Because I was born and raised in New Orleans, and cannot ever shake it from my blood, my interest in the place as fictional setting may seem somewhat myopic. But many writers throughout the centuries have attempted to capture the city, for it is unlike any other in this country. It seems more European and/or Caribbean than "American." It even has its distinct, albeit dissonant, harsh accent: what we call "Yat" English. Those movies you see with New Orleanians speaking with southern twang have it all wrong. Nevertheless, many writers employ the city as a kind of microcosmic locus for romantic, exotic, and just plain weird shenanigans.
Katrina, still regarded as the greatest natural disaster in our country's history, changed everything. Nothing like it since the Civil War-ravaged South. The War has, however, faded and is now frozen into myth. New Orleans is NOW, the present, even three years after the hurricane. I strongly believe that no current writer interested in a New Orleans mise-en-scène can ignore Katrina's ravages. That is, all present and future fiction must take the damage and suffering into account. Any fiction that ignores Katrina is false, relying as it does upon a New Orleans that no longer exists, a mere intriguing memory. I dare say that ignoring Katrina's impact verges upon the immoral.
I have used New Orleans as set in my own fiction both before and after Katrina, and I find the changes in tone, import, and significance both massive and alarming. The city has in a sense undergone a "spiritual" transformation verging upon the sacred. The Apocalypse came, and we are permanently shriven. This is nothing new for post-World War II European countries, countries that have experienced wars, pogroms, invasions, partitions, mass exterminations. But Americans had not previously experienced such mayhem aside from the Civil War. (9-11 has similar implications for the country at large, but that's another story altogether.)
Anyone who lived through Katrina or visited the city shortly thereafter knows what I am talking about. On my first post-Katrina visit, as I steered down the exit off I-10 toward my mother's house and instantly noted the catastrophic damage everywhere, I choked up and wept while driving. I mean sobbed. Places I had known all my life and always took for granted
no people or traffic on the streets
an eerie stillness
the green, black and yellow mold thriving like fetid icing on a rotting cake. The effect was not unlike photos I'd seen of Hiroshima after the bomb. And yet New Orleans was ravaged by wind and water, not fire and radiation.
Of course, collective memory determines much of what I say here. As I write, Hurricane Ike is roaring across Galveston and the extent of that damage is still largely unknown. But who remembers the 1900 hurricane that claimed up to 12,000 lives in Galveston? That cataclysm has become no more than a fossilized historical fact for those of us now alive in 2008. Its impact has little bearing upon fiction set in Galveston today. Certainly the same will, in time, be true of Katrina and New Orleans. As the collective memory fades, as the decades pass, as New Orleans either resurrects or gets wiped out completely by the next Category 3, 4 or 5, fiction writers of the distant future might want to relive the period in historicist novels or stories as do many writers today with respect to the Civil War, say, Doctorow's The March or Frazier's Cold Mountain. My point is that RIGHT NOW and for the next decade or so, no fiction writer can ignore Katrina if setting a story in New Orleans. (And we shall soon know if the same is true for Galveston.)
The most potent variables in this account are time and memory. My novel, BREAKNECK (the first chapter of which was published in Glimmer Train, Issue 67), will surely, as time lurches by, seem "dated." Or it might be taken as still another historical account of actual events via the medium of fiction. Truly great fiction of the past—e.g., Joyce's Ulysses, anything by Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, Faulkner, et al. ad infinitum—transcends both time and place, iconizes both into universal presences that resonate with readers when—and wherever. The Odyssey, for example, still appeals to our eternal, universal, collective sensibilities. Its historicity and datedness are irrelevant. (And, by the way, such appeal is precisely the reason literary canons are established. Those who seek wanton dismantlement of the canon have offered nothing substantial to replace it.)
But back to New Orleans. Given coastal erosion and global warming, dire predictions abound. The city will be under water within seventy years warn some authorities. What then? What kind of fiction will emerge from a city that no longer exists? A kind of Atlantis situation? Sci fi? Fantasy? Once again, historical novels? Who knows. All I advocate is that writers drawn to the city pay heed to its recent natural crucifixion. As I write, Aaron Neville's great song "Heart so Heavy" resounds in my mind: How I'm gonna run back home with a heart so heavy?
Reports are now coming in from Galveston, so I'm heading back to the news channels. I will mail off this piece before I know the full story. God bless Galveston and every speck of the country mangled by the indifferent, calamitous fury of Ike. But please, no more footage of a drenched Geraldo buffeted about by gale force winds; no more Anderson Cooper reporting while standing in waist-high bilge; no more milking the story for every commercial cent its worth.