Oregon, I'm afraid, exists for me only in the imagination. That is to say, I have never been to Oregon, but I have spent time imagining what it is like. I want to visit Oregon, but, as with other places I have only imagined and have not visited — India, Buenos Aires, Iceland — it is hard to say exactly why: I imagine that I will like it, or that I will find it interesting. That imagination is nourished, in the age of the Internet, by an astonishing variety of secondhand information; by photographs, films, personal accounts; by other people's strong belief in certain cafés, restaurants, natural attractions, bars, bookshops, pieces of coastline. A similar glut of information exists for virtually every spot on the planet. Call it globalization. All this borrowed knowledge creates a tension: you feel guilty for all the places you haven't visited.
You could do worse than read Hemingway's A Moveable Feast if you want to imagine Paris; or Isherwood's The Last of Mr. Norris if you want to imagine Berlin. But, then again, you would have gotten only the romantic, hyperpersonal versions of those cities. They are books written by visitors; visitors can meet only one narrow side of a place. More recent examples give us contemporary London (Ian McEwan's Saturday), New York (Joseph O'Neill's Netherland), and Berlin (Chloe Aridjis's moody first novel Book of Clouds). These are memorable novels and each firmly claims its quarry; they are written by, respectively, a native, a permanent transplant, and a longtime resident. They get at what it is to live in their host cities. Oregon, likewise, has found a native chronicler in the writer Jon Raymond.
Raymond's recent collection of stories, Livability, is proof of his strengths: fine, confident descriptions of the land; an intuition for the delicacies of friendship; the single stroke that defines a character on the page. The greatest accomplishment in Livability is a story called "The Suckling Pig." At its heart is Tom: a second-generation Chinese-American man who works in insurance and is recently divorced. He plans a dinner party for himself and a couple of friends; during the afternoon beforehand he drives by a shelter where Mexican day laborers wait for jobs; he picks up two men and brings them home to take care of some yard work, including the felling of an giant, elderly tree; both friends then call to cancel, leaving Tom with a mountain of food; he invites the laborers to stay and gives them expensive tequila; the friends show up anyway; the rest of the story charts the collision of people who, under normal circumstances, would never have to talk to one another.
In a sense, the story could take place anywhere. But that is part of its point: the anywhereness of everywhere these days. Tom feels a deep satisfaction as he watches the men uproot the tree: a literal deracination. The tree had been on the land longer than Tom or his family; certainly longer than the men who are paid to tear it out. Tom's pleasure is that he has made the land his own: he has had it cleared. The men he hires — whom he plies with tequila so expensive they could never afford it even though they are from the country where it is made — are working just to find a foothold. It is a story about Oregon, but, you come to realize, it is a story about globalization as well; it is about Oregon as a place within the world.
Likewise, one finds, with the new novel by Jim Lynch, Raymond's neighbor to the north. Lynch lives in Washington, and Border Songs builds its escalating plot upon the novelty of the Canadian border: it is novel in the sense that before 9/11 it did not feel like much of a border at all; the border was "thin as a rumor." I had the pleasure of reading with Jim this past weekend, at Northshire Books, in Manchester Center, Vermont, and his book, like Raymond's, maps a newly uncertain terrain. He entertainingly braids humor and episodes of drama while navigating the central irony of globalization: in an increasingly borderless world, the borders matter more than ever.
The mode of expression is the personal: wider forces channeled through individual experience. In "The Suckling Pig," this is especially true. Raymond never names his themes outright; he hangs close to the characters and allows their moments of tension and release to speak about the wider world. "The Suckling Pig" is a chamber ensemble piece, and in this sense it is similar to Olivier Assayas's new film, Summer Hours. Assayas, too, interrogates the changes effected by globalization, and, just as Raymond does, he makes his points in a rich miniature. The family at the center of Assayas's film consists of three adult siblings and their mother; when she dies, they must divide the estate, which includes, notably, a great deal of fine art. Predictably, dividing the estate divides the siblings. But in back of this is the idea of France itself: the disassembly of a French identity in a world stretched and transformed by globalization. The youngest of the siblings now lives in China with his wife, where he works for Puma, the shoe company; he talks about China but we never see it: for everyone but he, it is a China of the mind. But globalization is like that. Globalization, we are told, is a fact; yet it still requires an effort of the imagination to recognize when it is happening to you.