have spent years indulging my taste for evoking landscapes, built and natural, physical and those rendered by hand, most significantly, in artworks. Sometimes, I find myself comfortably working within a setting; at other times, I am wrestling against the world in which my characters exist. I, the writer, have some power over the setting I am negotiating; the setting, in turn, has power over me (i.e. over what I can do; how I can direct the lives of my characters). Different settings have their unique characteristics (more on that in a moment) and, therefore, offer up different opportunities and constraints. There is some common ground, however. Like the fiction writer Richard Russo, who has written on the subject of setting, I am not a fan of this-could-be-anywhere-at-any-time fiction. For a writer, creating landscapes is a tensional pursuit. As such, I agree whole heartedly with DeLue, when she writes, ‘“landscape” [setting] is difficult to see.’
Effectively rendering setting is tough. And that makes it intriguing, for me as a writer, and powerfully evocative for the reader.
Lisa Lenard-Cook condenses many of these ideas when she writes, ‘the term setting encompasses far more than the place a story unfolds; it establishes a story’s mood, feeling, and historical period. In addition, setting is tied to a story’s point of view – so much so that until point of view has been firmly established, the setting can’t really be distinctly rendered.’ Such renderings are multi-sensory, too, and, I would add (in line with Sprin) beyond the sensory. As the contributors to Landscape Theory and Richard Russo argue, settings are not just physical “places,” they are culturally and psychologically inflected nodes (inflected is probably too slight a term here); they are imbued with memory, sometimes saturated with the past, sometimes powdered; they symbolise future prospects and hopes. And they can change, even during the course of a story, because characters change. They are dynamic.
In his essay Location, Location, Location, Russo sets out how important setting is to a piece of fiction. As he says, setting is a ‘character.’ The protagonist is going to encounter it. In noir, than means to rub against it, to clash with it, to be swindled by it – all in all, to engage with setting and come off the worse for wear.
So there it is: my deft sleight of hand, which brings a pleasant discussion on critical theory and general fiction conventions into contact with our low-life, obsessive, neurotic rapscallion of a literary genre, the noir story.
First, a little about noir to grease the transition. As Otto Penzler puts it in The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century:
“Noir is about losers. The character in these existential, nihilistic tales are doomed. They may not die, but they probably should, as the life that awaits them is certain to be so ugly, so lost and lonely, that they’d be better off just curling up and getting it over with. And, let’s face it, they deserve it.
Pretty much everyone in a noir story…is driven by greed, lust, jealousy or alienation, a path that inevitably sucks them into a downward spiral from which they cannot escape. They couldn’t find the exit from their personal highway to hell if flashing neon lights pointed to a town named Hope. It is their lack of morality that blindly drives them to ruin.”
Penzler’s ‘town named Hope’ maybe a real town, have a name, a population, a church with a white spire and green, a “zip code” – but, of course, for the character it is imagined. Such a ‘safe’ place might be smaller in scale, a room away from trouble, a bed with a certain gal or boy in it. Again, it will be both real and imagined.
More importantly, however, are those so-called ‘highways to hell.’ Surely they have to pass through actual places, often cities in noir fiction – urban sprawls with names like, oh, Seattle, Manchester, even Singapore. On a conventional level, a noir story must include ‘locations that reek of the night, of shadows, of alleys, of the back doors of fancy places, of apartment buildings with a high turnover rate, of taxi drivers and bartenders who have seen it all.’ Dead end cities are rife with such places. But such a description, left as it stands, evokes Russo’s dread could–be-anywhere kind of setting. Corruption, poverty, human frailty, temptation, crime – they happen everywhere, right?
And that is my point. Both Lisa Lenard-Cook and Sol Stein take great pains to point out that readers enjoy credibility and lifelikeness. This refers to characterisation and plot. Setting influences both. This sense of authenticity, which can make or break a story, comes from an eye for detail. And this eye eats settings up, digests them, decides just what is important enough to establish a physical sense of place, a state of mind, its relationship to the characters, how it will function structurally, and so on.
Noir is no different in that respect. Therefore, though often seen as a clichéd genre, the existence of different “noirs” is proof that variety and innovation exist. Yes, all cities have their affluent citizens and their underworld denizens, their winners and losers. That said, a perusal of Akashic Books (a noir specialist) publication list, demonstrates how the noir genre can engage with nearly any geographical location. New York Noir, LA Noir, Boston Noir, Seattle Noir, San Diego Noir, Kansas City Noir, Singapore Noir, Istanbul Noir –Beirut Noir– and forthcoming, Jerusalem Noir – the list is extensive and its possibilities seemingly endless. It seems any city can be reinterpreted through the lens of noir. Every city has its own flavour and so, the scope for innovative use of setting is enormous.
So why can’t Plymouth be added to the list?
I’ll admit, I think some people aren’t convinced. There was a little in-joke, a shared smile offered at my expense, the other day between some of the MACW students. They had just asked after my “midnight walk.” I didn’t quite get it at the time, but I think I do now. The idea of walking around Plymouth ‘on the trail of a story,’ so to speak, may come across as quaint or quirky. That is not my intention, however. When I research a story, I walk its settings. I walked Paris whilst writing The Art of Kozu; I have walked Tokyo and Sapporo for my current project, Bone Painting. Google Maps can get you so far (in fact, it can be very useful indeed!). Imagination, alone? Yeah, right. But remember, credulity, is key – those telling details that are out there to find, those little nuances in light, those objects that surprise, people’s behaviours: they are what create vivacity and authenticity.
Plymouth is perfect for a noir story. It has a long history. It has beauty and grime. I want to help some students plump its possibilities.
DeLue and Elkin (ed.) (2008): Landscape Theory (The Art Seminar), Routledge, 43-68.
Editors of Writer’s Digest Books (2010): The Complete Handbook Of Novel Writing, Writer’s Digest Books , (Richard Russo: 87-100; Lisa Lenard-Cook: 81-86).