Spatial Symbolism: The House

Spatial Symbolism: The House

Because I have friends and friends talk sometimes, it came to be that a friend and I were talking about laundromats. I like laundromats. I like the soothing, repetitive noises of clothing soup getting sloshed around in a centrifuge and the rhythmic metallic clinking of “poor ovens.”

A theory as to why we love laundromats so much comes from Shawn Coyne’s analysis of Silence of the Lambs (mentioned several times in the Story Grid podcast),  wherein he points out a scene right before Starling decides to go investigate the first victim’s house. The scene is simple and quiet. Starling does some laundry. Coyne’s point is that this is a “return to the womb” so that Starling can be reborn into her decision to defy her orders. Specifically, he points out that the rhythm of the machines and the sloshing of the water resembles a mother’s heartbeat and the rushing noise of amniotic fluid that we, as babies, attach to as sensory reminders of the safety we felt while in utero. It works as a solid symbol.

I tried to recreate a similar scenario in The Least of 99 Evils with a scene where the main character, Riley, takes a shower and changes clothes before adopting the most pivotal role in the novel. I was trying to suggest to the reader’s subconscious that a baptism of sorts had occurred. That changes have registered.  I think it works, but we have a much more sinister association with bathrooms that I had previously thought.

There’s this episode of Cracked.com’s “Looking the Part,” that examines what makes the bathroom so harrowing in pop culture and media (shower death scenes are plentiful after the quintessential Psycho, Vincent dies while leaving the bathroom in Pulp Fiction, that guy in the first season of The Sopranos gets shot in the tub, The Dude in The Big Lebowski is attacked while getting far-out in his bathtub, that scene in the X-Files when that leach falls out of that dude, medicine cabinet mirror jump scares… etc). Their suggestion is that because grooming habits have become a solitary activity for human beings since the middle ages, the bathroom is the one place where someone is the most vulnerable and that naturally creates an opportunity for a thrilling scene that will directly register with an audiences’ familiarity of being totally alone.

So I got to thinking that maybe there other broad symbols we associate with the anatomy of a house and by identifying what symbols we associate with what rooms, a writer could benefit from accurately setting certain scenes in these spaces.

The first one that leapt out to is the basement. The basement is where the secret is stored. A true crime example of this would be how John Wayne Gacy buried 33 bodies in his basement as a way of dissociating himself from his crimes, essentially keeping it separate from his primary personality. Likewise, the zombies are stored in the basement in Dead Alive, the shameful burial of the archaeologist’s wife occurs in the basement of Evil Dead II (with great payoff), and Breaking Bad‘s Walter White keeps his first drug-world rival and first murder victim in, wait for it, the basement. The Burbs even brings us into that space by the film’s culmination, justifying Tom Hanks’s paranoia by revealing hundreds of skeletons present in his neighbors’ furnace. Perhaps because we associate that space with darkness, we also attach fear. This is a common enough attachment– we fear what we can’t see, and we see this part of the house the least often– on top of it being, generally, poorly lit. Just to indulge another example: A B-plotline that registered with me as a kid was Home Alone‘s sequencing of getting over the fear of the basement furnace. It personified perfectly the fear a child experiences when encountering a space that they don’t know very well as well as machinery that they don’t understand.

If the basement is where you place scenes of fear and horror then what of the basement’s maligned sibling the attic? The attic’s symbolism revolves around the mind. You know that old phrase, “toys in the attic?” That’s a folksy way of saying that someone is insane. If the top of the cranium is where the brain resides, then so to must the “mind” of the house. Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea utilize this by restraining the crazy woman in the attic. So does The Yellow Wallpaper. Even if we’re not talking about mental unwellness, the attic serves as a venue for cerebral exploration. The entire plot of The Goonies starts by finding a map in the attic, but the better example here is The Never Ending Story– the entire thing is the imaginative exercise of a child reading a book in the attic. Goddamn Beetlejuice spends over half the movie in the attic, most of which is spent, not ghosting the shit out of the inhabitants, but rather, wrapping the characters’ heads around the concept that they are dead. It’s the mental space.

The bedroom is usually reserved for sex. In adult-themed media. You rarely get a glimpse of what an adult’s bedroom actually looks like. It’s the punctuation of sexual achievement– a dude carries a lady into a bedroom. Cut to pillow-talk followed by a source of unnecessary conflict. Right? Except in more juvenile-aged marketed media where the bedroom is a refuge. You think of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Three Ninjas, Gleaming the Cube… the prepubescent bedroom becomes a space of personal expression and safety. Which makes sense in the human experience– that’s the only place where a teenager has any control over their own lives, even if that control is over which posters go up on the walls. But whether it’s for sex or personal rejuvenation (and general character building), the bedroom is almost never used as a primary stage for for plot. Exceptions to this are, of course, Toy Story (wherein the bedroom is represented as a town of sorts, and doesn’t really count) and Nightmare on Elm Street (wherein the bedroom, a vulnerable time, becomes a door for a broader stage. Johnny Depp getting absolutely eviscerated, though, remains one of my favorite film moments).

