Thursday, April 9, 2009

Minnesota 14.6.93: Exotic Normalcy and Squares Within Squares

Just north of some little town as pretty and poisonous as a Norman Rockwell picture, called Charles City, Iowa. One passes dairy bars named Kum and Go, antique shoppes, rows—never any other planting configuration—of stiff, spiky peonies.

Growl, grumble. The Midwest fascinates with its straight lines and squares, and its exotic normalcy lived within those squares. Land laid off and sold by grid in the period when sections were offered for sale; the whole state of Iowa is practically a square, with little square counties all over the large papa square.

Squares within squares. Would anyone dare plant those omnipresent, drab and gloomy evergreens that surround upper Midwest houses in funereal rows, in anything but a straight line? Or peonies in a semicircle?

The people who live in this square world have so little curiosity about the Other. We ate at a cafĂ© in Moscow, Iowa: would you care for coffee (!) with lunch? Homemade pie? Steve says he felt unscrutinized. I, too, but I think it’s because the squared existence and wintry climate make people so intensely private that they simply lack curiosity, imagination, about the Other. Not just the exotic traveling-through Other, but one’s family members and neighbors.

I suppose at some level I resent people’s luxury to retain such “normalcy” in a culture of rapid change, where the Other intrudes everywhere. I know, of course, people here now have t.v. They travel. Their children go off to college, then to live in exotic places like Belmont, NC, in exotic arrangements like gay marriages.

But, still, all’s so repressively neat, ordered, same. And yet full of that dark brooding insanity that eats at America’s heart, inside the black-blood crevices of it. All Jane Smiley did in A Thousand Acres is take snapshots of what’s around her. That's the genius of her work: snapshots of exotic normalcy. If people want to understand the real America, the place where we live and move and have our being, let them come to the Midwest.

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