The following is excerpted from Manifesto: Maximalist Expressionism, or “Shut/-/Up(!) Fiction”.
A large part of the “work” my novel sets out to accomplish is to foreground the way in which self-knowledge is not an exact match for the narrative-of-self we carry around with us in our minds, a narrative subject to constant revision and emendation, prey to delusion and self-deception, incomplete and non-linear because of the apparent fickleness of memory, unstable because of the problematized nature of language (with which we construct this narrative-of-self). Still, we find a way to get from one day to the next, generally comfortable with the narrative we’ve constructed that begins with something like “I was born in so and so” and ends with the present moment. Not ourselves, we accept it as our selves; we believe in the imitation of that thing that never was. It takes on the quality of simulacrum in much the same way that the clichés of Hollywood become a kind of shorthand for elements of contemporary culture by which we position ourselves. Or the way our mythologized sense of history is accepted as, and substituted for, fact: George Washington cutting down the cherry tree; Lincoln as the Great Emancipator.
These were the considerations I had in mind when I set Flicker in the Porthole Glass in Philadelphia, a city in which artifacts of American history confront one at nearly every turn and which often fly in the face of our mythologized “knowledge” of history. One wonders if it’s some postmodern prank that a visitor to Philadelphia can visit the site of Ben Franklin’s house and stare wonderingly down into his cesspit preserved there (this while, in the absence of the actual structure, a ghostly frame of white I-beams rises above ground in outline of the long-razed Franklin homestead). It’s against this setting that my protagonist, Jack Ruineux (a projectionist awash in Hollywood-style nostalgia and subject to “project” his own conceptions), attempts to “piece together a history I might call my own” (his own narrative-of-self). Though ostensibly set in the mid-1980s, the novel is full of anachronisms intended to reveal Hollywood’s (and “olde” Philadelphia’s) affect on the projectionist’s mind, an affect manifest in a kind of creeping silver-screen nostalgia for things as they never were but which, to reiterate, are accepted by many folks as “the way we were.” This nostalgia, too, doubles as a theoretical nostalgia; the nostalgia of a philosophy that seeks to recuperate some lost “golden age” in which things like language and self were not in the least problematic. It’s the illusion of a golden age to which, I would argue, it is impossible to return.
All of which is to say that my choice of setting was a considered one, a choice made with regard to the ways in which I could use setting to support the work of my novel. Indeed, the grimy, grubby, frequently anachronistic Philadelphia of Flicker—a Philadelphia of the mind, if you will—becomes something of a character in its own right. Early on in the novel, my two central characters find themselves on Independence Mall:
One by one, sprinkler heads pop up out of the grass and begin to cast a heavy mist over Independence Mall. Beads of moisture glitter on the lawn and in the fly-away strands of Jasmine’s hair. “It’s beautiful,” she whispers. The intense ball of light reflecting off the dome of the Liberty Bell has become suspended in the artificial mist, a shimmering, golden corona that seems to hover above the gloomy night-lawn of history. And just at that moment, the faux Liberty Bell in the clock tower of Independence Hall begins its hollow, atonal chiming. As if making tintinnabulation a reply, the recorded bells in City Hall Tower, ten blocks to the west, also begin to chime. Bells and recorded bells sound off the walls of the deserted office buildings and echo through the empty streets and I can almost see Edgar Alan Poe stumbling drunk toward his apartment off Spring Garden Street singing “I’m a Cranky Old Yank in a Clank Old Tank in the Streets of Yokohama with my Fujiyama Mama etc., etc.”–the longest song title in the history of Tin Pan Alley. His singing would make counterpoint to the bells, the bonging of which would blend and float off over the Delaware where they would fade into the collective breath of Philadelphia before ever crossing over the Ben Franklin Bridge into Camden.
One of many such passages, it helps to establish a sense of place almost entirely lacking in my earlier efforts. In my story “The Print Within,” for instance, perhaps the only passages in which any clear sense of place is established are those depicting the projection booth. Yet, even these seem slapdash and lazy compared with the setting as rendered in my novel.
The yellow paint is faded, in some spots flaking away. There are large sections where the old plaster walls are exposed. Chalky dust rubs off on Ruineux’s clothing when he brushes against them …. Plaster powder is bad news for projectors and can render a motion picture print unwatchable ….
Though I’ve named streets and referred to an elevated railway, I mention no city name in the story. I was thinking of Philadelphia, but a reader might as easily assume Chicago. Or Tierra del Feugo. By ignoring setting in the story, I was limiting the palate from which I had to draw, and so deprived myself of a significant means of developing and contextualizing my characters. If I’ve picked up on anything over the years, it’s that a writer has to use every trick in his bag, use them skillfully, mix them up. Setting is just too invaluable a trick to ignore. I think of Thomas Mann’s Venice: entirely convincing, essential to the development of the characters in Death in Venice, yet rendered by a Mann who never set foot in that city.