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A sense of place

A story's well-done sense of place is especially satisfying when it's the place where you live.

This weekend I read for the first time Ursula K. Le Guin's 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven: short, packed, often surprising, funnier than I expected, and describing some huge events. Doing so in a Portland I often, usually, recognized; written before I even existed, describing events that will never happen because the novel, famously, is about someone whose dreams change reality.

Changing reality in places like SW 2nd Ave. and Burnside St., the intersection's southwest corner most likely, where Le Guin placed a certain building. The reality at that point in the book is of an Earth so overcrowded, and where cars have fallen so far out of use, that parking garages have been converted into offices: offices with slanted floors, but hey, people adapt.

There's never been a garage there, it's where a small chapel is, but hey, a parking garage was within the realm of possibility when Le Guin wrote this. She moved around pieces of Portland like a sliding puzzle: recognizable (at least for most of the book), but shifted. And not overly, jarringly shifted; simply slightly off. If you know the book but don't know the layout of Portland, I can tell you that her imagined Portlands fit over the real Portland.

You know I like Portland. I've been here on and off most of my life: born here, had family here, visited here at least once a year for most of my youth, and lived in or within a few hours' travel of here since 1992 when I started college in Eugene. I'm now a 15-year-long resident. The Lathe of Heaven was one of many books I've wanted to read, and I'm glad I have; I'm relatively light on my Le Guin experience, and she's one of the best writers the Pacific Northwest has given us. I'm not surprised that she'd treat Portland well and vividly, but I'm glad for the portrayal. And the book, as it should, works just fine without readers knowing this town.

The characters are quickly drawn and vivid: I easily developed a distaste for Dr. Haber, as I think Le Guin meant us to do. And in less than 200 pages, she deftly shifts from one slightly different but matter-of-factly-presented reality to another different, still-matter-of-fact reality. And for all but the three main characters (Haber, Orr, and Lalache), these realities just are, the way our reality is to us. This could easily have been confusingly under-described, or stultifyingly over-described. Hell of a balancing act. And often poetic in its language, as Le Guin can be.

I got The Lathe of Heaven from the library: I own used copies of Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. I tried Left Hand once, in the 1990s, but stopped about halfway through; I probably wasn't ready for it yet. I've only gotten a few pages into The Dispossessed, but another try is possible. I hope I'll be ready when I try again.

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