Books that vividly describe a city or town?
May 7, 2010 7:00 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for fiction that vividly describes the physical and social atmosphere of a city or town, the way Dickens captures Coketown in Hard Times.

I am not merely interested in novels that are specifically about the timeline of a certain city (e.g., Edward Rutherfurd's New York: The Novel), but rather any story in which that city or town plays a central role and is explored from many angles. The livelier the descriptions, the better.

An example of what I have in mind is this paragraph, from Charles Dickens' Hard Times, in which the author first illustrates the main setting of Coketown:
It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood, it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness. It contained several large streets all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and to-morrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next.
This short paragraph immediately sketches out all the things we need to know about Coketown: smog and industrial runoff, endless and terrible labor for its people, and lack of humanity or imagination or hope. The novel goes on to develop these images in detail.

This is related to a writing project of my own. Bonus points for 19th-century novels, but anything you can think of will help. Thank you!
posted by cirripede to Writing & Language (35 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Tom Wolfe - The Bonfire of the Vanities (1980s NYC)
posted by box at 7:09 PM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Miéville's Perdido Street Station sounds like what you're looking for.
posted by reptile at 7:10 PM on May 7, 2010 [6 favorites]

Mark Halprin Winter's Tale
posted by rags at 7:13 PM on May 7, 2010

Best answer: Frank McCourt does this very well. An example, describing Limerick, Ireland, from Angela's Ashes:

Out in the Atlantic Ocean great sheets of rain gathered to drift slowly up the River Shannon and settle forever in Limerick. The rain dampened the city from the Feast of the Circumcision to New Year's Eve. It created a cacophony of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks. It turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges. It provoked cures galore; to ease the catarrh you boiled onions in milk blackened with pepper; for the congested passages you made a paste of boiled flour and nettles, wrapped it in a rag, and slapped it, sizzling, on the chest.

From October to April the walls of Limerick glistened with the damp. Clothes never dried: tweed and woolen coats housed living things, sometimes sprouted mysterious vegetations. In pubs, steam rose from damp bodies and garments to be inhaled with cigarette and pipe smoke laced with the stale fumes of spilled stout and whiskey and tinged with the odor of piss wafting in from the outdoor jakes where many a man puked up his week's wages.

The rain drove us into the church — our refuge, our strength, our only dry place. At Mass, Benediction, novenas, we huddled in great damp clumps, dozing through priest drone, while steam rose again from our clothes to mingle with the sweetness of incense, flowers and candles.

Limerick gained a reputation for piety, but we knew it was only the rain.

posted by amyms at 7:22 PM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson.
posted by questionsandanchors at 7:26 PM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest might be up your alley.
posted by griphus at 7:27 PM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Raymond Chandler, Charles Bukowski, James Ellroy and Walter Mosley, among many others, are renowned for their literary depictions of Los Angeles.

(More generally, this vividly-describes-a-city thing is often present in great crime fiction. In fact, I sometimes daydream of posting an AskMe question on the topic.)
posted by box at 7:36 PM on May 7, 2010

Much of 2666 is like this. Bolano describes everything to excruciating detail. So much so it got very tedious and I never finished it.
posted by sanka at 7:38 PM on May 7, 2010

Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle." Instead of soot and iron in merry ol' England, you'll get dead cattle, disease, and the corruption of Chicago at the turn of the 20th century.
posted by webhund at 7:49 PM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I always though Cormac McCarthy's Suttree was a pretty good portrait of Knoxville, Tennessee in the 1950s.

Since you've asked for nineteenth-century novels, I can recommend Stendhal's two great books, The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma. The former is mostly in a rural setting (like most fiction in the nineteenth century) but is set in Paris during the second half; the latter is a very good portrait of several cities in nineteenth-century Italy, particularly Milan and Florence.
posted by koeselitz at 7:52 PM on May 7, 2010

Best answer: Andrei Bely's Petersburg is sometimes compared to Joyce's Ulysses. Another big modernist city novel: Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. (If you're interested in literary criticism, Peter Barta's Bely, Joyce, and Döblin: Peripatetics in the City Novel explores all three.)
posted by 2or3things at 7:56 PM on May 7, 2010

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino is a book composed entirely of such descriptions. More or less. Perhaps a little less concrete. It's a good source of inspiration for thinking about how to design cities for fiction, though. Of course, none of the cities are explored in much depth (each is a few pages) so perhaps this is not what you're after.
posted by iktomi at 7:58 PM on May 7, 2010

Best answer: Google 'setting as character', which I think is what you mean (sorry linking is hard as I'm on my phone), for some interesting discussions on how to do this in your own work.
posted by goo at 8:07 PM on May 7, 2010

Seconding Ulysses. Joyce once said that he wrote ulysses with the hope that Dublin could be totally reconstructed from the novel.

Boston and Infinite Jest.

New Orleans and A Confederacy of Dunces.

Moab and Desert Solitaire.
posted by Lutoslawski at 8:18 PM on May 7, 2010

Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude.
posted by equalpants at 8:30 PM on May 7, 2010

Jack Finney, Time and Again, paints an incredible portrait of NYC in 1880. It's often recommended on MeFi and is really an excellent book.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:32 PM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Tales of the City was the required-reading introduction to San Francisco in my lab when I first moved here. (I enjoyed the earlier books in the series more than the later ones.)

A Confederacy of Dunces seemed like a pretty vivid (albeit comically exaggerated) depiction of New Orleans, but what do I know? I'm a Yankee. Also, the descriptions were more about the eccentric characters who lived there than about the buildings.

