What a Walk Can Do

It’s December 2020. I’m walking, and thinking. Where am I walking? On a dusty road in Lake County, California. What am I thinking about? The books I’ve read this fall.

-> Q What do these books have in common?

-> A: Each one features an excellent walk.

December 3, 2020 -> WHAT A WALK CAN DO

This afternoon I took a walk, my first since I arrived at the hermitage where I've been quarantining since my arrival in Northern California. I walked outside past the pool and the double doors of the main entrance of the big yurt, where I greeted my host, a friend of my mother's, who was busy inside on the computer. She pointed my way to the wooden gate, which I made sure to leave open, as I turned right to climb the road to the top of the hill.

I hoped that I might put some distance between myself and the last few days. The work-exchange for my two-week stay had grown from small help around the property to hours of IT support for the website and wifi as my host prepared her booth and presentation for an online alternative wellness expo. The only person who had it worse than me was her. Anyone who lived out here had come precisely to leave those sorts of things behind.

This walk, I told myself, would be a barrier between the never ending source of technical problems that seemed to bloom from her laptop since I'd arrived. I passed several ranch homes, each with half a dozen or so acres dotted with evergreens and oaks whose leaves were as gold as the grass beneath them.

A tractor pulled out of a driveway, crossed the street, and entered another, where it disappeared behind a shed. My winter coat and beanie seemed excessive now that I'd exchanged the shady porch beside my room for the overhead sun. There was an odd incongruity in the fear I felt at the guard dogs and pro-gun banners and the friendly nods and waves I received from the men who passed me in their dusty pickups.


The structure of a walk lends wonderfully to storytelling. In its simplest terms, it provides the structure--a beginning, middle, and end--of a physical journey. But it does much more than that. It lets the writer do things with time, making things move faster or slower. It provides a series of images that might otherwise seem unrelated. It situates a reader in the physical. It presents isolation or provides a container for conversation. It provides a sense of forward motion, both in space and time and, perhaps most importantly, in terms of story.

As I set out the door, all I knew was that I wanted to re-read the two books I'd packed in my bag: Graham Greene's The End of The Affair and Mr. Potter by Jamaica Kincaid. That's about as far as I had gone. I was thinking I'd look at the way these novels might be split into episodes and that perhaps I could analyze the connective tissue between them. Something about how the sections sometimes invite faster reading, a jump to the next, other times a bit of a pause, often based on whether the interstitial paragraphs end with a breath, reflection, or a bit of what's next. As I neared the end of The End of The Affair, I realized this was all very abstract. It was the dinner scene with the priest. I was admiring how Graham Greene used the progression of a meal to frame the conversation. Looking back, I couldn't believe that the narrator never mentions the food. No "said between bites," a dialogue tag I've used several times in what I fear is a clunky way. It's really all conversation, with occasional mentions of cheese or brandy from the characters themselves. The meal creates a container to keep the three men engaged. Even when Bendrix escapes to receive the package from Parkis, he returns to the meal, now straining with tension, until he finally explodes. I would have run with that except that I realized how few meals there are in Mr. Potter---the only mentions of food that come to mind are the eggs on the bread from the baker that I believe are eventually eaten by Mr. Shoul.

Lucky for me, Greene's novel continued past the end of the meal. It ends, in fact, with a walk. And look at that, it starts with one too. In fact many of the most important scenes in the novel take place through walks across the Common, following Sarah, catching one's death of cold. And of course there's Mr. Potter, walking that day in the sun. The books on this list (and please forgive me for skipping their introductions) are full of walks. Håkan spends his life walking (and riding) across the American West. Marachera's "I" walks out of the House of Hunger. A man walks into the trap of the Woman of the Dunes. The moving doors are one of the few traces we get of the narrator in Robbe-Guillet's Jealousy as he walks through the house to fetch a pitcher of water. Ada walks in the swamp of her grandmother's Hôtel Splendid. She tells it to us simple: the walk is not a success. Sebald's narrator speaks in long sentences as his meandering walk to Kissingen brings him to a Jewish cemetery, where he finds the grave of his friend Max Ferber's mother which reminds him of the walk from Ferber's own hospital bed to a final walk down the hall of the Midland Hotel. I seem to remember that in The White Book, one of the many books I don't have with me right now, that the narrator walks through the white mist of Warsaw and in my mind this mist is the form of her memory.

Okay. This is more than enough to take a look at some of what a walk can do.


