Symbolism and Place
I’ve been listening to an audio book as I’ve been shuttling back and forth between Midway and Provo this week, specifically, Marisa Silver’s “The God of War“.
Several things struck me about this novel, first, I think it solves the mystery of me randomly narrating my life (“There was a print of a slightly impressionistic acrylic painting hung off center on the wall, divided into three sections. A yellow-blue sky hovering over green ball-like trees, with a green field streaked with gold in the foreground. It was utterly like every single piece of hotel-room art she had ever seen in her life. She wondered about the artist; what would it be like to have your work viewed, ignored and then forgotten by so many people?”)
For the next two things this novel had me thinking of, I guess I need to do a brief synopsis. The protagonist and narrator is a 12-year-old boy named Ares. He lives with his mother and mentally handicapped brother, Malcolm, in Bombay Beach, on the shores of the Salton Sea.
Ares and Malcolm’s mother is a free-spirited hippy type, who doesn’t give either boy the care they need or deserve, so much of Malcolm’s care and protection falls to Ares. He doesn’t have many friends, and frankly, doesn’t realize how different his life is from those around him.
Okay, so as the book is drawing to a close, (I can’t give a page count because I had an audio book) the fish in the Salton Sea die because of pollution or an algae bloom, or some other cause–it’s not explained why, and the birds eat the dead fish and then fall ill themselves.
Malcolm, who is obsessed with birds, finds an injured pelican and refuses to leave it. In a fit of desperation, Ares takes Malcolm and the bird to the ranger station where a man Ares is only casually acquainted with works. Malcolm refuses to hand the bird over, but the man, Mr. Poole, knows about Malcolm’s problems, and helps him care for the bird. It’s a very touching scene, but as I was listening to it, the only thing I could think was. “This is very symbolic. I wonder what it’s symbolic of.” I could imagine the book-club version of “The God of War”, and the questions directed at this scene tucked in the back.
It got me thinking about symbolism, something I hadn’t much considered before. Symbolism, to me, is more the product of the reader than the author. (And if TV Tropes page, “Everyone is Jesus in Purgatory” this is a view shared by many artists and authors.) But at the same time, this scene with the pelican didn’t really further the story, it didn’t expand the characters at all (except Mr. Poole, and that was the last time we saw him in the book) but it still managed to be, for me, anyway, the most memorable scene in the book.
The other thing this book had me thinking about was the concept of place as character. Ares’ story could have been set against any backdrop–and not lost much for it. But the desert and the sea took on a life of their own, and Silver did such a good job of bringing them to life that it made me understand the idea of place more than any other book I can remember reading.
I’ve often heard it said that you should write what you know–write where you know, something I’ve rejected because where I know is small-town Utah, and books set in small-town Utah tend to be Mormon literature (The Great Brain notwithstanding), and I dislike Mormon literature.
The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that that doesn’t have to be the case. Yes, along with place I’d have to include Mormon culture into the story–because, frankly, whatever your religious denomination or how often you go to church, in small-town Utah, Mormonism is the 800 pound gorilla in the room. It dominates life. But that’s okay, storywise, anyway.
It made me think about how different people view the church, those who hate and deride, those who are indifferent, and those who embrace. I can write about them. I can write about the farmers who gather in the coffee house on Sunday morning (for those who don’t know, coffee is expressly forbidden by the Church) while their wives (one wife each) and children attend church.
I know about the heat and dust and wind, and the cold winters. I know about the black volcanic rock on white alkali soil. I know about the plants–the sagebrush and rabbit brush, the cedar and juniper and pinyon pine, the invasive plants like tamaracks and cheat grass. I know the animals, the coyotes and jackrabbits, the mormon crickets that come in cycles. I know the birds, I know the geography, I know that land.
There is nothing wrong with using the Great Basin of Utah as a character, even as using Mormon culture as a character. I don’t have to write like Jack Wayland.
I feel like a new world has opened up to me. I can’t wait to explore.