Location plays a central role in my short fiction. Counter to my usually unnamed narrators and ethereal plots, I use place as a concrete foundation—the one solid element of the story for my reader to latch onto. Most often it’s New York, or small-town North Jersey—the one famous, and the other, when stripped of specifics, ubiquitous. But today I’ll focus on New York, as represented in my short story, “The Edge of Happiness,” first published in the F&M Alumni Arts Review and soon to be reprinted in my anthology of millennial fiction Songs of My Selfie.
When looked at simply in terms of plot, “The Edge of Happiness” is about a frustrated artist who asks a street psychic about the strange white “edges” she sees outlining friends and passersby. They are, she learns to her chagrin, the physical manifestation of happiness.
More accurately, however, it’s about being young and disillusioned, and more accurately still, it’s about being young and disillusioned in New York City. I won’t say this story couldn’t take place anywhere else—in any other city in the world—but New York is known as a haven for the young and the creative and those who are lost, looking to be found. It is a home to transplants, and I rely on my reader knowing the mythos of NYC in order to fully understand the narrator’s ambitions—to make it as an artist in the big city—and thus her great anguish: to realize art comes not from place but from within.
Certainly I as a writer have an almost superstitious understanding of place in connection to my ability to create. When I’m feeling uninspired, I’ll think If only I could be there, I could write—whether “there” be Governor’s Island or Fort Tryon Park. And I’ll travel for hours to get to a place, only to discover I’ve tired myself out on the journey or the good spots are taken or some other reason why this ideal location is, in reality, no mecca for art.
I tried to present this idea in “The Edge of Happiness,” with a transplant narrator who came to New York on the understanding that here, above all places, she would be inspired to create. She says, “New York is known for its many faces, its slouching beauties” and then “I haven’t even wanted to draw them.” The psychic suggests a change of place of employ; instead of the dreary antique store where she works, perhaps a more vibrant, energetic setting would inspire her, make her joyful. The role of place in making art, I would argue, is the central theme of the piece.
But these are the intangibles of New York. Of course the story employs the facts of day-to-day life in the city. The ever-rising cost of using the subway becoming prohibitively expensive to underpaid young artists—thus prompting the narrator to walk what savvy readers will know to be roughly 100 blocks north.
As a writer, I appreciate using as settings locations I know intimately. Having worked for several years a few blocks from where “The Edge of Happiness” takes place, I could easily pull from memory the small details of setting that make a story authentic. The street names, the people outside Penn Station, the shadow of Madison Square Garden, looming high above.
And where else can you get a tarot reading for five dollars, from street psychics who are always hunting for new business through pamphlets at street corners, or simply knocking as you pass their storefronts? Then, with New York’s tall, narrow buildings crammed together—every inch of space used to its fullest—these five-dollar psychics are relegated to tiny, cramped cells the size of phone booths. Though unspoken, the claustrophobia of the space and the cheapness of the reading fuel the urgency of the piece. The narrator’s need to find her answers and get out of there before it gets too late counters the psychic’s need to upsell her customer or get another one. And then, both characters share that notorious New York irritability—and cynicism—as each tries to tell the other why she’s wrong.
New York, arguably, is the third protagonist in this piece. Without the city, and the hopes and dreams and assumptions it evokes, “The Edge of Happiness” would just be a story about an artist consulting a psychic. But with New York City at its center, this becomes a piece about so much more.
Constance Renfrow is a New York-based writer and editor. She is the lead editor for Three Rooms Press and a freelance editor and writing coach at constancerenfrow.com. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in such places as Cabildo Quarterly, Denim Skin, Petrichor Machine, and she hosts a monthly open mic series at the Merchant’s House Museum. A lover of nineteenth-century literature, she’s currently completing a three-volume governess novel, her first full-length work. Lastly, she compiled the anthology of millennial fiction, Songs of My Selfie (Three Rooms Press, April 2016), now available for preorder! Follow her on Twitter @MissConstance21 and/or @SongsOfMySelfie.
Enter to win an advanced copy of Songs of My Selfie on Goodreads. Contest ends February 11.
About the “On Place” Series
In honor of my first poetry collection–I Have Conversations with You in My Dreams, in which most of the poems engage with place in some way–I have asked other writers, authors, and poets to compose blog posts about the effects of place on their own work. To enter a contest for a free copy of the book, please leave a comment on any of the blog posts in the series. One winner will be selected at the end of February and one at the end of March. If the winner already has the book, he or she may select a different book from my collection.
For the schedule of blog posts, please see this page.
– See more at: http://www.kellyannjacobson.com/on-place-series/on-place-erik-moe.html#sthash.z1Miv0bf.dpuf