Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Dictionary of Imaginary Places

In the country of the mind

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Super Mario Galaxy

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What fictional country would you most like to visit?”

On the list of books that have profoundly influenced my life, one of the more surprising is The Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi. I no longer own a copy—although I’ve been meaning to get one for my daughter’s bookshelf for a long time—but when I first discovered it at twelve or thirteen, it quietly guided me toward a number of books and authors that have deeply shaped the way I think. It’s a big, handsome volume, almost absurdly rich and dense with content, that provides witty but essentially serious entries for upwards of a thousand different locations that were first described in fiction. All of the usual suspects are here: Oz, Narnia, Carl Sandburg’s Rutabaga Stories, and of course the countless cities and countries that fill Tolkien’s pages. I have a feeling that for many young readers, their first exposure to this work led to a lifetime’s love of fantasy fiction, and in my case, the impact went even deeper. Two of the entries that intrigued me the most were those for the Library of Babel and the Abbey of The Name of the Rose, and as soon as I was inspired to check out Borges and Eco for myself, much of my life’s intellectual path was decided. And I have Manguel and Guadalupi to thank for this.

When we think of the process that has been come to be known as worldbuilding, we generally regard it as a preparatory stage for a work of narrative fiction, whether the author’s approach is that of a gardener or an architect. Recently, though, worldbuilding has become something of a pastime in its own right, with hobbyists lovingly creating maps, history, and languages for entire planets, like solitary versions of Borges’s mysterious Orbis Tertius, with no particular aim beyond the satisfaction of the act itself. On some level, this approach has an honorable history: Tolkien wrote his novels to provide a setting for his invented languages, not the other way around, and even if most readers are only tangentially aware of this, the origins of these stories go a long way toward explaining why the geography of Middle-Earth—and, by extension, the characters who populate it—is so persuasive. The Internet has also provided a way for these works to reach a wider audience for the first time. In the past, a diligently rendered gazetteer of an imaginary country might have come off as the work of a misguided teenager or an outsider artist, but now, it’s easier than ever to find others who can appreciate such efforts. (I sometimes feel that Henry Darger, whose work anticipates many of the more obsessive aspects of contemporary fan culture, was born a century too soon.)

J.R.R. Tolkien

The other great factor contributing to the surge in independent worldbuilding—along with the prevalence of scholarship and secondary works, like The Atlas of Middle-Earth, that put all of this background material in one place—has been the rise of video games as an art form. Games have been creating convincing worlds ever since the appearance of the first text adventures, but the real turning point may have been Miyamoto’s Hyrule, the first world on a console detailed and beautiful enough to inspire its own miniature atlas. Gaming is the purest way we have of traveling through an imaginary territory: in a novel or movie, we’re still following the story from one episode to the next, with only a few hints of the landscape at the edges of the frame, while a shrewdly designed game can seem open to endless exploration. Really, though, like the worlds that a novelist creates, this openness is a carefully sustained illusion, and the best games have developed ingenious ways of hiding their boundaries. There are times, in fact, when a game can seem richer with possibilities than life itself: a game rewards curiosity, risk, and investigation, while in our own daily routines, we tend to stick to the same familiar routes, to the point where we might as well be on rails. (It’s only on vacation that we start to regard the world with the same hunger that a video game evokes.)

That’s why, when I think of a fictional country I’d like to explore, I find myself unexpectedly turning to the Mushroom Kingdom, especially the version we find in the Super Mario Galaxy series. It’s true that when we visit it, it seems like a rather dangerous place, but I’d like to believe that we’re only seeing it during periods of unusual crisis. Otherwise, it seems like the kind of country where a nap under a tree would be followed by a swim, a treasure hunt, or a stroll through the clouds. It’s a testament to the genius and ambition of Miyamoto and his collaborators that a game that began as a simple side-scroller has evolved into a country charged with beauty and nostalgia, although none of this would matter much if the games themselves weren’t so enticing. And this may be the ultimate lesson of worldbuilding. The countries we imagine for ourselves are reflections of our wishes and desires for the real world, not so much in the level of detail they contain as in the sense of some higher purpose and harmony: in an imaginary land, we have the feeling that everything is there for a reason, and that the map leads to a genuine goal, however freely it allows us to wander. Real life, alas, doesn’t offer such guarantees—although if we saw it as an beautiful country that we’ve been privileged to explore, we might take more pleasure in the journey.

Borges and I

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I owe my discovery of Jorge Luis Borges, my favorite modern writer, to the conjunction of a library and an encyclopedia. The encyclopedia was the classic Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Alberto Manquel and Gianni Guadalupi, which has fueled my dream life more than any other reference book; the library was the Library of Babel, whose article I discovered after following a reference from the entry for The Abbey of the Rose. (Our cultural lives, it seems, are really just a vast system of cross-references, all of which can be traced back to one original source—so it’s all the more important that this source be a good one.) My imagination was seized at once by the description of Borges’s library, with its “minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels’ autobiographies,” and the extremely vast, though not infinite, number of books generated from every possible combination of the letters of the alphabet. I sought out the original story at once, in Labyrinths, which is still one of the two or three books I would keep if I could own no others. And nothing was ever the same after that.

The influence of Borges has been enormous, of course, on cultural figures ranging from Michael Chabon to, yes, Karl Rove. Why does he make such an impression on so many different personalities? I can think of three reasons. The first is the fact that he gives us many of the pleasures that we want from popular fiction, but transformed into art by his intelligence, precision, and originality. His best stories—”Death and the Compass,” “The Garden of Forking Paths,” “The Immortal,” “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” all of which I can read again and again—are all transmutations of familiar genres: the detective story, fantasy, science fiction. “The Garden of Forking Paths,” for example, turns on an ingenious trick that wouldn’t be out of place in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine—which, as it happens, is where the story first appeared. Like many great works of contemporary art, from Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills to the works of David Lynch, Borges gains his power from a mingling of the familiar and the strange, giving us both what we want and things we never knew we needed.

