Monday, April 22, 2013

Mapping the Route from Book to Book

Clarice Lispector's short story, "The Smallest Woman in the World," begins with a French explorer who finds a race of tiny people, but as he hears of even tinier people, he goes further into the jungle, curious, driven. Peter Turchi's 2004 book Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer uses the metaphor of the writer as explorer and different kinds and parts of maps as examples of different ways to approach storywriting. It is an interesting premise— it is always intriguing to see writing through a new lens—but the danger of metaphor stretched too far is that it loses the thing it tries to make clear. This is an ambitious book that achieves what it sets out to do: giving us a new angle on the world.

In its first chapter, "Metaphor: or, the Map," the metaphor is explored, and while it illuminates writing as an unknown voyage that becomes charted, it skims over the passion, curiosity, and drive that it takes to write. Intention and purpose of both story and map are noted. 

With its second chapter, "A Wide Landscape of Snows" Turchi focuses on the "blanks" in maps and in stories, things left out on purpose, and the inferences that the reader must make. The gaps can be in time, changes of thought, or hints of action, all very important to the writer of haiku, poems, and very short stories where every word must be weighed carefully. These blanks point to a world wider and greater than what we see on the page.

We are guided further with chapters called "Projections and Conventions," "Imaginary Scrolls," "Theater of the World," "A Rigorous Geometry," and "Plus Ultra." The full-color images of maps are lovely, but unfortunately too tiny to read; luckily, there are captions to give us the idea. Pull-out pages would have been ideal, but perhaps too expensive for the publisher. American cultural references from literary examples to the Marx Brothers to the Road Runner cartoon underscore the points.

I smiled when I read that Turchi's colleague, Gwen Diehn (author of numerous book art instructional books), showed him a tetra-tetra-flexagon, and I liked seeing her Bovine Map (95), that showed only where the cows go, not the paths, buildings, or anything else. This map, like some stories, was crafted to show us one particular thing.

"A Rigorous Geometry" talks about shaping stories, and how the Oulipo explored structures in order to discover exciting new ways of writing such as omitting the letter "e." Discussion of Italo Calvino's mapping of his story, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, makes me want to read it. I must admit I was a little lost in the history of geometry that begins the chapter even though I understand it was included to continue the mapping metaphor.

The book overall is an interesting collection of cultural references, writing advice, personal story, and historical information and maps. The writing advice, while useful, is bound up in it, and the book is more for contemplation and enjoyment rather than to be used as an instructional manual. It looks at how we focus our attention and how we see both the past and the time period in which we live.

Ultimately, I am grateful for the list in "Points of Reference." Turchi's choices of excellent literary examples inspired me to explore their sources. One such quote included was from White Noise, by Don DeLillo, a book which won a National Book Award in 1985, and as I have begun it, I can see why. The characters are full of flaws and quirks, trying to do what they think is right, examining life and questioning death in a humorous and heartfelt manner and full of love for each other. The dialogue explores the family's search for truth even in its seeming non sequiturs.

"It's going to rain tonight."
"It's raining now," I said.
"The radio said tonight."
(page 23)

Mapping is about naming certain things: naming worlds, naming ideas, naming feelings. We find our way through naming. We own our knowledge by naming. DeLillo's characters are constantly trying to remember titles and names, to clarify truth by doing so. Lispector's story ends with Little Flower, the smallest woman in the world, thinking just what the explorer thought when he first saw her, "…it is so nice to possess, so nice to possess." Turchi's final chapter reminds us that even though the territory has been mapped before, we can both build on older stories, and at the same time illuminate our unique vision by writing new ones. "Seeing is an art which must be learned and relearned" (Turchi 226).

1 comment:

Velma Bolyard said...

i am a bit in *love* with the mapping thing, and not particularly good at drawing them (in any sense) or folding them (on a recent trip i had a horrid problem with a map, the tears on the refolded folds and a 9 hour drive home through rural maine, new hampshire,vermont, and new york) and have this book and found it a bit interesting and a bit confusing. sigh. maybe *love* is just like this, confusing, fascinating, and coming apart at the seams.