In Favor of Place

Ben Fountain's foreword to Lookout Books's new anthology of Ecotone fiction, Astoria to Zion

Some years ago I met an American who’d lived in Senegal for a time, a woman who told me in passing of a traditional Senegalese greeting that’s stayed with me ever since. Nanga def? Are you here? Manga fi rek. I am here only. In other words, my person is here and my full attention too, flesh and spirit, body and soul, the whole package. I am here only. For years I’ve carried those loaded, seemingly simple words in my mind, years that have happened to coincide with the rise of the Internet, smart phones, laptops, downloadable music and movies, Twitter, Bluetooth, Google glasses, and all the rest of it, the avalanching culture of technology that makes it easier than ever—makes it, in fact, the default human condition—to be anywhere but here only, at the particular point in space where one’s body is located.

How about this for a salutation suited to our time, more of a warning than a greeting: I am here vaguely, barely, sort of. I’m hardly here at all. One of the great boons of technology is the ability it’s given us to push awareness beyond the limitations of place; and it’s one of the great dangers of technology that awareness can be so easily severed from the tangibility of place. When I was growing up in North Carolina in the sixties and seventies, the world was that thing we entered when we rolled out of bed in the morning, the flow of people, events, and settings that occurred as we moved through space. The only screen we encountered was the one in the television set, but that was mostly after darkness had driven us indoors. With only three channels to choose from and a daytime schedule of soaps and talk shows, TV simply wasn’t interesting enough to dominate us. The world out there, that’s where all the interesting stuff was, the raw material with which you made your life.

Television, radio, the telephone, the record player, these were part of the world, objects and phenomena that existed within the larger landscape. Technology occurred in the context of the place where you happened to be, a relation that’s been neatly flipped in the past twenty years—now technology is the world, delivered via the ubiquitous and increasingly supple screen. Our physical location is largely irrelevant, as long as we’re within cord’s length of a power source and in range of the necessary Wi-Fi waves.

Am I here only? On the contrary, I’m scattered all over creation. This freedom is truly something new under the sun, this almost effortless liberation of awareness from place. It will be interesting to see how the human animal fares in this uncharted territory, especially considering that we are, in essence, sensory creatures. Sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell—so much of our humanity resides in our senses, as shown by how completely we fall apart in their absence. Put someone in solitary confinement 24â¤?/7 and he quickly loses his mind. Subjects in sensory deprivation experiments start to hallucinate within hours. A solitary cell, a sensory deprivation chamber, these may be as near as we get to being no place in this life without leaving it completely, and one wonders how close the digital world is to this neighborhood of no place. Without our senses to anchor us, might everywhere start to thin at some point into a fog that feels very much like nowhere?

The digital world is great for visuals, wonderful for its delivery of glorious sounds, but a wasteland when it comes to our other senses. Cut off from sensory information, we’re apt to find ourselves unmoored, floating in limbo. Susceptible to being, literally and figuratively, lost. For an example, look no further than Steve Almond’s exquisitely eerie “Hagar’s Sons,” in which Cohen finds himself whisked by private jet to “the New Emirate,” a gleaming, frictionless world of black truffle omelets, silk bathrobes, and $11,000-a-night hotel suites half a mile above the earth. A world, we begin to suspect, made possible by vast corruption, where Cohen’s sole psychological and moral anchors lie back home, in his real life. Not that these anchors are particularly appetizing—a colicky baby, a beautiful but cranky malcontent of a wife, a cramped apartment that reeks of baby poop. In the Emirate his senses aren’t so much deprived as lulled, sedated, and seduced. He begins to wonder if he’s in a dream, or dangling outside of time, and hangs onto thoughts of his fraught, chaotic home like his soul and sanity depend on it.

The hotel convention center of Robert Olen Butler’s “At the Cultural Ephemera Association National Conference” offers a more downscale version of the New Emirate’s ethereal nowhereness. Naugahyde chairs, hungover scholars, an untouched pitcher of ice water. Here, the sensory barrens are salvaged by touch: a man and a woman shake hands, and, later, a hand is placed on an arm, then a hand laid on top of that. Human contact. Eyes on eyes. Heat rising from a woman’s face. Stephanie Soileau’s “The Ranger Queen of Sulphur” gives us Deana LaFleur, a lumbering, pot-­addled, computer-addicted woman-child who would love nothing better than to escape into nowheresville, and who could blame her? Her hometown of Sulphur, Louisiana, is hell’s own armpit, its complex of petrochemical plants belching poison like a Southern-fried version of Tolkien’s Mordor. Her father is dying from that poison; her brother is morbidly obese; Deana, no lightweight herself, has a suck job at Payday Loan and small prospect of doing better. Compared to all this, the digital world looks pretty good, and she devotes more time to her computer games than to work and school combined, but reality, the real world, keeps dragging her back into her own life. Deana’s vision of Sulphur and her place within it is worth quoting at length:

It was the plants and the heat and the ruthless mosquitoes, the price of gas, the addictive games, the crappy jobs, the hostile rednecks, hopeless brothers, delinquent cousins, complacent mothers, jobless fathers, spiteful uncles, polluted waters, the stifling reek of sulfur and fast food and tanker-truck exhaust . . . It was all of this and it was none of this. And if it wasn’t this, what was it? It was her. It was in her. It was something awful in her.

