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One of my favorite activities when I’m strolling around the sidewalks of an unfamiliar city—or even my own, honestly—is to look into the lamplit windows of the houses and apartment buildings and observe the people and furnishings inside, speculating on what the inhabitants’ lives are like.
Are they content or are they dissatisfied? Do they like their domicile or want to move away? Are they lonely and longing for a spouse or a family, or do they fantasize about a solitude that seems unattainable? Have they have been able, so far, to achieve the life of their dreams, or is their existence tending more toward the nightmarish?
Obviously, in the cliched language of jacket copy, one of the goals of a novelist is to create “a world unto itself.” Less obviously, sometimes, one of the best ways to do that is not to aim for the goal of a world, per se, but rather of a single building—to use a unique edifice to make your book a unique edifice unto itself with its own diligently drafted architectural structure.
1929’s The Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum is one of the first novels I ever read to do this trick, and its original German title, People in the Hotel is kind of its elevator pitch. Set in a luxury hotel in Berlin, its guests offer a microcosm of the era, with a shell-shocked WWI veteran and a fading ballerina, a social climbing secretary and a professional grifter. The perfect construction of the hotel gives Baum’s novel its own perfect construction.
New York Review of Books Classics (long may they wave!) reissued the novel in the summer of 2016. I read it right before I began writing my novel From Dust to Stardust, which also uses a single extraordinary building as a means of organization, moving through the silent film star Colleen Moore’s miniature Fairy Castle—completed in the 1930s and now housed in Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry—making each chapter a room in the doll house.
University of Toronto cognitive psychology professor emeritus Keith Oatley says, “A work of fiction is a piece of consciousness that can pass from one mind to another and that reader can make it their own.” The beauty of his definition is undeniable, but the question that haunts me as an author and a teacher is: on any given project, what is the best container by which that consciousness can be shipped? And what is the blueprint by which the builder can build that container? Sometimes the answer is: an actual blueprint—the specifications and floorplans of the building your characters will primarily inhabit.
1978’s astonishing Life a User’s Manual by Georges Perec is exquisite in that regard. A landmark Oulipo novel, it centers on the inhabitants of a single apartment block in Paris’s XVIIth Arrondissement and is essentially a 680-page version of the game I like to play when I’m out strolling a city’s streets. He cuts away the walls that would keep an outsider from spying on the building’s residents, revealing their fears and dreams room by room.
Another gorgeously weird architectural novel I return to when I’m seeking inspiration for fiction’s transmission of consciousness is Karen Tei Yamashita’s 2010 I Hotel, a set of interconnected novellas centered on a rundown residential hotel in San Francisco’s Manilatown that she uses to explore the people and events of the liberation movements of the 60s and 70s. For her strange and challenging hybrid that blends prose, playwrighting, and visuals, Yamashita uses the architecture of the hotel itself to give a home not only to her characters but also to their ideas and politics and philosophies. According to The Nation, she asked her husband, an actual architect, if he’d teach her how to use the drafting software AutoCAD, and he hesitated. Instead:
she went home and cut out 10 pieces of cardboard, which she scored and folded into cubes: one for each year leading up to the hotel’s destruction. Each cube was inscribed with precise indicators, one per side — a year paired with a world-historical event, a location in the Bay Area paired with a location abroad, a theme, and three characters, composites from her interviews and her imagination.
The outcome is a masterpiece, and her approach is a masterclass on how to execute the task of writing architecturally. If you want your novel to be a kind of monument or memorial, I Hotel seems to ask, then why not build it like one? A unified structure of various chambers, planned with measurements and outlines and the utmost care.
That is why, when I plan a long prose project, I contemplate not just setting as time and place, but a building or dwelling-place. Often in fiction, we attempt to write about someone’s whole life, and whole lives are typically sprawling and formless. By taking a piece of architecture and mapping the life events through its rooms, I am able to give the story a form and a pace.
In real life, architecture reveals a great deal about the human condition, often unwittingly; in fiction, when used wittingly, architecture can reveal that which might otherwise remain unreveal-able.
Kathleen Rooney’s From Dust to Stardust is available now via Lake Union Publishing.