Friday, June 28, 2013

Heat and Sand

I’m either or concerning this week’s question about do I like to read about exotic locales or familiar ones.  Having been born and raised in Los Angeles, it is the case this city is a much different place in many ways than the city I grew up in or even attempted to capture in my first novel set after, but linked to the ’92 riots, Violent Spring in 1993.  My old neighborhood in South Central was changing then, and that transformation from majority black to majority Latino now two decades later is firmly rooted.
For me in a mystery novel, or one that’s not in the genre, it’s about how does the writer weave in the setting in the context of their narrative.  Recently for the book club my wife and I belong to, a book club I hasten to add that doesn’t read fiction, we read Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger.  The book was published in 1959 (covering Thesiger’s five excursions from 1945-1950) and not to be all PC, it’s safe to say Mr. Thesiger is a romantic colonial if such is not a contradiction in terms. 

“Arabs have little if any sense of colour-bar; socially they treat a slave, however black, as one of themselves.”      

Yet even give this kind of, er, insight, the book offers his on the ground experiences traveling the Empty Quarter, the Rub' al Khali, the Sea of Sand that spills across four Arab nations.  The modern reader can get beyond his “noble savage” riffs to get a sense of Bedouin life, the food, the customs, and what the area was like before oil was discovered.  For sure he lacks an historical understanding of his surroundings – my wife Gilda referred to him a cross between Rudyard Kipling and Ernest Hemingway.  Indeed he was a boxing champ at Oxford.   But the book has worth not in a sociological sense, but in at least pulling back the curtain of an area that had little contact with the outside world at that time.

Sights and sounds, smells and ways of dress, the food and the way people talk be it in a dress shop on a busy street in Beijing to your detective asking questions of waitress in a Muong-Mexican café in Long Beach, the writer is tasked with capturing these sensations for the reader.  To deposit us there, let us soak in the atmosphere yet not get bogged down in an information dump.

Let me end then with an extended tip of my hat to Richard Matheson who departed this realm earlier this week.  He gave you vivid place and setting, and putting you in the head of his tormented characters than Matheson in such imaginings as The Shrinking Man, the harried, terrified driver in “Duel,” the haunted Robert Neville in I Am Legend, the child-thing in the basement in the short story “Born of Man and Woman,” and the classic Twilight Zone episode, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”

His work can be read without any pre-qualifications.


Robin Spano said...

You're so right. Setting can either immerse you right in the story or take you out of it for several paragraphs, depending on how it's delivered. Great post.

Catriona McPherson said...

I love this post! I'm always puzzling about the writing tip you here that setting has to be a character rather than a back-drop, but this helped me get closer to what it means, I think.

Catriona McPherson said...