Illinois writers provide a window into our identity
Review essay by Thomas Simpson

THE SHORT HISTORY OF A PRINCE Jane Hamilton, 1998. Doubleday Anchor

Brigit Pegeen Kelly, 1995 . Brockport

Richard Powers, 1996 and 1998
Harper PerenniallFarrar Straus Giroux

David Foster Wallace, 1997 and 1999 Little Brown & Co.

Curtis White, 1988 and 1998 Sun & Moon PresslDalkey Archive Press

What is Illinois anyway? What is an Illinoisan? In an era when corporate logos are more familiar than state flags, can statehood still exercise pull, still contribute to a shared sense of who we are? Once we get past Abe Lincoln and the image of the prairie, is there anything particular to define Illinois, to distinguish it from any other place?

These questions lurk behind our controversies about development. What is lost, after all, when sprawl engulfs rural Illinois? If there is no unique Illinois spirit, then what does it matter if our small towns are replaced by superstores identical to those in California and Pennsylvania?

Politicians and developers are willing to supply easy answers to these questions. They evoke vague bygone eras, even as they embrace the most immediate source of profit. Pseudo- rustic, artificial names for subdivisions and malls leave us ignorant of the real past and cynical about tradition.

Instead, for deeper reflection on local identity, we turn to our writers, our storytellers and poets. We hear about Southern novelists, New

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England poets, and Southwestern artists, all of whom help define their regions for inhabitants and strangers. But what about Illinois writers? We have a grand tradition of Chicago writers certainly, but what about the rest of us?

In fact, though none of them would describe themselves primarily as "Illinois writers," this state now boasts some of the most challenging and accomplished writers at work in the United States today. They explore in different ways the complex matter of where we're from, what a sense of home consists of and what Illinoisans might mean by the apparently simple expression, "we."

To name only a few, there are Brigit Pegeen Kelly, a poet at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Richard Powers, a native Illinois novelist also at the University of Illinois; Curtis White, a novelist, short story writer and essayist at Illinois State University in Normal; David Foster Wallace, who also writes in varied genres and teaches at Illinois State; and Jane Hamilton, a novelist and Illinois native who now lives in Wisconsin.

A place is made of geography, history and people. What makes one place different from any other is how these factors vary and interact. In Illinois, the first fact is the land, and the land is flat: "a vast, flat, empty, infinitely pliable, blank slate of land cordoned off with wire."

Thus Richard Powers describes the land around DeKalb in Prisoner's Dilemma. Other writers use similar terms, inflecting their stark words with the feelings such flatness evokes. "The landscape is flat/But still the melancholy grows steeper," writes poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly in The Column of Mercury Recording the Temperature of Night.

"Vacant" land, "pragmatic" land, "unmitigated" land, but land with a steep melancholy to it; these are truths of Illinois landscape, but not the kind you'll hear from a tourist office. Our writers describe how landscape shapes our character in ways we never notice. "Rural Mid- westerners live marooned in a space whose emptiness starts to become both physical and spiritual," argues David Foster Wallace in an essay about growing up in rural Champaign.

Photograph by Chas. J. Dees at Chain 0'Lakes State Park,  courtesy of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Photograph by Chas. J. Dees at Chain 0'Lakes State Park,
courtesy of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Flat and empty, melancholy and desolate but suddenly lush and fragrant, the "blessed black fields" and the eternal winds bring marvelous possibility. The blank slate is always "ready to be made over," fertile not only agriculturally, but conducive to speculation as well.

Illinois, however, is not a romantic state, if romantic means sentimental about Nature. "The land's basically a factory," says Wallace, denying the possibility of getting mushy about Nature in a state where it is a labor-intensive industry, where life depends on the merciless, regular harvesting of living things.

But the monotonous flatness forces a blunt familiarity with invisible essences of nature. The absoluteness of the geography offers our writers a near experience of unseen natural laws. Powers remarks on Illinois' "Euclidean perfection," and Wallace speaks of how advanced math came naturally to him after growing up in a landscape composed of the lines and quadrants that are mere abstract concepts to people who live among hills and rolling curves.

In his short story collection, Metaphysics in the Midwest, Curtis White takes this idea still further in a comic key. "Carthage, Illinois, just north of Mark Twain's Hannibal," he tells us in the short story The Phantom Limb, "has become the place where what is present and what is not is most gravely questioned." He goes on to tell a story of a Carthage boy whose mother comes home convinced that she has lost a limb. Only the town mayor, portrayed as a village shaman, can cure the mother's malady. What White may mean is that in a land where you can see from horizon to horizon, where an apple core tossed on the ground can shortly sprout an apple tree and then an orchard, where we

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'What was good,' he fears when visiting his sister in bland suburban Schaumburg, a place with no history, 'what had stood the test of time and had value, was being thrown out and replaced with a perpetual present that was slick and speedy and shallow.'

can justifiably describe certain January skies as "literally leaden," here in Tornado Alley we residents of Illinois may be inclined to a peculiar awareness of ourselves in relation to timeless and uncontrollable forces.

