#17: Secret Rooms and Unseen Cities

A few years ago, I first stepped into what is now one of my favorite bookstores in New York, and decided to embark on a reading project. The bookstore was Idlewild, on 19th street, and it’s a bookstore with travel at its heart. It has a mixture of both literature and Lonely Planet, shelved together by region, with a back room where the store offers regular language classes. My idea was to read a novel from every country, and I made it about a dozen books in before realizing I was reading epic love story after epic love story. I took an indefinite break.

One of the first books I read was Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence, which takes place in Istanbul. After I finished the book I wondered where I my mental image of Istanbul came from. I’ve never been to Turkey, and can scarcely remember seeing even an image of the city that wasn’t shot from afar, that wasn’t some fireworks display over the skyline during a New Year’s Eve special. I eventually realized that my mental image of Istanbul is largely a composite of 1) Disney’s Aladdin, 2) the quays of Singapore, which I’d visited one Christmas, and 3) the streets of Mexico in the movie, Desperado.

As write this I have in mind book jacket designer Peter Mendelsund’s essay about picturing books, which he’s expanded into an upcoming book called What We See When We Read. Mendelsund’s essay deals mainly with the experiences with which we approach a piece of writing, and how those inform what we see in our heads. But what I’m particularly interested in is how we update that mental image as we read.

Another book I read for my project was Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. I’ve read a couple other Marquez works since then, and one thing that strikes me about his writing is the way his descriptions of settings unfold in my head. When I read Marquez, I feel a fluidity, a poetry to the order of the images he employs. For instance, on page one of Love in the Time:

He found the corpse covered with a blanket on the campaign cot where he had always slept, and beside it was a stool with the developing tray he had used to vaporize the poison. On the floor, tied to a leg of the cot, lay the body of a black Great Dane with a snow-white chest, and next to him were the crutches. At one window the splendor of dawn was just beginning to illuminate the stifling, crowded room that served as both bedroom and laboratory, but there was enough light for him to recognize at once the authority of death.

It’s the way the images connect, I think, the way the blanket and cot materialize above and below the body like two pieces of bread on either side of sandwich meat. The way the opposite happens in the next sentence: the floor, then the leash, which together leave a microsecond gap soon filled by the leg of the cot. Even the crutches at the very end, disconnected from dog or leash or cot or corpse, are described in a disconnected manner, as though someone had thrown them on the floor next to everything else. And then, the light!

You could compare it to a cinematographer’s control over the movement and focus of the camera, but it’s a faulty comparison, because the seen image is more than just a thousand words; it’s a thousand words at once. The analogy misses the serial suspension of prose. You could use an establishing camera movement a la Hitchcock, or even some kind of special effects to make the items appear in sequence in a white room: first the corpse, then the blanket on the corpse, then the cot, etc. But we will always remember the default state of the blank room – a different room – whereas in writing, in reading, the room in our mind after we finish the paragraph is instead a clearer version of the room at the beginning of the paragraph. And in re: to the words to come, this same room contains, within it, all possible states of the universe.

Speaking of rooms, and corpses, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s “The Secret Room” is a short story built upon – and whose payoff depends on – our continually updating mental picture. Read it slowly, and pay attention to what you see.