22 April 2014

[pdx] Photos on Sunday: Tilikum and Terrior, Via Ursula K. LeGuin.

If there are discussions about what is the quintessential Portland novel, and, more over, a novel is sine qua non as far as a "Portland literature" is, it would be Ursula K. LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven.

A bit of an introduction if one has not been. The Lathe of Heaven is set in a fictionalized Portland and Oregon of the year 2002 (it now qualifies as an alternative history). It concerns George Orr, a man whose dreams can literally alter reality, and Dr. William Haber, a sleep and dream researcher … an onierologist … who discovers the quality of this power and tries to use it to recreate the world in a better version … sans war, sans hunger. Each dream is incarnated in unpredictable ways, causing eventual chaos, a kaleidoscope world and, unwittingly, revealing Dr. Haber as a megalomaniac, if a tender, loving one.

The novel got its hooks into me (and has permanently done so … laying next to this computer at this time is a paperback copy I got at Powell's on Sunday evening for $2.95, making this possibly the most Portland thing I could physically accomplish) with its fictionalized vision of Portland of the year 2002. Writing in the late 60s and early 70s as she did, I presumably assume that at least a part of her found it somewhat inevitable that Portland might expand, toxically, and ruin its own character.

The Portland at the beginning of Lathe massed 3,000,000 … as many people as are in the whole of Oregon today, less about 800,000 … and the New Cities of the then not-so-dry Oregon Outback had populations of approaching 7 million each. 

The Portland portrayed in the novel had a few geographical inconsistencies, but none worth noticing overmuch. Something about the narrative … the easy way she wrote of local geography, the familiar timbre to the words … made it plain to me that she knew this area intimately. She had a sense-of-place. The writing had a particular terrior… it simply couldn't have been written by anyone else, or anywhere else.

It was Oregon, fictionalized by an Oregonian, who loved Oregon. It felt good to read, and still does, to this day. I read Lathe to wallow in the descriptions of Portland, the free and casual way words like Willamette, Linnton, Zigzag and Rhodoendron are used. And if a few details are off … mentioning a place as 209 SW Burnside St … then the tender loving care with the place that is otherwise taken more than makes up for that.

Of course, the story is about a man whose dreams change the nature of reality. There's probably a little editing going on there as well.

Wandering up and down the Eastbank Esplanade, near OMSI, to get a good look at the Tilikum Crossing, the Bridge of the People. Not for the first time, looking along the river where, at many angles, you can at once take in automobile bridges and an aerial tram but also, now a bridge for trains, bikes and people only, did a feeling grasp me … and then I had it.

Passages from The Lathe of Heaven, meditations on getting around in the overpopulated, overpolluted, overmoist Portland of the fictional year 2002 invaded my consciousness and did not let go. I had to get a copy of the book to read again, you see. I had no choice.

We join George Orr as he travels from Vancouver to Portland on a subway (can you imagine?):
To go under a river: there's a strange thing to do, a really weird idea.

To cross a river, ford it, wade it, swim it, use boat, ferry, bridge, airplane, to go upriver, to go downriver in the ceaseless renewal and beginning of current: all that makes sense. But in going under a river, something is involved which is, in the central meaning of the word, perverse. There are roads in the mind and outside it the mere elaborateness of which shows plainly that, to have got into this, a wrong turning must have been taken way back.
 There were nine train and truck tunnels under the Willamette, sixteen bridges across it, and concrete banks along it for twenty-seven miles. Flood control on both it and its great confluent the Columbia, a few miles downstream from central Portland, was so highly developed that neither river could rise more than five inches even after the most prolonged torrential rains. 
 The Willamette was a useful element of the environment, like a very large, docile draft animal harnessed with straps, chains, shafts, saddles, bits, girths, hobbles. If it hadn't been useful, of course, it would have been concreted over, like the hundreds of little creeks and streams that ran in darkness down from the hills of the city under the streets and buildings.
 But without it, Portland wouldn't have been a port; the ships, the long strings of barges, the big rafts of lumber still came up and down it. So the trucks and the trains and the few private cars had to go over the river or under it. 
 Above the heads of those now riding the GPRT train in the Broadway Tunnel were tons of rock and gravel, tons of water running, the piles of wharves and the keels of ocean-going ships, the huge concrete supports of elevated freeway bridges and approaches, a convoy of steamer trunks laden with frozen battery-produced chickens, one jet plane at 34,000 feet, the stars at 4.3+ light years.

Later, very near the end of the book, Orr travels across a Portland that was, in some ways, a crazy quilt of all the possible Portlands that he had, at one time, dreamed:
Orr returned to downtown Portland by boat. Transportation was still rather confused; pieces, remnants, and commencements of about six different public transportation systems cluttered up the city. Reed College had a subway station, but no subway; the funicular to Washington Park ended at the entrance to a tunnel which went halfway under the Willamette and then stopped. Meanwhile, enterprising fellow had refitted a couple of boasts that used to run tours up and down the Willamette and Columbia, and was using them as ferries on regular runs between Linnton, Vancouver, Portland, and Oregon City. It made a pleasant trip.

Weaving UKL's words (with due apologies) amongst the pictures creates a trip of its own. SF doesn't predict, it guesses and wonders; we should not be surprised that TriMet didn't take on LeGuin as a long-range planning consultant (though I figure it would be better off if it had). Still, contrasting the dystopian future of Portland in prose with the significantly cheerier (if still flawed) present, it's hard not to see the resonance. They regard each other as brothers by different mothers. They, oddly, mesh … the one being the flip side of the other.

In an ineffable way, the terrior that made Lathe possible wells up, unseen. The book beatifies and explores its setting without wallowing in it, by dwelling on what is, and the voice you hear whispering the details is the real-world surroundings … at least, those in the year it was written.

The quintessential Portland novel. There can be none other. 

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