Jedediah Berry is the author of The Manual of Detection, which was so wonderfully drenched in a rain-soaked atmosphere that I asked him to host a discussion on this elusive subject. How do you give an atmosphere to a novel? How do you tackle something so ethereal? Jedediah looks to a couple masters of fiction before offering his own excerpt. He is also the editor for Small Beer Press, so he is able to speak as both editor and writer.
Once a word sees regular use in both reviews of fiction and reviews of restaurants, it ought to be approached with a degree of caution. What exactly do we mean by atmosphere? It has something to do with the setting, doesn’t it? It’s hiding in the details, surely, just waiting to be summoned up by the right arrangement of objects, colors, gestures.
But we have to make sure not to confuse atmosphere with decor. The objects in the room, whether they serve to orient us in time and place or to give us a sense of the characters inhabiting a story, do not necessarily create atmosphere, which is invisible or nearly so. Atmosphere lacks substance, but you can always almost feel it. It gets into everything, the characters breathe it, the world is made of it. So atmosphere isn’t the setting itself, nor is it set dressing. Rather, it inhabits and haunts the scene.
The effects that generate atmosphere are perhaps more easy to identify in film than they are in fiction. Lighting is used to draw the eye to certain details—or to cloak them in shadow. Countless filters and optical tricks can suffuse the frame with mood. And music, of course, can accomplish even more than imagery. I can’t count the number of times I’ve wished that my readers would hear a particular song while reading my work.
But as lowly writers of fiction, all we have are words—and words will be enough. Consider this passage from The Big Sleep. Here, Philip Marlowe enters a greenhouse to meet with his client, General Sternwood.
- The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom. The glass walls and roof were heavily misted and big drops of moisture splashed down on the plants. The light had an unreal greenish color, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket….
- The General half-closed his eyes. “They are nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men. And their perfume is the rotten sweetness of a prostitute.”
- I stared at him with my mouth open. The soft wet heat was like a pall around us. The old man nodded, as if his neck was afraid of the weight of his head. Then the butler came pushing back through the jungle with a teawagon, mixed me a brandy and soda, swathed the copper ice bucket with a damp napkin, and went away softly among the orchids. A door opened and shut behind the jungle.
- I sipped the drink. The old man licked his lips watching me, over and over again, drawing one lip slowly across the other with a funereal absorption, like an undertaker dry-washing his hands.
Raymond Chandler doesn’t miss any opportunities to lend this scene an air of oppression and menace. The quality of the light, the carefully chosen metaphors, the repeated evocation of heat and humidity: these details are here to do a specific kind of work, because the very substance of the book lives in them. Death, corruption, deceit, beauty, decay: they’re all present in this greenhouse, right in the opening pages of a novel that will explore those themes in depth.
Which is key, maybe, to how atmosphere works in fiction. If a detail doesn’t impart something about the driving forces of the work, then they’re only details. We can see this same effect, in concise form, in the opening sentence of William Gibson’s Neuromancer:
- The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
Therein lies the difference between the fiction writer and the restauranteur. You can feel that charge in the air, that sense of building dread. And no wonder the word “atmospheric” is used so often to describe hardboiled and noir fiction. In those genres of writing, atmosphere is vital to the whole enterprise, and I can’t help but wonder if the word has become synonymous with the mood particular to the best works of that kind.
I’ve been asked to pick a passage from my own novel, The Manual of Detection, which exhibits some of these qualities. So, foolish though it seems to try to follow Chandler and Gibson (but then, what choice do I have?), I’ll close with this section, in which my file clerk turned amateur sleuth, Charles Unwin, visits the Municipal Museum of his city. He’s in search of Travis Sivart, a legendary detective who’s gone missing. It’s here that Unwin crosses the line between the safety of his everyday world and into the more mysterious and dangerous world that Sivart has long inhabited. That shift, I hope, is evident in the mood of the thing.
- Unwin pedaled north along the dripping, shadowed expanse of City Park. There were fewer cars on the street now, but twice he had to ride up onto the sidewalk to pass horse-drawn carriages, and a peanut vendor swore at him as he swerved too close to his umbrella-topped stand. By the time Unwin arrived at the Municipal Museum, his socks were completely soaked again. He hopped off his bicycle and chained it to a lamppost, stepping away just in time to avoid the spray of filthy water raised by the tires of a passing bus.
- The fountains to either side of the museum entrance were shut off, but rainwater had overflowed the reservoirs and was pouring across the sidewalk to the gutter. The place had a cursed and weary look about it—built, Unwin imagined, not to welcome visitors, but to keep secrets hidden from them. He fought the urge to turn around and go home. With every step he took, the report he would have to write explaining his actions grew in size. But if he were ever going to get his old job back, he would have to find Sivart, and this was where Sivart had gone.
- Unwin angled his umbrella against a fierce damp wind, climbed the broad steps, and passed alone through the revolving doors of the museum.
- Light from the windowed dome of the Great Hall shone dimly over the information booth, the ticket tables, the broad-leafed potted plants flanking each gallery entrance. He followed the sound of clinking flatware to the museum café.
- Three men were hunched over the lunch counter, eating in silence. All but one of the dozen or so tables in the room were unoccupied. Near the back of the room, a man with a pointed blond beard was working on a portable typewriter. He typed quickly, humming to himself whenever he had to stop and think.
- Unwin went to the counter and ordered a turkey and cheese on rye, his Wednesday sandwich. The three men remained intent on their lunches, eating their soup with care. When Unwin’s food came, he took it to a table near the man with the blond beard. He set his hat upside-down next to his plate and put his briefcase on the floor.
- The man’s stiff beard bobbed while he worked—he was silently mouthing the words as he typed them. Unwin could see the top of the page curl upward, and he glimpsed the phrases eats lunch same time everyday and rarely speaks to workfellows. Before he could read more, the man glanced over his shoulder at him, righted the page, and frowned so that his beard stuck straight out from his face. Then he returned his attention to his typewriter.
- Despite all that Unwin had read of detective work, he had no idea how to proceed with this investigation. Who had Sivart met with, and what had transpired between them? What good did it do to have come here now? The trail might already have gone cold, as Sivart would have put it.
- Unwin opened his briefcase. He had sworn not to read The Manual of Detection, but he knew he would at least have to skim it if he were going to play at being a detective. He told himself he would read only enough to help him along to the first break in the case. That would come soon, he thought, if he only knew how to begin.
- He turned the book over in his hands. The edges of the cloth were worn from use. It’s saved my life more than once, Detective Pith had said to him. But Unwin had never even heard of the book, so he was sure the Agency did not wish for non-employees to learn of its existence. Instead of setting the book on the table, he opened it in his lap.
Please join us in the discussion! For easier reading, please keep comments and excerpts in separate posts, and limit any excerpts to 300 words or so. Jedediah will be joining us in the late afternoon, so let’s accumulate some questions for him.