20 September 2008

A Sense Of Place

One of the things that can almost immediately spoil a piece of writing for me is a wrong place name. I can put up with paper-thin plots, cardboard characters, even - though with great reluctance - playing fast and loose with tense and perspective, but tell me that the action is unfolding on such-and-such street when I know perfectly well it's an avenue, and you're well on your way to losing me.

I'm not alone in this: at least two writers I admire greatly, Aaron Cometbus and John K. Samson have told me how important an accurate sense of place is to them. Aaron in particular can get extremely exercised when someone who purports to know his or her way around Berkeley misspells the name of his favorite cafe, and I don't blame him. It's bad enough when you're dealing with a memoir or a history: the immediate reaction is to wonder whether the writer was even there, or if we're just reading extrapolations from research that could have been conducted on a laptop parked in some cafe thousands of miles away.

But where it's really damaging is in a work of fiction. Unless a writer is an absolute master of the craft, he or she is depending on a certain willingness to suspend disbelief on the part of the reader. A single misspelled or misidentified place name is like the sour note that reduces an orchestra's otherwise sublime and soaring moment to bathetic farce, or when Romeo's impassioned declaration to Juliet is interrupted by a stagehand's cell phone going off.

It's probably why many of the best writers, even when they're clearly writing about the towns where they grew up or currently live, substitute a simulacrum or doppelgänger town. It's also why I've always been hesitant to write about London or New York, despite all the time I've spent in those cities: although I'd like to think I know them both reasonably well, there are always likely to be bits of knowledge that I'll have missed by not growing up there. Hell, I'm even afraid to tackle Detroit, even though I did grow up there, partly because it's been so long since I left, and partly because the city has changed nearly beyond recognition since that time.

Which brings me to my original point: for the last several years people have been telling me that since I was from Detroit, I "had to" read Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides. Even the Free Press, Detroit's approximate equivalent to the San Francisco Chronicle (figure out for yourself if that's a compliment), got in on the act: "At last Detroit has its great novel," it proclaimed, going on to compare it to Joyce's treatment of Dublin.

Well, that may be, but I'd only got to page 12 before the flowery if not downright rococo narrative delivered a distinct clunker. It was 1959, according to Eugenides, and the priest at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church regularly had to shush the parishioners because they "treated the church like the bleachers at Tiger Stadium." Only trouble is that in 1959, THERE WAS NO TIGER STADIUM. A small point, you say? Not to a kid who grew up attending games at Briggs Stadium, which was the name of the place until 1961 (and long after that to those who grown up under the old regime; it had taken my father at least 20 years to start calling it Briggs Stadium instead of Navin Field, and he wasn't about to change again).

Granted, Eugenides had barely been born at the time of the name change, but you have to wonder if he ever attended a game there or had any interest at all in Briggs/Tiger Stadium other than as a cheap and not particularly accurate simile: unlike some other towns, Detroit wasn't renowned for the antics of its bleacher bums, at least not in those days. But I do know that as a kid, I could have told you the entire history of the stadium, from its earliest beginnings as Bennett Park, when Ty Cobb led the Tigers to three consecutive pennants, and I wasn't half as nuts for baseball as some of the kids on my block. You'd think someone setting out to write the epic novel Middlesex is supposed to be could have at least checked with Wikipedia.

But never mind; let's give the guy the benefit of the doubt. After all, he was only off by a couple years, and as a prep schooler off in wealthy suburban Grosse Pointe probably never set foot anywhere near Michigan and Trumbull. But before he's even finished that paragraph, he unleashes an even more jarring solecism: something, he tells us, is "as big as a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade."

Okay, Eugenides, I know your biography says you were born in Detroit, but did you ever actually live there? If you had, wouldn't you know that Detroiters, at least not back then, did not think in terms of Macy's when it came to Thanksgiving Day parades? Why would we; we had our own J.L. Hudson Thanksgiving Day Parade that was as big and wonderful and magnificent as any kid could ever hope for. What did we care if they had some other parade at the same time in far-off New York, sponsored by some department store we'd never heard of?

Oh well. I've now read another five pages without encountering any egregious errors. And, as no doubt or more of you may take pains to point out, Eugenides wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and I'm writing a blog for a few hundred readers, so let's keep things in perspective. Also, all this fulminating has no doubt virtually guaranteed that if I ever do write something about Detroit, I'll make an ever bigger and more obvious mistake.

So I'll plow on with Middlesex and hope to be so wowed by its overall scope and excellence that my present indignation will be completely assuaged. Or nearly so, anyway. But based on what I've read so far, Eugenides is going to have to step up his game when it comes to painting a true picture of Detroit; as of now, Eminem's Eight Mile pisses all over it.

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