09 November 2004

Maps of the Imagination by Peter Turchi

At the end of the summer of 2004, I attended the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and one of the many highlights was hearing Peter Turchi deliver a lecture that eventually grew into his new book, Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer. I had never heard of Peter Turchi, but I tried to go to as many of the lectures as I could get to, and his fascinated me. It was witty, erudite, bold, and beguiling.

The book that has resulted is one of the stranger ones I have read recently -- I mean that as a compliment. It's not exactly literary criticism, though it contains paragraphs that could be construed as such. It's not a memoir, though moments of memoir materialize between other elements. It's not a book of literary history, nor is it a how-to guide or a scientific manual or a cookbook. It's like a long conversation late at night with a gregarious and intelligent man who loves to find connections between disparate things. And provides marvelous illustrations (the book is worth owning merely for its physical beauty).

Maps of the Imagination may also be a bit of a revolution, because it is a book by a writer who is himself devoted to writing traditional stories of psychological realism, but who can get excited by John Barth, Italo Calvino, OULIPO, and other writers of what Turchi calls "post-realism".

I have never heard a writer who is a self-described realist admit as strongly as Turchi does that realism is simply one mode among many:
Words can never be a simple reflection of life. Our very limited set of symbols, the letters of our alphabet, are forced to translate the unspeakable data of our senses, our thoughts, and our emotions. This is why it is important for all of us realists, damned by that word "conventional," to remember, always, that we have chosen a particular projection -- one that seems to us to minimize distortion and to speak powerfully. This is our choice. And simply to learn how others have done it, to pick up the graph paper and begin plotting our points, limits us from the start. Realism, like very other artistic endeavor, fails when it becomes an exercise in filling in the blanks. Realism succeeds when the author remembers to question his or her assumptions. ...

The same holds true for surrealists, experimentalists, modernists, postmodernists, and romantics, hopeless or otherwise. All of our approaches are possible projections. "How to choose?" Denis Wood asks. "This is the question, for the answer determines the way the earth will look on the map.... The selection of a map projection is always to choose among competing interests, to take...a point of view."
As you can see from that excerpt, Maps of the Imagination is a book-length exploration of a single metaphor: writers are cartographers. It is copiously illustrated with maps of all sorts, and is a beautiful artifact simply for that. In addition to posing questions about writing, art, and the relationship of creators with their audiences, the book is a good introduction to the history of cartography. It not, though, a book of conclusions; rather, it is a book of contemplations. Early on, Turchi admits that "The structure of each chapter is associative. At times the leap from figure to ground is left to the reader, while at other times the connection is more clearly drawn." This will probably annoy readers seeking a concrete, thesis-driven argument. "That's all very interesting," I'm sure some readers will say, "but what, my dear Mr. Turchi, is the point?!" To which there is an adequate reply in the book itself:
...while some writers may appreciate lists and categories, catalogs of options and examples, others resist the prescriptive, inclined toward analogy rather than explication, exceptions rather than rules. For those of us in the latter group, metaphor is as comfortable as a sweatshirt: sufficiently defined to serve as clothing, but loose enough to allow freedom of movement.
Among the many admirable things about the book is its eclecticism: Turchi discusses the most literary of lit on one page, while on the next page may be an analysis of "Road Runner" animator Chuck Jones ("For all their looniness, Road Runner cartoons are not so far removed from the experimental formalism of the Oulipo.") or the movie Memento ("Just as video games teach their players how to negotiate the landscape and avoid or overcome various obstacles by carefully introducing both the obstacles and their solutions, the makers of Memento teach us how to 'read' the film.") Provocative little insights peep from every page: "...the constraints on the scripts of a network situation comedy are as knotty as a sestina's. The most popular fiction of our day, on screens large and small and in genre novels, is by far the most rigid."

It's not a perfect book, but that's okay. Perfection is boring. I have some quibbles -- ideas I would love to have seen Turchi elaborate, a general desire for footnotes (the references and citations are maddeningly incomplete) and an index. But it's such a lovely book to hold, and a book that contains so much unpretentious wisdom, that I have no desire to fault it. It is what it is -- a map, a metaphor, a collage, a conversation. "We want to see, and we want to see in ways that make sense to us, enlighten us, and delight us." Here, then, is a book that offers something new to see, and does so in a way that I found sensical, enlightening, and delightful.


  1. A lovely and interesting review. I'm reading the book now and have been so intrigued by Turchi's ideas and "conversations," that I googled him and found your blog. I am amazed at how well and in how many ways the metaphor of writer as cartographer holds up.

  2. I'm nearly finished with the book, and it has seriously opened me up to writing in the way I've been wanting it to happen for so long. Nice write-up.

  3. This is a great review. I've been intrigued by this book since seeing the hardcover on a store shelf when it was first published. I've just placed an order online for it and look forward to the adventure of reading it.