Do you ever finish a book – or get halfway through it, or finish several books in a series – only to realize that your mind has decided to visualize the novel’s action in a place that is familiar to you? Wuthering Heights, for example, is set – for me – in my late great-great uncle’s lakefront house in Tahoe (though my imagination helpfully blacked out all of the windows to prevent the atmosphere from feeling cheerful in any way). When I read Abraham Verghese’s The Tennis Partner a few months ago, the protagonist’s apartment is, for some reason, a dead ringer for an apartment at a complex in Massachusetts that I toured ONCE, several years ago, when I was looking for a new place to live. To Kill a Mockingbird, which I’m rereading now with a student I tutor, takes place on the set of the Little House on the Prairie TV series, and Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Good Country People” is set not in rural Georgia but in a house that some of my family members lived in in the late ’80’s and early ’90’s, while O’Connor’s other story “The Enduring Chill” is set in the home of my best friend from fourth grade – in one specific guest bedroom, no less.
I’m sure there’s a reason that my mind does this – something to do with the brain’s tendency to place the unfamiliar in the context of the familiar. It makes sense. A similar but (for me) less common phenomenon is when I recognize that I have visualized a character in a book as a specific person – either someone I know personally or a famous person or celebrity. I can’t put my finger on a time when this has happened (with the exception of the one I’m going to tell you about in a moment – wait for it…), but I’m sure it has.
I’ve been reading Diana Gabaldon’s books for a couple of years now, but I only just recently became conscious of the fact that I have consistently visualized the character of Lord John Grey as THIS fellow:
For those who may not know, this is the actor Michael Emerson, who played Ben Linus on Lost. Ben is much creepier than Lord John — who, like Ben, is a character whose attempts to carry himself with great dignity are often thwarted by fate. In Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, Lord John spends pretty much the whole damn novel wandering around with a broken arm, a badly injured eye, and increasingly tattered and filthy clothing. He also changes sides constantly – from British army officer to American militiaman to British civilian to POW – and with these shifts come constant changes in clothing. He sustains extensive physical abuse over the course of the novel (and seems constantly on the verge of being hung); Lord John’s experiences in this novel, in fact, look a lot like this:
I don’t always know what to make of Lord John’s character. Sometimes he seems to be present in the series mostly as a source of comic relief, but at his essence he is not really a comic character. He is a gay man in a world with plenty of possibilities for gay sex but little chance to build a life around a long-term same-sex relationship. He lives in the constant shadow of his older brother, who has a knack for sending him on life-threatening errands. He marries twice, always for the safety and protection of someone else, and he is a devoted family man whose family never seems quite cognizant of how much and how often he effaces his own desires. Not only is the man he loves – Jamie Fraser – forever out of his reach, but Lord John also ends up raising Jamie’s illegitimate son, who looks and acts just like Jamie and is a constant reminder of everything that Lord John cannot have.
Diana Gabaldon’s novels would be really good if their plots were tighter. The many tensions that orbit Lord John are really quite wonderful, but her books are exasperating because they try to proceed minute by minute through her characters’ lives instead of focusing on a series of distinct scenes. Lord John spent the first half of this novel (which is more than 400 pages long) wandering around with his injured eye (until Claire catches up with him and uses an instrument called a penis syringe to squirt honey into the eye socket, in a chapter called “An Alternative Use for a Penis Syringe”). In An Echo in the Bone it was William who spent a couple hundred pages wandering around injured, and Young Ian has done so a few times in the series as well.
I find it interesting that both Ben Linus and John Grey began as minor characters and ended up coming close to taking over their respective narratives. Ben first appeared as a prisoner (under the pseudonym Henry Gale) in season 2, and I think the writers of Lost intended to keep him in the series for only a couple of episodes. John Grey wandered into Dragonfly in Amber as a sixteen year-old boy bullied by his brother and humiliated by Jamie Fraser; now he’s a major character in the series and the star of three novels and several novellas of his own.
That’s my not-very-coherent thought for the day. And this is its not-very-conclusive conclusion. Have a good weekend, everyone!