Annals of Mobility: On Stories of Return, Not Exactly


It all started with Googlemaps.  I was researching a neighborhood in NW Washington, DC, where I wanted to set a story.  The area had to meet certain requirements: no more than x number of Metro stops from a town in Maryland; a mostly African-American neighborhood in the early 1970s, which would later gentrify.  The house I envisioned was a brick row-house just above street level, with a porch, and a wrought-iron gate, next door to a somewhat unkempt house that had a chain-link fence and a concrete slab in place of grass.  It had to be within walking distance from a park.   My research brought me to Pleasant Plains, and I clicked the “street view” icon—that little orange man you can click-and-drag around the map in order to see actual images of a street.

I looked at a street here, a street there, two blocks this way, one block that way; and then I saw something that made me lean forward, nose to screen: I knew that house.  How did I know it?  When did I know it?  Did I know the people who lived there, or had I just driven or walked by it sometime?  I clicked the zoom icon and studied the front door.  I clicked the arrows to move up and down the street, and the ones that spun the view around 360-degrees.  I did this for way too long (beware, writers, of the temptation to spend all your writing time on “research”).

I couldn’t locate the house or a context in my memory, and so began to doubt that it was in my memory at all.   I don’t really understand déjà-vu, but I know I’ve experienced it, many times.  I’ve been here before, this moment, this scene.  Usually it’s something completely unremarkable—a certain pile of clothes lying on the floor, winter morning light coming in through the window; a mundane phrase spoken by a loved one in a particular tone.  Whatever.  Like I said, I don’t understand it.  And that’s okay with me: the mind, the dimensions of our existence in this world, are wondrously mysterious.


But I started to think about revisits and returns: I thought, maybe the familiarity that struck me had something to do with proximal memory.  That town in Maryland, a few Metro stops away, is a place I know; I grew up around there, from the ages of 5 to 12.  This was the first time I had tried to set a work of fiction in the place of my childhood, and I knew something interesting was brewing.  It felt… strange, in an uncomfortable but compelling way, to revisit that place.  And I had in fact chosen—though more instinctively than deliberately—to set the story close to where I grew up, but not in the actual town.  The town I chose had/has a slightly different demographic makeup, hillier landscape, older houses.  Something made me want to revisit a place I knew directly, sort of; to return, but not exactly.  (In this sense, I feel tiny shades of kinship with writers like William Gay, and Donald Ray Pollock, both of whom as adults returned to and settled in the places of their birth and childhood, but a town or two over.)

I’ve had a few other experiences of sort-of returns recently: last year, I was asked to give a presentation at a New England boarding school.  I am a graduate of such a school, but this was not the one I attended; it was an hour north, a school I remembered from athletic competitions.  Going there was strange, not unlike writing that Maryland town has been strange; familiar, but not.  Also, it’s been over 20 years, so not only have I changed, but New England boarding schools have changed.  And then again, in many ways I am the same, and in many ways those schools are the same.  Just a month ago, I looked at a job ad for a teaching position at my actual alma mater: I asked myself, could I really go back there?  I thought about it seriously.  In the end I decided No.  Something about the alchemy of same and different, of return but not exactly, did not feel right.


A circle is a pleasing shape—simple, complete, “perfect.”  Narratively, however, a circle generally signifies failure (on both the author’s part, and the character’s): for a character to come full-circle, strictly speaking, means that the journey has been futile, and this shortchanges the reader.  If there is no change, no evolution, if we are back just where we started, the reader asks, Why did I read this?  Where’s the payoff?  The more satisfying shape for a story is a spiral—defined, mathematically, as “a curve which emanates from a central point, getting progressively farther away as it revolves around the point.”

We start out somewhere, and we leave that place: we travel further and further from that center starting point, and yet we also “return,” to the almost-same place which is different, which is further “out.”  I am thinking of many stories that follow this classical journey, in this single-spiral shape.  I think of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables.  Anne grows up, into an intelligent young lady; she leaves Morilla and Matthew, she goes to the big city, to Halifax, to follow her ambitions; she meets a dashing older man; but in the end she returns and realizes that it is Gilbert, her childhood love (and nemesis), who is her true love; that everything she ever wanted was always right there in front of her.  She comes home, and yet neither she nor home are the same, and this is a good thing, a fulfillment for both the reader and characters.  On the tragic side, I think of Forrest Gump: Jenny leaves the small southern community that has constrained her; she goes off to have wild experiences, many of them self-destructive; she returns to the place that was always safe, always loving (Forrest); Forrest is the same, home is the same, but she of course is too much changed, tragically changed; she comes home to die.

I think of Nick Carraway, who tells us at the end of Gatsby: “After Gatsby’s death the East was haunted for me […] So when the blue smoke of brittle leaves was in the air and the wind blew the wet laundry stiff on the line I decided to come back home.”  He returns to the Middle West changed, no doubt, though the novel leaves us wondering, in a resonant, expansive way, exactly how so:  “When I came back from the East last autumn,” Nick tells us on p2,” I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart.”  But we don’t take Nick at his word: it seems to this reader that as a result of knowing Gatsby, traumatic as it was, he will always be drawn to both riotous excursions and glimpses into the human heart, despite himself.  In other words, he may have wanted to return to things just as they were before he left, orderly and “in uniform”; but the reader knows better, the reader knows that the perfect circle is not only unsatisfying, but also, in the interest of a fully realized humanity, impossible.  In David O. Russell’s recent film Silver Linings Playbook, in fact, the protagonist Pat (Bradley Cooper) returns from eight months in a mental hospital (to live with his parents) after brutally beating his wife’s lover; his determination to put things back as they were before, to reconcile with his wife, to make a closed circle, is portrayed as insanity; or at least severe self-delusion.

I think of Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding.  Twelve year-old Frankie Addams doesn’t have the luxury of mobility, and so her journey is a walk through town, then a day-excursion to her brother’s wedding.  And yet still her coming-of-age is deep and traumatic, and it feels to me like McCullers’s affection for Frankie prompted an authorial decision to move the family, at the end of the novel, to a larger house “out in the new suburb of town.”  Frankie does not get her heart’s desire—to leave home, to see the world, to be a part of something larger than her tragically lonely self.  But she does get to start over, in a new place, and thank mercy for that, because to return her to the unchanging place from where she started would have been entirely too cruel.


That house in Pleasant Plains may not be a place I have seen with my eyes, but it does seem to be a place that I know.  I am returning to a place that is new to me, as nonsensical as that seems. There is something in the approach of the known, near but not quite, that stirs up just what we need to craft resonant stories.   We set out on our journeys, and are inevitably drawn back; there are mystery and depths to be discovered in the familiar, and vice versa.


Sonya Chung, Associate Editor of The Common, is the author of the novel Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and teaches fiction at Columbia University.

Annals of Mobility: On Stories of Return, Not Exactly

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