09 February 2004

"The Mappist" by Barry Lopez

I had the privilege of being in Barry Lopez's workshop at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference a few years ago. At Bread Loaf, the faculty all get to do readings, and Lopez read his story "The Mappist", from what was then a forthcoming collection of stories, Light Action in the Caribbean. It was an overwhelming experience for many of us in the audience -- Lopez is a magnificent reader (as you can hear on the audio cassette of the book, or the even more wonderful tape of his collection of essays About This Life), and the story itself is haunting, subtle, and written in a prose which I have no more precise adjective for than perfect.

Light Action in the Caribbean is an uneven collection, with a handful of stunningly beautiful stories, a couple of duds, and a few mediocre tales. Many of the stories owe a lot to Latin American Magical Realism, though there are also contemporary horror stories such as the title story, a painful attempt at science fiction ("In the Garden of the Lords of War"), and a story told primarily through endnotes ("Ruben Mendoza Vega...").

"The Mappist" remains my favorite, and one of my favorite stories written by anyone at any time. My fondness for the story may go back to that first, magical reading at Bread Loaf. But I have passed the story on to enough people who know nothing of Lopez to know that it strikes diverse readers as a supple, affecting tale.

The story is in some ways an homage to Borges, as it tells of a narrator's obsession with a pseudonymous author of remarkable travel guides and maps, works of such detail and care that they capture the "essence" of whatever city they describe. The narrator eventually tracks down the creator of these works, the reclusive Corlis Benefideo, and visits him, viewing new maps Benefideo has created, maps of remarkable depth and brilliance. Benefideo states his philosophy:
I could show you here the whole coming and going of the Mandan nation, wiped out in eighteen thirty-seven by a smallpox epidemic. I could show you how the arrival of German and Scandinavian farmers changed the composition of the topsoil, and the places where Charles Bodmer painted, and the evolution of red-light districts in Fargo -- all that with pleasure. I've nothing against human passion, human longing. What I oppose is the blind devotion to progress, and the venality of material wealth. If we're going to trade the priceless for the common, I want to know exactly what the terms are.
The story ends with the narrator asking if Benefideo will serve as mentor to his daughter, and then driving off into the darkness. It's a quiet ending, one of many possibilities, with a final paragraph of sentences perfectly balanced against each other, a final image which resonates with as much power as any I have encountered.

The story could have been an attempt to proselytize for Benefideo's values against the values of modern consumerist society, but it is far more nuanced than that. The narrator's own flaws and limits ground us in the complexities and contradictions of the human world, and while Benefideo is presented as a kind of god or wizard, he does not strain credibility because of the story's mythic air, which permits us to believe in such impossible perfection. Benefideo is a beacon indicating the potential humans possess when they are willing to observe the world around them with care and sympathy. We are the accumulation of our details, he seems to be saying, and so we must start with the details if we are to discover our truths. In the face of chaos, why not try to create some beautiful maps?

Lopez is known primarily as a "nature writer", having won the National Book Award for Arctic Dreams. He is one of the best essayists in the U.S., and so his fiction often gets ignored, but the stories in such books as Winter Count and Field Notes prove Lopez to be a master of quiet tales which explore the intersections of the physical world with the world of human culture and society, tales written with a clear prose which seeks to suggest more than it expresses, to evoke images which resonate and situations which leave trails of implication in the reader's mind. This is fiction which owes very little to the realist tradition of Europe and the United States, and very much to folktales and tall tales and myths and legends. The best of Lopez's fiction should be treasured as highly as any published in the last one hundred years.

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