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Original Essays | June 20, 2014 1 comment
It's a wild and thundery night. Inside a ramshackle old manor house, a beautiful young girl lies asleep in bed. At the window, a figure watches... Continue »
Finding Itby Josh Emmons
As a teenager I learned that Eureka was an ancient Greek word meaning "I've found it!" an exclamation point always suffixes the definition, as if to create excitement where there isn't any and that it had been chosen in 1852 by California immigrants hoping the area contained as much gold as the Sierra Nevadas had during the Gold Rush of 1848. Which it didn't. So the immigrants named a nearby town Fortuna, where they again found no gold. When they called another town Petrolia for the petrol reserves they believed were directly below it, and then didn't find any petrol, and it became clear that to survive they needed to quit fantasizing about getting rich quickly and instead take honest jobs as lumberjacks, fishermen, and farmers, they had no choice but to accept it.
People have asked me why I set my novel The Loss of Leon Meed in an unlucky, unremarkable place so far from the country's nerve centers, which without much loss to the United States and to the gain of the Native American tribes already living there might not have been settled by Americans in the first place. One answer is that like all runts and outcasts, Eureka deserves more love than it receives Raymond Carver and Thomas Pynchon, the town's most famous chroniclers, both did their worst work there and I wanted to pay homage to it. Another answer is that Leon Meed's story, about the miraculous appearances and disappearances of a man in front of ten different people, demanded a location where nothing happens, to accentuate its strangeness. In New York, for example, where everything happens, a novel has a much smaller chance of serendipity striking.
But perhaps the best answer has to do with Eureka's original settlers and the elaborate, heartbreaking cycle of their frustrated desire. All of my main characters who figure more prominently in the novel than the eponymous Leon Meed believe that something will save them from their problems. Prentiss Johnson, a recovering alcoholic, thinks sobriety will do it. Elaine Perry, whose husband is cheating on her, thinks it's domestic calm. Barry Klein, a gay man dealing with his homophobia, thinks it's a girlfriend. And yet most of them, instead of what they want, find something else, something serviceable that over time turns into what they really needed in the first place. For a long time I've been interested in the strange alchemy that can transform accidents into valuable moments, a kind of revisionism that makes the past inevitably worthwhile.
Dostoevski said that his impetus for writing The Idiot was to explore what would happen if Jesus Christ lived in modern society. In terms of his novel, the question was how the citizens of 1870s St. Petersburg a jaded, cynical lot would respond to the purity of Prince Myshkin. Rather than crucify him, would they welcome and celebrate him as the perfection of kindness, innocence, tolerance? Would they recognize the divinity of his nature? Had civilization advanced at all from 30 A.D.?
When thinking about The Loss of Leon Meed I borrowed Dostoevski's approach. How would a bunch of not-necessarily-mystical people living in modern-day America react to a miracle? If, as happens regularly in spiritual texts, someone were to witness a scientifically inexplicable event in this case, Leon Meed being present one second and then gone the next would they think they had gone mad? Or that they'd died? Or that their past drug use was catching up with them? Or that there really was a God? Or that environmental pollution was causing them to hallucinate? Or that, more quietly, they'd been given a small restitution of what they'd lost on the way from childhood to adulthood? It seemed to me that different people would think about the miracle differently, and that each would learn worthwhile things (and perhaps some useless ones) about themselves as a result. Fiction, being an exploration of how people see themselves, and how their vision gets alternately clearer and cloudier over time, made room for them.
And so Eureka, which claims to be found before you even arrive there, became the right town to set what is part fable and part social drama. My favorite novel is George Eliot's Middlemarch, so from the beginning I believed that no town was too small or unremarkable to support great literature (not that Leon is fit to walk in Middlemarch's shadow). In fact, the more ordinary the location, the more time and energy is freed up to concentrate on a book's characters, who are, after all, our entry and departure points in a work. As I wrote and got deeper into the city I carried with me from childhood, and grew closer to the novel's characters, it seemed that they, as much as anyone anywhere in any era, needed to think, if only for a moment, that history wasn't against them, and that it was, suddenly and unexpectedly, meaningful that they lived in a place called Eureka. It's what I myself have come to believe.