Walter McCloud, the protagonist of Jane Hamilton's 1998 The Short History of a Prince, lives in an almost continuous state of reverie, measuring every daily event against long scales of time. Scarred by disappointment as a youth, as an adult he remains skeptical of the present: "What was good," he fears when visiting his sister in bland suburban Schaumburg, a place with no history, "what had stood the test of time and had value, was being thrown out and replaced with a perpetual present that was slick and speedy and shallow."

David Foster Wallace speaks of playing tennis at dusk until arriving at "a fugue state" beyond time, where Illinois itself becomes "hypnotic, a mental state at once flat and lush, numbing and yet exquisitely felt."

There is the geography of the land, what Hamilton calls "the wild interior of the country," and then there are the domestic geographies, those of town and house, yard and neighborhood. In her poem Garden of Flesh, Garden of Stone, Kelly describes a central Illinois garden at night, from the point of view of the statue of a little boy in its center: "He likes the charred smell and wet dirt and mist/ that slides across the blackened branches/ in strands as slow and milky as the horned snails/ that come out at dusk and drag their silver trails/ down the walk."

Like the larger landscape, the elements are all simple and stark but pulsing with mystery and foreboding, the way an apparently placid spring sky can summon a tornado. In Richard Powers' most recent novel, Gain, another innocent garden turns out to be the source of the carcinogenic fertilizer that dooms the story's hero. But this is not to suggest that every haven conceals a threat. On the contrary, the Oak Ridge of Hamilton's Short History of a Prince (which clearly stands for the author's native Oak Park) is the kind of warm, authentic home town woven deep into our collective history. Sprawling houses with wraparound porches offer bedroom-roof escapes to teenagers, alleys make boundaries for warring teams of children, and nosey neighbor ladies patrol the street, peering from behind parted curtains. Who wouldn't grow up a dreamer in such a place?

That up-the-drainpipe entrance to a boy's bedroom becomes a site for metaphysical exchange in the title story in Curtis White's 1988 collection, Metaphysics in the Midwest. Bill Feeling, a bibulous Kankakee College Continuing Education instructor, brings his most adventurous female student in through the window for a midnight meeting with his spiritual guide, a 10-year-old named Stevie. They sit cross-legged on Stevie's bed, commune about fantasy baseball (that most metaphysical of sports), and the game student, Melissa, shows Stevie her breasts. Thus, a banal situation suddenly transforms into a strange flight of fancy with threatening moral, ethical aspects of which the professor himself seems blissfully oblivious. A story that begins with the most unpromising of settings spirals into a cosmic farce laced with zen-like comedy. Professor Feeling ends up behind bars, but his vision grows ever more spiritually limitless. He tells his last remaining student, "I told you, Laura, the Event is perfect and universal no matter how it turns out."

White makes us laugh at his deluded characters, but he also deftly suggests how plain Midwestern geometries give rise to the most cosmic of speculations.

In his new story collection, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, David Foster Wallace gives us a son's description of his father's 30-year career as a men's room attendant in an exclusive hotel in Peoria Heights. Mixing empathy with detail microscopic to the point of cruelty, the son envisions his father's total abnegation as both humiliating and saintly. The vividly rendered restroom becomes a world unto itself as well as a metaphor for all the banal horrors parents undergo to provide for their children.

Other Illinois interiors equally shape the people who live in them. Hamilton's Short History and Powers' Gain and Prisoner's Dilemma are largely structured around holidays passed in family homes. "It was as if the buildings themselves determined the owners," writes Hamilton.

An old kapok mattress on the porch becomes a wrenching symbol of a father's worsening sickness in Prisoner's Dilemma, while in Hamilton's Short History the cleaning of silver in the summer house (which, set on a lake in Wisconsin, plays the Earthly Paradise to the cluttered, normal life of Illinois) becomes a unifying rite for an extended family. A summer supper requires, "the lime Jell-0 in the doughnut molds, the orange Jell-0 in the fish molds, the devilled eggs, a ham, and a kettle of baked beans," each of these elements as crucial in their way as the Host is to a Catholic Mass.

