Place names as metaphors

One of this summer’s projects has been to edit a collection of essays by college freshmen (a little in-school journal), so I must credit my student, Ashley Ritchey, for sparking this observation. Her paper on Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Sexy” (from Interpreter of Maladies got me going on this track for she notices something really cool: the male lover in the story, turning his mistress into a sex object rather than treating her as a person, takes her to places in Boston that underline the way he looks down on her: The Mapparium, the Nickolodeon.

I lived around Boston for eight years, so those are just names to me: familiar and delicious because I can picture just where they are. But Ashley didn’t know they were real places—to her they were metaphors for the way Dev treats his mistress.

A couple weeks ago, we drove through Herkimer and I saw the Empire Diner, an old, run down but still beautiful stainless steel and neon creation. My husband reminded me that Richard Russo is from these parts, that surely Empire Falls has that very diner as its imaginative origin.

When you don’t know a place and read about it in a novel, the place names become metaphors, lovely little symbols of the text itself. There is always a strange shock to learn that those very names are simply lifted from the spot—not metaphors created by the writer, but little moments of realism in the book. The invention, the imagination, has come first from the small businessperson who named the diner, the movie theater, the café, and then from the writer who chooses one diner over another to best capture the mood of her work.

So, I made a list of places in Seattle that were important to me when I was in high school to see if, from that list alone, I could find a mood or a tone:
  • The Harvard Exit,
  • B&O Espresso,
  • Dick’s,
  • the Neptune,
  • the Guild 45th,
  • the Egyptian,
  • Ezell’s Fried Chicken,
  • Café Counter Intelligence,
  • Baby & Co.,
  • the Star Store,
  • the Deluxe,
  • Volunteer Park,
  • Capitol Hill,
  • the U-Dub,
  • the Last Exit,
  • the Pink Door.

I can see, just from the list, a kind of West Coast hippie imitation in the movie theater names: not muses, like in New York in the old days, but still mythic-sounding. Also, it’s pretty clear, I think, that Dick’s is the burger joint we hung out at—a different mood from other things here. And two places with “Exit” in their name: a tribute, I think, to enthusiasm for highways and a sense that Seattle was the edge of the country. It all sounds very seventies to me, though I was in high school in the early eighties, and like a big hippie hangover—bohemian and a little dirty, homespun.

UPDATE: My father sends along this link: "American Names" by Stephen Vincent Benet. Pretty great. Thanks, Dad!

Elsewhere, over at House of Mirth you can read an interesting interview (and below, a review) with Richard Stern, whose books have been reissued by Northwestern UP.