Examples of Atmosphere; or, A Sense of Place

Previously I suggested that it was a particular kind of atmosphere in some books that meant I classified them as a comfort read. Most books that I re-read have a strong sense of place. Pride and Prejudice is overshadowed by Pemberley, whose shades would be polluted by association with Miss Elizabeth Bennet. All the Harry Potter books centre on Hogwarts. But there’s more to it than just that. Somehow the place has to be properly suggested by the author. Here is an example of a scene that gives a sense of place:

“Respect the Pedestrian, say the street signs of Metro Manila. As soon as Randy saw those, he knew he was in trouble.

“For the first couple of weeks he spent in Manila, his work consisted of walking. He walked all over the city carrying a handheld GPS receiver, taking down latitudes and longitudes. He encrypted the data in his hotel room and e-mailed it to Avi. It became part of Epiphyte’s intellectual property. It became equity.

“Now, they had secured some actual office space. Randy walks to it doggedly. He knows that the first time he takes a taxi there, he’ll never walk again.

“RESPECT THE PEDESTRIAN, the signs say, but the drivers, the physical environment, local land use customs, and the very layout of the place conspire to treat the pedestrian with the contempt he so richly deserves. Randy would get more respect if he went to work on a pogo stick with a propellor beanie on his head. Every morning the bellhops ask him if he wants a taxi, and practically lose consciousness when he says no. Every morning the taxi drivers lined up in front of the hotel, leaning against their cars and smoking, shout ‘Taxi? Taxi?’ to him. When he turns them down, they say witty things to each other in Tagalog and roar with laughter.”

That description comes from Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson. Randy walks to work — the whole of his walk gives a sense of place. It was hard to choose a particular passage from that book — one thing that Stephenson does well is give a sense of the variety of places there are on the planet. Characters in Cryptonomicon travel a lot, and Stephenson manages to capture well the sense of difference between places.

Do you have particular places that inspire your imagination and prompt you to return to books? Or is it an entire world (Narnia?) that draws you back? Or do you just think I’m a little bit crazy?

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