I'm feeling lucky: I've been reading novels. Luckily, in novels, no matter how much we empathize, and find ourselves beset by the forces around and in the story, the book ends. These days, even if I'm rereading a novel--which means the book starts again, then ends again--I'm okay. Luckily, I'm not a character in the books I'm reading, because some of the things that happen in those books, they're pretty bad, and some of those characters would be awful to meet; worse than the characters on TV, mostly, but not as bad as the characters in movies.
But what's the definition of "character" in fiction? I have a friend--a real person, not a character, not here, not yet, he's just a straw man--who says that anything with a name is a character, any person, animal, or thing. Others believe that any consciousness that acts within a story (some one or thing that makes its own decisions) is a character. Still others believe that they themselves are real people and not characters when they read, but hey, we won't tell them this is the internet, no one's real. Shhhhh. Or that the novel "happens" in the reader's head.
If you're reading a novel, you need characters, right? You need someone with whom to empathize--even if empathy is just a gateway drug to melodrama. With a character whose cares are yours, you feel better, worse, etc. Granted, looking for yourself in the book is kind of clinically askew, if not megalomaniacal, but really, it's just reading.
Now what if a place becomes as or more important than a character, a scene stealer of a landscape? What if a river runs through it? What if the fish is bigger than the man? Or a house with a bunch of gables: that's a symbol, right? Or a doorbell that's got a pull rope--the novel pulls the rope, the bell rings, and that's a symbol too. Ding, dong, boom.
What I'm trying to say here is that a novel is a site for our outsized feelings distilled into the actions of others, for symbolism, and for the kinds of decisions that move us but aren't and can't be ours. In a novel, a place--let's say a small American town--can be akin to a character, certainly a symbol, and the star of a star-studded show.
Luckily, novelists know this. A good novelist understands how my feelings associate--that is, my feelings find real time markers and symbols and sensations that become essential to making new memories. As a result, good novels give us memorable places to inhabit along with the characters whose identities tromp through those places. Realism? Not only.
So here's my riff on some places in some fine novels--by which I mean, this time, small towns in American fiction. Because the smaller the American town the more likely it will function as a character? That's a theory, one that I've tried to test in my latest novel of small town American life, The Committee on Town Happiness. With another theory, too: I've come to believe, by writing three novels about small towns, that in American fiction the small town serves as a crucible for democracy.
I'll begin by cheating--the game's adrift!--with three Southern novels in a row. Why is this cheating? Because the Southern Gothic presumes a town, not a national park or wilderness.
1. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner: Faulkner's the easiest answer to this Jeopardy! question, as his fictional town of Jefferson, Mississippi functions clearly as a foil for his character, Thomas Sutphen. The novel even has a map of the town included in the endpapers, an image drawn by Faulkner (reproduced differently in various volumes) and glued into the proceedings. Of course, that's how the characters often behave in the novel--like they're glued into their lives.
2. A Visitation of Spirits by Randall Kenan: The woods, the parking lot, the high school, the smokehouse, and the pulpit of Tims Creek each manages to haunt Horace Cross in Kenan's 1989 winner of a novel. That a teen would experience his decline into madness as a form of civic self-flagellation makes horrifying sense, given his family's relationship to local history. When his stolen Buick stalls just outside of the town limits... Horace "felt a particular anxiety, a strong urge to be someplace..."--"someplace" means Tims Creek, back in the town that overwhelms him and never lets go.
3. Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison: May you not have a Daddy Glen, the real bastard of the novel. May you walk without dread on the road to town, or back to your Aunt's house on the river, or from your living room to your bathroom. May Greenville, South Carolina--too real, scary real, in Allison's hands--be a place to delight in the wild charm of Ruth Anne Boatwright, a.k.a. Bone. I'd like to meet her; I'd like to help her be safe. Allison's version of Greenville might not be the place for this reunion, I fear.
4. Empire Falls by Richard Russo: There's always someone in a small town who thinks she or he owns the town, and thus the people. In an English novel, we would call this "class"--or the lack thereof. Usually, in the English tradition, such a self-appointed oligarch manages to insert a wayward child into the civic bureaucracy, and/or use real estate to maintain some semblance of faux aristocracy. We call this a BBC family drama.
Russo's excellent novel--and his shining portrait of Francine Whiting, especially--show us just how confused an American landowner can become with her land, or a town with its assumptions. Here, class and small-town politics make democrats of everyone--that's "democrats" in the lower case, this being nearly Kennebunkport, after all.
5. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout: Speaking of Maine, who better than the tyrannical, captivating, and astringent Olive to decide for us all what's important and what's not. Crosby, Maine looms small--but it's the locus of all Olive does, where she taught for years, and acts as though she always will, and where various disabled prodigals of small-town life return, no matter their wounds or fates. That the cliffs and the ocean and the pharmacy and the houses and the nursing home (always there, still waiting) nevertheless confound the inhabitants who see these places daily matters greatly--and contributes mightily to the book's astonishments.
6. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen: It's possible that Franzen's a horrible misanthrope, and that St. Jude is hell, a small town in which Enid and Alfred take turns ruining their three children (if only because the chapters follow one after the other, inevitably). It's possible that nothing we experience has the clarity of a Franzen observation, and thus he's not writing his beloved social novel but super-realism. It's possible that the railroad's abandonment of the American small town, that suburban flight, that parochialism, turn middle class children into urban refugees predictably. But everyone comes home for Christmas: St. Jude's banality beckons, a pageant of American distemper and kitsch. Oh, how I love this book.
7. World and Town, by Gish Jen: Riverlake is a town "that was American before America was American, people claim." Add Hattie, a retired high school biology teacher, a descendent of Confucius, and then add new neighbors, a Cambodian family that moves in "down the hill" (we know what that means). Soon the church folks are having conniptions, the town council is cataplectic over the arrival of cell phone towers, and America ain't the America it ain't ever been. Follow all that? In Jen's hands, her sentences shiny, the triple negative of cultural prerogative holds sway clearly: we're not not like them, no? Then what are we?
Honorable Mentions: Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward. Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson. Wise Blood, by Flannery O'Connor. The Feast of Love, by Charles Baxter. Mama Day, by Gloria Naylor. Lake Wobegone Days, by Garrison Keillor and Mike Lynch.