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Less discriminating readers--by which I mean reader’s who don’t suffer from prolonged bouts of finicky tendencies—readers who can enjoy a novel based on character development, plot arcs, things that happen or happen to characters…you know, the actual THINGS that make a book a novel…I envy these readers. I have a bad habit of fixating on setting: time and place. I’m loathe to admit that when a friend recommends a book and I ask for the setting and I get a personally disagreeable answer, that book never had a chance. I’ve been proven wrong before, case in point Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I adored this novel and the setting changed with each chapter.
Lately, I’ve been a bit perplexed by my own obstinacy. Two authors come to mind that are challenging my idea about what setting can and cannot be; David Vann and Phillip Meyer. Meyer’s American Rust marries an old timey, itinerant worker, dilapidated factory, rust-belt sepia with the beer-swillin’, NASCAR-watching culture of modern Podunk USA. You might be able to intuit that I’m a bigger fan of the former motif, which probably speaks more about my tendency to romanticize the past than an overt antipathy toward the vagaries of the present. It’s an interesting technique, merging the present, the immediate, with distinctly American imagery of the past. Strictly using a setting context, there is much to like in American Rust. Like many Bildungsromans—that is, coming of age stories involving obstacles and moral growth—much physical terrain is covered. Think Huckleberry Finn floating down the Mississippi. Wide open spaces are not only celebrated but integral to character development.
David Vann’s Caribou Island is a little different, again, strictly speaking about setting. Caribou Island is like a modern frontier novel, a family attempting to harness and survive the remote wilds of Alaska. It’s an icy, blurry edged Polaroid to the coffee ringed, sepia soaked photo of Meyer’s rust belt. These two novels have wildly different settings, yet both authors manage to explore similar themes using the setting as a rhetorical device. These novels are great in that they challenge my notions regarding the function of setting…Now if I can get as excited about plot and characters, I’ll be well on the road to being a convincingly well-rounded reader.