The second is the figure of Borges himself, the blind librarian of apparently infinite erudition, or at least the ingenuity and intellectual power to extract boundless riches from the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The range of Borges’s influences and engagements in both fiction and non-fiction is astounding: his works push meaningfully against Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes, The Book of a Thousand Nights and One Night, Martín Fierro, Poe, Chesterton, Thomas Quincey, the cabalists, and such obscurities as William Beckford’s Vathek—and these are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head. Borges’s work is a vast hypertext, an impression underlined by the passages that occasionally recur between stories, either for the sake of efficiency or as a clue to a network of larger meanings. The analogy of a web, or a garden of forking paths, is aided by Borges’s productivity and concision: his collected works run to many volumes, but the individual stories are rarely more than a few pages long. The result is, again, something like a universal encyclopedia built by one man, which finally becomes, as Borges has said, a portrait of the author himself.

The third reason is perhaps the hardest to pin down, but also the most important. The recurring images in Borges’s stories—the labyrinth, the encyclopedia, the endless text—are all emblems of how we live with information. Borges, like his fictional Funes the Memorious, was both the master of information and its uneasy witness. His stories are full of anonymous narrators, most of them thinly veiled versions of Borges himself, confronting monsters of complexity: the Aleph, the Library of Babel, Shakespeare’s memory, the hundred volumes of the true encyclopedia of Tlön, the infinite details afforded by a day’s worth of sensory impressions in Buenos Aires. No other major writer has so consistently and elegantly returned to the problem of dealing with what is now called information overload, which makes him more important now than ever. Borges died just as the Internet was being born, bringing us all into the Library of Babel. And in most of his stories, the result is neither triumph nor destruction but a sort of resignation, a willingness to ignore the complexity of the world and focus on one’s translation of the Urn Burial. Which, as time passes, seems like the only sane response there is.

Written by nevalalee

March 30, 2012 at 10:14 am

The books of my life

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Today, inspired by an unusually compelling AVQ&A, I’ll be talking about the books that I’ve read more than any other. First up is Foucault’s Pendulum. This is one of those novels that I probably would have loved anyway, but which left an indelible mark on my life simply because of when I first encountered it—when I was thirteen years old and hungering deeply for books that, like the conspiracy theory at the heart of Eco’s novel, had “something to do with everything.” Looking back, I can see its limitations more clearly, and as I’ve said before, I’m afraid it’s been something of a dead end for me as a writer. Yet for better or worse, it’s influenced just about everything I’ve done since, most notably The Icon Thief, and it remains a work of exquisite wit and ingenuity. Aside from my own drafts, it’s the novel I’ve read the most—perhaps twenty times, mostly before my eighteenth birthday—although that record will probably be broken one day, possibly by The Silence of the Lambs.

The next book on the list is Labyrinths, at least the section devoted to short fiction. (Sad to say, but as much as I love many of Borges’s other essays, I don’t think I’ve ever made it through “The Argentine Writer and Tradition.”) Borges, like Eco, is primarily a writer of ideas, but he’s distinguished by greater precision and originality, and by a style that can seem curiously digressive on the paragraph level but intensely focused as a whole. If this is a paradox, it’s only the first of many that Borges inspires, and I suspect that he’s still rewiring my brain, years after I first read “The Library of Babel.” These days, the stories that I revisit the most include “The Immortal,” “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” and of course “Death and the Compass,” which is one of those works of art, like Hitchcock’s Vertigo, that I seem fated to constantly rewrite in one way or another. (Interestingly, I realize only now that I got into both Eco and Borges, back in my early teens, because of the entries devoted to their work in Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi’s great Dictionary of Imaginary Places. I should dig up a copy of that sometime.)

My last book is probably the third edition of The Complete Walker by Colin Fletcher. This might seem like a strange choice, since I’ve always been a creature of the city, and it wasn’t until my recent trip to Peru and Bolivia that I did any backpacking at all. Yet Fletcher’s book seized my imagination when I discovered it at the age of ten, and I still love it more than almost any other, partly because of Fletcher’s wonderfully amusing and intelligent style, but also because of his vision of life. The world of The Complete Walker is one of remarkable order and simplicity, in which the pack becomes a self-contained house on your back, its weight pared, its pockets organized, its every item meticulously accounted for. Read as a straight guidebook for backpacking, it’s the best there is; read as an allegory for rigorous self-sufficiency, pursued with equal amounts of poetry and common sense, it’s the equal of Walden, and its solutions to our culture’s current predicament are even more accessible than Thoreau’s.

The runners up on my list would include many books that you’ve heard me talk about before: The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, The Art of Fiction, The Biographical Dictionary of Film, and Roger Ebert’s collected reviews, circa 1987, among others. And the remarkable thing about these books is how much remains to be read. I suspect that there are still a few Sherlock Holmes stories I haven’t read yet (maybe “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place?”), and while Labyrinths is a slim volume, there are still a few essays I haven’t touched, or at least don’t remember. Whole sections of Foucault’s Pendulum have long since fallen out of memory, and I can’t say for sure that I’ve explored every last nook of The Complete Walker. And I could spend a lifetime finding new things in Proust alone. In the end, it gives me a strange sort of comfort to know that there’s more out there, even in my most beloved books, waiting to be discovered. What about you?

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