SETTING THE SCENE
Just wrapped David Rieff's Going to Miami
. An interesting book, if dated; the South Florida I know is largely over the racial discontents that make up the bulk of Rieff's book. Or rather, people have moved on to warily eying each instead of taking verbal (and sometimes not so verbal) potshots at each other. Many of those who couldn't handle it have self-selected themselves out of the polity. I'm not enough of an optimist to say that South Florida is the best of all possible worlds, or that there are no race issues in play today; but still, 2004 is a long way from 1985.
Rieff does very accurately capture the surreality of Florida life; folks, Carl Hiassen isn't that far from the truth. The whole area feels impermanent, always in flux; half the residents are transients, the other half permanent exiles. The landscape is one good hurricane away from permanent change. Dead pigeons are daily cleaned from the courthouse steps, offerings to the gods to help resolve litigation. In 2001, there was serious talk that the shark attacks on the Atlantic coast were being carried out by a special cadre of Castro-trained attack sharks. Rieff is good at conveying just how jarring Florida really is; though sometimes, he forgets that the nominal subject of his book is Florida, not himself (for more thoughts on this problem see J.W. Hastings
). In all though, a good book on a fascinating place. I find it odd that more writers don't take advantage of Florida as a setting, given how fascinating it really is.
For me, writing fiction (to the extent that what I play at can even by called writing fiction) begins with setting. While Matt Rossi
sees images in his head, I see places. Setting can be just as much a driver of plot as character. For good examples, see two other books I recently finished: Tom Bradby's the Master of Rain
, and Ian McEwan's The Innocent
. Both are largely defined by their settings: the former, 1930's Shanghai, the latter, 1950's Berlin.
Brady's is better than average post-Ellroy crime thriller. His plot mechanics are competent enough; but what raises the book above the pack is his evocation of Shanghai between the wars. At that time, Shanghai was the most glamorous city in the world, as well as one of the most corrupt. Expatriate White Russians rubbed shoulders with Chinese warlords. British and American companies operated with impunity, literally creating special laws for themselves. Beggars rubbed shoulders with millionaires on the streets; Shanghai embodied every cliche of cyberpunk fiction, only for real and seventy years ago. It's a setting that just begs, begs to be used; used right, as Bradby does, it transforms the Master of Rain from a fairly standard noir into a very good read.
McEwan, in his book, uses Berlin almost as a replacement for a plot. Certainly, things happen in the book. But afterwords, reflecting on it, you realize that those things don't really add up to a plot, per se. It's a character study masquerading as a spy novel; which is okay, since McEwan writes in a way that makes the most mundane activities seem sinister (a trait he shares with Martin Amis--perhaps it's a British thing), and Berlin takes up the rest of the slack, supplying by inference weight and heft to ever character's actions. Berlin is the reason the characters act the way they do; and Berlin was at the time the espionage capitol of the world. By the transitive property, any action taking place in Berlin carried with it a whiff of espionage. This whiff creates the suggestion of a story where there really isn't one, at least not in the conventional five act sense.
Which is not to say that The Innocent is a bad novel. It isn't; it's in fact rather good. But it is to point out that a good setting properly used can cover up a number of weaknesses in a work. I'm thus somewhat surprised the more comics don't use their setting to more advantage. Think about it: what do we know of Metropolis? What sets it apart from anywhere else? What makes it special? Beats the hell out of me; as near as I can tell, Superman books could be set in New York or Boston or Star City without at all altering the nature of the story, and that's a shame. Worse, its a waste of potential.
Last note The Innocent: it contains a passage of almost hypnotic dread, as two people attempt to figure out how to dispose of a body (reminiscent of a similar problem in the Coen's Blood Simple), that is one of the most gripping things I've read in a while. It's a tremendously well done piece of writing, detailed and taught at the same time. I won't spoil the whys and whos for potential readers, but suffice it to say you'll know it when you read it.