The staircase has stood reliably as an opportunity for one character to spy upon another character. And this is consistent from H.P. Lovecraft to J.K. Rowling: when a piece of information needs to be discussed and then overheard by the protagonist, the protagonist will linger on the staircase. That might divide the house into two distinct levels of trustworthiness to match its literal stories– the lower level is untrustworthy, whereas the hero always sneaks down from the upper stories. While it serves as a bridge in its architectural purpose, it’s not redundant to point out that it serves as a metaphorical bridge between two parties and the vehicle conveyed between them is generally unintentional information.

Kitchens are an interesting beast. The idea is always to portray family in a day in the life. How that family is portrayed with the kitchen is up to the author. In The Godfather Part II, a family is shown falling away from the uninterested Michael Corleone around a dinner table. Likewise, you have family comedies like The Simpsons or Malcom in the Middle where, despite the chaotics antics of the individual characters, they still come together for meals and create the status quo of the familial unit. From those two examples, we always come back to the status quo of dysfunctional, quirky families that support each other in dysfunctional, quirky ways. The status quo of the family in American Beauty is established with a similar scene, although any semblance of casual or warm acknowledgement is replaced with cold, forced and even scripted dialogue. Harkening back to Home Alone, the initial kitchen scene is one of immense chaos with a broad range of characters. Which sets up the essential conflict of the film and justifies it with a few, short scenes– there’s a lot of kids. One of them could get overlooked. (There’s also my favourite line, “You’re what the French call ‘les incompetent’.”)

Living rooms are for Christmas and people getting murdered. I’ve literally got nothing else on that.

Tuning to Harmony

Tuning to Harmony

I remember that the two dirtiest words in an English course discussion were “author’s intent.”

Summarily, the discussion basically the cuts the same way every time: one side says that author’s intent is negligible, creators aren’t always cognizant of the significance of what they’re creating and the other says that we must respect the genius inherent to the craft, every little thing is in its proper place and there for a reason.

Good rule of thumb is to be a middling son of a gun. Writer’s aren’t gods, but the good ones ain’t slackers either. (Except for me. I wear my hat backwards and am late to stuff).

Anyways, this discussion generally leads to another popular discussion: “Is symbolism intentional?”

Again, it depends. And I’ve found that the answer can be yes and no about any particular symbol.

In an episode of Radiolab, Paul Auster describes what he calls “rhyming events,” and he uses the real world example of a girl he dated in college that had a piano with a broken F key and later that year, on a trip to rural Maine, they encounter an old (abandoned?) Elk’s lodge with a piano… that had a broken F key.

Uncanny? Sure. Does it mean anything? I think Auster mentioned it because there’s a certain unworldly profundity to the circumstance that he doesn’t understand. And a theist could point to the hand of God underlining a certain meaning and an existentialist would write in their own meaning as to how it’s to be interpreted and a rationalist would say that it’s just the hazard of coincidence. And so forth.

I think this question is one that Murakami plays with often. In Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World there’s a little, non-assuming detail about the main character– that his most prized possession is his whiskey collection. That the narrator is a heavy whiskey drinker is featured prominently, but when he describes the bottles he values, he lists Old Crow and Wild Turkey (among others,) the former being generally low shelf, the latter being middle shelf. Did this mean anything? Does it speak to a sense of emptiness that the highest possession of value is some of the cheapest bourbon on the market? Or was this just a sign of 1980’s Japan, when the foreign whiskey market opened up, thus making Old Crow a hot item of the times? Does Murakami want me to be asking these kinds of questions?

I’ve also argued (in my head) about the recurring motif of lice in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. [cue montage to every line using the word “lousy”] Does this speak of Caulfield’s paradigm? That the world is a louse-ridden, filthy place? Or is Salinger just tapping into the common verbiage of an angsty teen? Am I cheated out of anything if the second turns out to be true? Does it make it the first interpretation any less true? History has shown that it’s not the best idea to overthink Catcher in the Rye.

Another quick example: IS PAUL DEAD? Quick take: No, but The Beatles sure loved to keep the meanings of their songs ambiguous, and probably played into the hoax as it unravelled the minds of acid tripping college radio DJs.

Ahem.

For writers, it would seem that woven-in symbolism is optional because it might happen anyway. Disregard the question of intentionality entirely because, successful symbolism and underlying conceptual themes ask the reader questions, instead of attempting to define anything concrete.

That doesn’t mean you should stop trying to massage meaning into your own work. That means that you first have to keep it open.

Riffing of Auster’s terminology, I’ve noticed that there are resonating frequencies in my own work. In the first draft, it’s my job to create opportunities for these moments, these scenes, details, dialogue to resonate. Just like Auster’s example, I’m writing about circumstances that appear to have profundity, even if I can’t quite place what’s so profound. It might not be the author’s job to place it, either.

Going back over them in the second draft, it’s my job to see which frequencies work together and tweak them so that they harmonize, and cut everything that’s singing out of key. The idea is to normalize a certain sense of complex language that it’s barely noticeable– casual readers can enjoy themselves, and thoughtful readers can dig in to some juicy concepts.

But when in doubt, it’s best to stick to basic storytelling first. Don’t carry the burden of making the cleverest, densest and heavily layered piece of fiction in the world. It’s been done and it sucks.

It’s also helpful to remember that a cigar can just be a cigar.

(Bonus round: Did I include the Kanji symbol as the header because it has some sort of significance or because I thought it looked like a haughty bird person holding a basket?)