Welcome to the Literary Road Trip and my Spotlight On . . . Jen Nadol. I am so happy to welcome Jen, Pennsylvania author, to this edition of the LRT project. If you aren't familiar with her novel The Mark, be sure to see my teaser post from yesterday. My review will be coming up sometime in the next few weeks.
Today Jen talks about how a local landmark can lead us to think about the deeper meaning of what we're reading.
In my hometown, Reading, Pennsylvania, there’s a pagoda—a Japanese temple—on the mountain overlooking downtown: the symbol of the city, so say all the websites. Kind of odd since less than 4 percent of the residents claim Asian roots.
What, exactly, does it symbolize?
The Pagoda was built in 1908 by William Witman as a hotel and restaurant. But, after spending $1.3 million on construction, Mr. Witman was denied a liquor license. Which pretty much killed the hotel/restaurant idea. Three years later, the Pagoda was owned by the city.
Mr. Witman spent years as an elected official, a sort of city councilman. When a scandal forced him out of that position, he ran for mayor. Four times. He never won, but eventually reclaimed the city council job he’d been ousted from years before.
His vision for the Pagoda was that it replicate a castle of the Edo period . . . but the details were actually copied from a Japanese tea garden at Coney Island, New York.
So, what does it all mean? Does the Pagoda symbolize foolishness or perseverance or grandeur or a poor-man’s version of it?
I never really got symbolism in literature. Not in the way my teachers made me think I should. The "A" means this and Pearl means that. Okay, once they pointed it out, maybe I could see it. But to me, trying to decode everything in The Scarlet Letter and other classic novels got in the way of the story more than enhanced it.
Then, I took a poetry class in college. And I was kind of blown away when the professor took us line by line through T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Unfolding the deeper meaning transformed the poem. It had been lyrical, but confusing. Now it was a moving and resonant piece. The only problem was that I needed a translator—my professor—to truly enjoy it.
J. Alfred was an eye-opener, but I prefer the straightforward. Which is not to say the simplistic. My novel, The Mark, is direct in tone and character, but the ethical dilemma—If you know today is someone’s last, should you tell them?—is anything but. Just as The Scarlet Letter was thought-provoking, even with the "A" just an adornment and Pearl just a little girl.
As a movement, symbolism had its heyday in the late 1800s. Around the same time William Witman was planning his Pagoda, coincidentally.
Is it still used today? Probably. I’m guessing John Irving’s bears might mean something, but I don’t know what; so, to me, they’re just bears. And that works fine. Maybe they’re just bears to him, too.
One thing I love about books, both as a reader and writer, is how the same words, against the backdrop of our unique views and experiences, speak to each of us a little differently, allowing each person to take away their own version of a story.
I went to a reading a few weeks ago featuring YA authors David Levithan, Libba Bray, and Natalie Standiford. During the Q&A, an audience member asked Libba Bray a question about the meaning of something in Going Bovine.
She said (and I sort of quote): "It means whatever you think it means. If someone read my book—which has no donuts in it—and said they loved what it said about donuts, I’d say 'I’m happy you enjoyed a story about donuts.' "
Great answer. Symbols in literature, classic or modern, mean one thing to me, something different to you, and sometimes, like the Pagoda, there is no deeper meaning at all: the symbol symbolic only because it’s the biggest, reddest thing on the horizon.
At least, that’s how it seems to me.
Thank you, Jen. I think symbolism was one of things that turned me off of literature classes. My eleventh-grade English teacher told us the ants in A Red Badge of Courage symbolized all the many thoughts running through Henry Fleming's mind. Huh? I thought they were just ants.
I haven't see the Pagoda, but I'm going to make of point of taking a side trip the next time I'm in the Reading area.
For more on Jen Nadol and her debut novel, The Mark, visit her website.
Jen Nadol has a BA in literature from American University and currently resides in a 150-year-old farmhouse in Westchester County, New York, with her husband and three young sons. She has no paranormal abilities and is pretty happy about it. The Mark is her first book.
For more posts in the Literary Road Trip project, visit the LRT link page. Thanks to Michelle of GalleySmith for hosting this fabulous project.