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Setting - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
So, I'm finally getting around to the Cormoran Strike mysteries by JKR as Galbraith. (I love that she just says screw it and keeps on using the pen name, by the way. I just find that appealing. I'll probably continue using pen names forever, too.)

Anyway, when I read a book, I also have to read about the book, and in the Wiki on the sequel, they mentioned a review in The Guardian which said, "I suspect that having spent so many books describing a world only she knew has left her with the habit of telling us rather too much about a world most of us know well enough to imagine for ourselves."

That was one of the most puzzling lines I've seen out of a supposedly professional reviewer. First, there's the obvious -- to those of us who don't live in London, it's, in a real way, as imaginary as Hogwarts. I can look up pictures of both places on the internet, but I've never been to either. And while London is, of course, a real city with real history and real people -- one where I could theoretically go, should I win the lottery someday -- it's also a place I personally can only build in my mind from what authors, artists, photographers, and historians tell me. The existence of magic or not is irrelevant to that part of the equation.

The bigger problem, though, is the extremely weird assumption that the primary point of physical descriptions in a text is to tell the reader what a place looks like.

Okay, that's part of it, sure. You need to have the setting in your head to imagine the blocking of any given scene. But setting description... that has a lot more to do with tone and character than with technical diagrams and Google maps. Two characters can see the same things so differently that it might as well be a different place.

Take this from The Stand, as protagonist Frannie describes a scene in her hometown.
There was a long rock pier running out into the Atlantic Ocean from the Ogunquit, Maine, town beach. Today it reminded her of an accusatory gray finger, and when Frannie Goldsmith parked her car in the public lot, she could see Jess sitting out at the end of it, just a silhouette in the afternoon sunlight. Gulls wheeled and cried above him, a New England portrait drawn in real life, and she doubted if any gull would dare spoil it by dropping a splat of white doodoo on Jess Rider's immaculate blue chambray workshirt. After all, he was a practicing poet.

Later, describing a stretch of the same area after the plague has hit, deuteragonist Larry Underwood sees "long and sordid" rows of vacation cottages:
Larry was drawn two painful ways by these things. Part of him clamored at their sad and blatant ugliness and at the ugliness of the minds that had turned this section of a magnificent, savage coastline into one long highway amusement part for families in station wagons. But there was a more subtle, deeper part of him that whispered of the people who had filled these places and this road during other summers. Ladies in sunhats and shorts too tight for their large behinds. College boys in red-and-black-striped rugby shirts. Girls in beach shifts and thong sandals. Small screaming children with ice cream spread over their faces. They were American people and there was a kind of dirty, compelling romance about them whenever they were in groups -- never mind if the group was in an Aspen ski lodge or performing their prosaic-arcane rites of summer along US 1 in Maine. And now all those Americans were gone. A thunderstorm had ripped a branch from a tree and knocked the gigantic plastic Dairy Treet sign into the ice cream stand's parking lot, where it lay on its side like a pallid duncecap. The grass was starting to get long on the mini-golf course. This stretch of highway between Portland and Portsmouth had once been a seventy-mile amusement park, and now it was only a haunted funhouse where all the clockwork had run down.

There are vast differences between these two observations, and not just on the level of the plague coming in between them (though of course, that's part of it). Frannie looks out and sees physical beauty masking a kind of empty, bleak emotional landscape -- she's just fallen out of love with her boyfriend, pretty much upon learning that she's pregnant. She has a bad relationship with her mother, who is deeply involved in the town's social scene, and it's about to get worse. We don't know all of that yet, but we see in the way Frannie describes a beachfront scene that we're dealing with someone who has a lot on her mind, and is feeling a little bit cynical.

Larry, on the other hand, immediately sees the development as physically ugly, an insult to its landscape. But just beneath it (even obliquely referencing college boy Jess with the mention of college boys), he misses the people who were there, and loves them beneath their ugliness. It's a strange contrast, because Larry, a somewhat crude and certainly grayer character than Frannie morally, is the one whose underlying view is more positive: that the ugliness is just a facade over the beauty, instead of vice versa... which is ultimately telling about the choices he ends up making.

The point is, in both cases, King is describing the same thing: A stretch of New England coastline. And yup, that one, I don't have to imagine. I've been up and down Revere beach, out at Cape Cod, and on the north shore. I've been on the south shore, too, where my family originally washed up Hingham, and did go up the Maine coast on a college hunting trip. It all seems very true, physically, and the places really exist. Does that really mean that somehow, it's unnecessary to describe them?

Of course not! Because the setting isn't just a place your characters happen to be. It's a place they're interacting with on an intimate level with every step. How Larry sees the world isn't important because Larry is acting as the Google maps car, taking panoramic pictures for us. It's important because what he sees when he looks at those ugly tenement vacation houses tells us who he really is, where it matters.


ETA, just for fun, here's my description of a New England beach.
It was winter and the beach was mostly empty, except for the few locals walking their dogs in the surf. The sand ws a kind uniform wet gray, and when the water rolled up over Fern's sneakers, she hissed at the cold. There were some interesting oyster shells buried in the sand, with deep, indigo blue stripes across them.

Her cousin would know what they were. He'd also know whether or not they were good eating. And whether or not they were native to the beach or an invasive species of bivalve, and how to grow them from seed (she was still blown away by the notion of oysters growing from seeds, though of course, they weren't really seeds, per se). Of course, despite her admiration for his work, she had a secret that she'd never admitted: She didn't like oysters at all. She just liked the pretty shells.

She dropped the one she'd absently picked up and looked out across the bay. She was looking south, and she knew it. Most likely, if she got super eyesight, she'd be staring over at Hingham, where her ancestors washed up in 1635. But she imagined that she was looking out across the full Atlantic, toward Europe on the other side, that the waves bouncing back would land in... Portugal? Yes. Portugal. It seemed strange to her that Portugal, which always seemed warm and sunny, was directly opposite of Massachusetts. It ought to be England, or even Scotland. But it was Portugal. The world just wasn't always thematically appropriate.
4 comments or Leave a comment
vermouth1991 From: vermouth1991 Date: May 23rd, 2015 11:10 am (UTC) (Link)
To bring over a point from a previous comment we've exchanged (which I shall return to soon), setting a story in, say, London is no guarantee at ALL that "it goes without saying". Even for born-&-bred Londoners. I mean, "1984" was set in London for God's sake.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 24th, 2015 04:07 am (UTC) (Link)
Yeah -- I think the critic meant "contemporary, as-it-is" London, but still -- which London? If it's anything like any other city I've seen, it's a whole lot of different places that just happen to exist on the same spatial coordinates.
nevrafire From: nevrafire Date: May 23rd, 2015 01:41 pm (UTC) (Link)
I missed seeing your literary posts.

This was great.

what did you think of the Cormoran Strike novels? I liked them better than the casual Vacancy- balance between gritty realism with light-heartedness & likable characters .
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 24th, 2015 04:08 am (UTC) (Link)
I like them, and I still like Jo's sense of humor in a more adult context. I don't love them, but I've been perusing some other mysteries of late, and the writing is about 1000% better than most of them.
4 comments or Leave a comment