Hamilton shows her skill with that single repeated "the," that tells us how each part of the meal's preparation, down to the proper Jell-0 always in the proper mold, anchors family identity.

Family rites resist time and change, and thus become especially crucial when families are threatened. In both of Powers' novels, the impending death of a family member gives

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special poignancy to every action around the family table, to every variation on traditional practice. Curtis White's story about the mother with the imaginary missing arm ends happily only after the rest of the family engages in a ritual enactment of parricide and incest, shocking the mother back into true Midwestern normalcy, arms akimbo, booming, "NOW JUST WHAT IN THE HELL DO YOU KIDS THINK YOU'RE DOING?"

As usually happens when mom gets mad, order is magically restored.

Rituals are of course universal, but Illinois writers explore their particular Midwestern forms. David Foster Wallace describes the Illinois State Fair, proposing a theory of the Mid- western Spectacle. East-coasters, he argues, use their free time to get away, "from crowds, noise, heat, dirt, the neural wear of too many stimuli." By contrast, the rural Illinois vacation is a "flight toward," an escape from vacancy and open space toward the sweating, smelly human miasma of the State Fair. "The real Spectacle that draws us here is Us. The proud displays... are less important than the greater-than-sum We that trudge elbow to elbow, pushing strollers and engaging in sensuous trade, expending months of stored- up attention."

Kelly, in a poem titled Divining the Field, evokes, "Our endless lust for spectacle to rouse/ The stupored sight."

Our very smallness in the land- scape and our inability to alter the seasons underlays our need to crush together in communal display. "Hence," Wallace theorizes, "the sacredness out here of Spectacle, Public Event, High School football, church social. Little League, parades, Bingo, market day, State Fair."

"In short," writes Curtis White of the social efforts of Illinoisans, "they furnish the void."

The characters in Hamilton's and Powers' more realistic novels seem to hold back until a family event actuates them (to borrow a word from Wallace), when the members can finally really see each other.

But rituals can also allow their participants to avoid confrontation. Repeating family traditions can become a sneaky way to never face what needs to be faced. The Hobson family in Prisoner's Dilemma goes on for decades sharing private jokes, playing sophisticated quiz games and showing off their verbal flair, but never confronting the deterioration of the father's health. The house knows silence only in the moments after the mother says, "Your father is not well."

In the Midwest, not talking about what's painful to confront can be rationalized as an ethical choice, a signal of firm character. When asked to admit to a mean-spirited act toward her sisters, Walter's mother responds by claiming the moral high road: "There are plenty of mysteries, aren't there? Some are best left unsolved ... I think the craze to unburden ourselves of our feelings, all of them, is a mistake."

Wallace takes this practice of dignified self-concealment to its exponential extreme in his story of the restroom-attendant father who entirely disappears into his professional impassivity. As the son tells it, "The face he wore in the men's room. He couldn't take it off. His skull conformed to fit it. This expression or rather lack of expression ... Alert but absent... As if forever conserving himself for some ordeal to come."

Richard Powers interprets this evasion as springing from a powerless hope, "the hope that everything would still come clean if you only sit still, understate everything, and make yourself as small a target as possible."

It's unconvincing anymore to insist that our identity is strongly linked to our state of origin or habitation. By now we see ourselves, to turn again to Wallace, as "products of more than just one region, heritage, and theory, and citizens of a culture that says its most important stuff about itself via mass media."

Even those of us in smaller towns tend to have more daily contact with whirling electrons, via television or the computer, than with the land. Curtis White situates his recent novel, Memories of My Father Watching Television, in a family living room in the late '50s and early '60s, where a father watches television, oblivious to his children. So starved is the son for contact that he confuses his longing for his dad with the characters and plots in his father's programs. He and his father thus become characters in hallucinogenic versions of quiz shows. Bonanza and Combat. In Gain, Powers invents the history of an immense multinational corporation, Clare Inc., headquartered in fictional Lacewood, Illinois, and shows how the presence of Clare overwhelms any other identity for the town's residents. The Clare logo is as familiar as Coke worldwide, but how many Lacewood kids can identify the Illinois state flag?

But does the electronic atomization of experience replace our roots in land and town, in neighborhood and family, or does it rather just make those ineradicable roots harder to see and feel? Stories and poems surprise and delight us even as they confront hard truths and ask hard questions. In Illinois, we're lucky to have writers who entertain us so brilliantly with tales and songs that bring light to our collective dilemmas. 

Thomas Simpson is a senior lecturer in Italian at Northwestern University who occasionally reviews books for the Chicago Tribune.

Photograph by Chas. J. Dees.
courtesy of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

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