I am also thinking that you may wish to cast an eye at the scribe Damon Runyon, as said scribe writes of capers and swells in the juice joints of New York under Prohibition.
posted by Quietgal at 8:39 PM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett.
posted by aquafortis at 9:05 PM on May 7, 2010

Best answer: I think that Ian Rankin's "Rebus" novels give one a great sense of Edinburgh.

Oooh! Just thought of another one - "North and South" by Elizabeth Gaskell (a contemporary of Dickens'), which was published in 1855. The town of Milton is modelled after Manchester, and is definitely a character in its own right:

...Nearer to the town, the air had a faint taste and smell of smoke; perhaps, after all, more a loss of the fragrance of grass and herbage than any positive taste or smell. Quick they were whirled over long, straight, hopeless streets of regularly-built houses, all small and of brick. Here and there a great oblong many-windowed factory stood up, like a hen among her chickens, puffing out black 'unparliamentary' smoke, and sufficiently accounting for the cloud which Margaret had taken to foretell rain. As they drove through the larger and wider streets, from the station to the hotel, they had to stop constantly; great loaded lurries (sic) blocked up the not over-wide thoroughfares....People thronged the footpaths, most of them well-dressed as regarded the material, but with a slovenly looseness which struck Margaret as different from the shabby, threadbare smartness of a similar class in London (Chapter 7 - "New Scenes and Faces").
posted by purlgurly at 9:07 PM on May 7, 2010

+1 Mieville's Perdido street Station, which is frequently classified as belonging to the "New Weird" genre. One of the hallmarks of the NW genre is gritty and fantastic cities serving as both setting and character.
posted by reverend cuttle at 9:10 PM on May 7, 2010

Really anything by Pat Conroy. "Lords of Discipline" and "Beach Music" specifically.
posted by honeybee413 at 9:31 PM on May 7, 2010

Best answer: I wanted to add that Gaskell also did a fantastic job (IMO) establishing social environments as well as physical. Here she contrasts the housekeeper (Dixon)'s experience with servants in the South (Helstone) and now in the North (Milton):

...Dixon's ideas of helpful girls were founded on the recollection of tidy elder scholars at Helstone school, who were only too proud to be allowed to come to the parsonage on a busy day, and treated Mrs Dixon with all the respect, and a good deal more of fright, which they paid to Mr and Mrs Hale...But nothing short of her faithful love for Mrs Hale could have made her endure the rough independent way in which the Milton girls, who made application for the servant's place, replied to her inquiries respecting their qualifications. They even went the length of questioning her back again; having doubts and fears of their own, as to the solvency of a family who lived in a house of thirty pounds a-year, and yet gave themselves airs, and kept two servants, one of them so very high and mighty (Chapter 8 - "Home Sickness").
posted by purlgurly at 9:34 PM on May 7, 2010

Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games does this beautifully for modern Bombay/Mumbai, in a way that is often reminiscent of Dickens.
posted by bookish at 9:59 PM on May 7, 2010

The Thief Lord - Cornelia Funke

It's children's literature, but nonetheless excellent.

From Amazon's Review:
Imagine a Dickens story with a Venetian setting, and you'll have a good sense of Cornelia Funke's prizewinning novel The Thief Lord, first published in Germany in 2000.
posted by kylej at 10:07 PM on May 7, 2010

Morvern Callar simultaneously catches Oban in Western Scotland and the eccentricities of its denizens.
posted by Biru at 1:17 AM on May 8, 2010

Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren

Mervin Peake's Gormenghast trilogy
posted by ursus_comiter at 3:27 AM on May 8, 2010

And to go a bit further afield, Tolkien's treatment of the Shire in the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings is quite detailed and interesting. I'm rereading them now after having moved to England from the United States and I have a hard time not getting lost in thought as I read the social and descriptive bits. That goes double for a lot of the stuff about old ruins in Middle Earth as I've just completed a degree in archaeology here and Tolkien's knowledge of prehistoric and historic England really shines through.
posted by ursus_comiter at 3:31 AM on May 8, 2010

Stephen King describes small town New England pretty well in a lot of his stories. Derry Maine in It, for example, or 'Salem's Lot.
posted by usonian at 7:10 AM on May 8, 2010

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt does it well with Savannah, GA.
posted by TG_Plackenfatz at 8:56 AM on May 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure what order they're meant to be read in (and have not read them myself) but I've heard good things about the Port William series by Wendell Berry.
posted by talkingmuffin at 9:21 AM on May 8, 2010

Maybe Kavalier and Clay for 40s New York?
posted by Artw at 9:45 AM on May 8, 2010

I'm not getting into the whole fantasy or science fiction side (although if I were, it would have to be Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen, Shriek: An Afterward and Finch). Instead, I'll offer you two magnificent non-fantasy works by an author best known for fantasy: Michael Moorcock's Mother London (rather obviously about London) and The Brothel in Rosenstrasse (about a central European city mostly modeled after Prague).
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:04 AM on May 8, 2010

Long Island. Tragic love. Amazing writing. Alice McDermott. That Night.
posted by Paris Elk at 12:22 PM on May 8, 2010

And seconding Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale.
posted by Paris Elk at 12:50 PM on May 8, 2010

A little late to the thread here but a favorite of mine is Valley of Decision by Marcia Davenport. It follows about seventy years of Pittsburgh history and does a great job a capturing the terrain and the feel of the smokey city in the late nineteen and early twentieth century. It had some extra meaning for me since the main characters live about three blocks from where I live.
posted by octothorpe at 6:06 PM on July 5, 2010

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