So convincing and terrible is Sulphur’s grip on Deana LaFleur that the reader feels the nudge of an idea. Maybe place isn’t where the human condition happens; maybe place is the human condition. “It was her. It was in her.” Place shapes personality just as relentlessly as climate shapes place. Flaubert dreamed of writing a novel comprised entirely of style, a novel, as he envisioned it, in which nothing happens. Some hundred and fifty years later, a novel of nothing happening doesn’t seem so much of a stretch; Samuel Beckett took us a long way down that road. Much harder to imagine is a novel in which all the nonhappenings have nowhere to happen.

As these stories show time and again, place is the means by which we locate ourselves in our own lives. For better or worse, one might add; human experience being what it is, the comforts of “closure,” “healing,” and “redemption” rarely result. In Lauren Groff’s “Abundance”—a standout story in a book full of standouts—the terminally ill Oscar approaches the house where he’s lived his whole life: “Every inch was haunted by himself at various ages. Here at twenty, one arm thrown around Henry’s shoulders, staggering drunk. Here at fifty, tall and strong, his lascivious, goaty years. Here at four, the small watchful son of parents who loved their venom more than their child.” The elegant old house provides a structure for his sense of self, and his ambivalence is such that he thinks it’s too bad he won’t be around to watch it fall into the sea. The returning warriors portrayed by Brock Clarke in “Our Pointy Boots” and Miha Mazzini in “That Winter” are traumatized by their homecomings, whipsawed between past and present, home as it was and is now, the gap between their former and present selves. In George Makana Clark’s “The Wreckers,” Roland’s love for Ezadurah—a slave owned by another man—becomes his only fixed point amid the chaos of a slaving voyage, his thoughts of her framed sharply with particulars of place and time. The recently widowed Marcie’s rural and emotional isolation leave her vulnerable in Ron Rash’s “Burning Bright,” and Bradshaw’s suburban house in “Winter Elders” by Shawn Vestal makes him an easy-access target for the Mormon missionaries who won’t leave him alone. Is it heaven they come bearing, or an earthly incarnation of hell?

Heaven and hell, those warring city-states of our interior lives, take more than a semblance of earthly shape in Ben Stroud’s “The Traitor of Zion.” Port Hebron, Michigan, is God’s chosen “holy city,” a town founded and nurtured by the Hebronite revelator Josiah Kershaw as “a place where men would live in harmony under new laws and seek pleasure in labor, purity in distance from all the corruptions of the East.” In Kershaw’s conception, it’s no less than ground zero for the Second Coming. Aspiration has a spot on the American map, and at least for a while paradise seems possible, the human condition coexisting with divine intention. In the deliciously mindbending “Falling” by Andrew Tonkovich, the portal to heaven takes form as an actual, physical hole in the ground, a perfect circle with the radius of a human torso. Smooth-sided, utterly vertical, and apparently bottomless, and into it—think of the Rapture as a vacuum cleaner set on low hum—disappear an atheistic geology professor, Jo-Jo the search dog, the professor’s former student mistress, a few hundred disciples, and, finally, our intrepid narrator. A long, strange trip ensues.

Ecotone defines itself as the magazine for reimagining place, a claim that deserves to be applauded as a rare instance of truth in contemporary advertising. In an age where place has never seemed more tenuous and abstract, it’s hard to conceive of a more relevant mission for a literary magazine. The screen, the ubiquitous, miraculous, infernal screen, keeps taking us farther and faster from ourselves. Cyberspace can be wonderful, but in the end we have to return to our bodies, to the not-virtual and non-digital, to the funk, gunk, and friction of the natural world. More than ever, we need an understanding of place, because we’re wandering so far. For that we need the proper language—malleable yet precise, to the point but still capable of doubt and ambiguity—and the imaginative will to grapple with questions whose answers are rarely settled. Knowledge that seems fixed and solid today dissolves in a muddle tomorrow. We try, but the search never really ends. The narrator of Brad Watson’s masterful “Alamo Plaza” is engaged in such a search, sifting and resifting the memory of a childhood vacation to the Gulf Coast. His parents, his brother, his dreamy eight- or nine-year-old self, an unremarkable family at the unremarkable Alamo Plaza Motel Court, a few days at the beach where nothing especially remarkable happens (although there is the small matter of a misplaced toe). And yet, in retrospect, those few days in that ordinary place seem to contain everything. “Memory is reductive,” Watson’s narrator reflects at one point, a statement belied by the richness and mystery of his own recollections. Returning home from that trip, seeing his family’s brick ranch-style house come into view, he can barely contain “the inexplicable everyday, the oddness of being, the senseless belonging to this and not that.” It’s almost too much for the boy—close enough to too much that he finds himself wishing it blown to pieces.

Short stories fix us in place, in experience, as few things can. With their insistence on the particular and the specific, they’re a corrective to the digital world’s propensity for blasting awareness into a thousand scattered fragments. Our humanity is being tested in ways that our ancestors never dreamed of. We need Ecotone, and we need these stories, the twenty-six beauties collected within these covers. Read on, and find your place.

Follow Lookout's blog to read first paragraphs from each story, staff introductions to some of their (and our) favorites, and, digital broadsides and interviews with the authors.