A walk can be an escape, a particular one, that sets a story in motion. I've already mentioned walking out of the House of Hunger, though that escape only seems to bring that narrator further into his violent surroundings. Håkan, released from his prison with the woman in Clangston, is told to run. He runs then walks east toward the sunrise, away from his childhood servitudes toward Dr. Lorimer, the first person who begins to treat him like a human who might learn. When Bendrix can no longer bear his thoughts and so-called "comforts" in his shabby apartment, he escapes into the rain across the Common and sees Henry, setting off the chain of events that lead to Sarah's investigation and death.


A walk is an interface with the world, where things can come as a surprise. The inbuilt chain of events of going from A to B can feel like fate: the way Bendrix's leaking umbrella signals the moment he sees Henry and perhaps the exposure to the elements is what made him call out to Henry, who was himself exposed. Even in his utter loneliness, the young Håkan watches his own feet as he walks, seeing it as "a constant miracle...each time his surprise was fresh, as if he were noticing his suspended foot for the first time." Along with escape, a walk that leads to surprise is another form of setting things in motion. I've said it before, so I won't further belabor the point except to say: a walk, like any kind of travel, brings the world to a character in a series of consecutive images.


Describe a character by their walk. Take Håkan as he emerges from the ice pool and walks to the ship. His walk -- his bow legs and people's reasoning for them -- is only one of many physical elements and probably secondary to his size compared to his rifle and axe. But by adding a walk to a description, you have many more physical elements to work with than when describing a character in stasis. The ease or difficulty with which one moves through the world. The world that the walker passes and interacts with. And of course, the start and destination. For Håkan in particular, his body shows the wear of lifelong wandering. He walks alone from harsh environment to harsh environment, and eventually continues west across the ice and into the distance.


Now let's say the walk is really a kind of following. Niki Junpei pursues a sand beetle deep into the ocean dunes. By obsessing on his target, he loses sight of civilization and loses any caution that may have saved him from his fate. The first night Sarah walks into the rain, as we learn in her diary, she walks to the church in search of God, only to return with a chill and Bendrix in her home. She does this again toward the end of her life, but this time she's the one who's pursued by Bendrix. These pursuits lead Sarah to her death in the same way that Niki's led to his prison in the sand. By framing the walk around a single goal, the narrator can get away with making characters selectively notice things. "She was in too much of a hurry to see me," says Bendrix, "...And then I lost her. I had been too confident and I had allowed her too big a start." The sense of urgency that comes with this goal-based walk, this chase, brings a single question to mind: will Bendrix find Sarah? The buildup of tension charges their eventual encounter, showing just how much Bendrix wants this, while also raising the questions of why Sarah no longer does. So what might we learn from a pursuit? It's action, the physical embodiment of characters' desires. There's a clear sense of wanting and not getting, at least not yet. I can't imagine many readers putting down a book in the middle of a pursuit.


I want to separate this aspect from the above. Like pursuit, a fatal choice is related to plot: characters wanting things and acting upon their wants. A walk exposes one to the world and when the world is harsh, bad things happen to characters. This might be heat and sand or catching cold in the rain. When Håkan and James go to Clangston, it triggers the events that lead to James's ruin and Håkan's capture. The point here is less the walk itself and more the destination. It didn't need to be a walk, any method of transport would have done just fine. But a walk, as all forward movement, gets characters into new environments and is a simple way of giving the sense of "things happening".


And what if the thing doesn't happen? When Sarah follows Bendrix on his way to the Pontefract Arms, the reader already knows that Bendrix is about to tell Henry about the affair. But to see how close they had been, that if Bendrix had only turned around they may have run off together, makes this missed connection that much harder to bear. It's another form of pursuit or goal-based walking, one where the reader knows that the pursuer will never catch up. This helps us feel a sense of loss by showing how a small event, the decision to speak or stay silent, could have changed everything.

On my own walk I found a dried out bone, perhaps the thigh bone of a small animal. I held it for a while, imagined making a flute, then tossed it to the ground. As I continued, I had the image of making a sort of pen cover -- I think it was just the right size -- I had a full view of the art project and new favorite pen I could have had, and then I continued walking, forgetting about it until this moment.


A walk with more than one character makes an excellent container for conversation. It holds the voices in proximity to one another, while continuing the stream of images moving past. Perhaps the only better containers are vehicles (trains, cars) or meals, like the dinner with Bendrix, Henry, and Father Crompton mentioned above. I remember a writing teacher once saying that a student of his hadn't "known how to write a story." The student had relied on car rides as containers to give his stories a sense of forward motion. This teacher said that he "taught" the student to write without this crutch. I remember this because it bothered me. I think that style and weaknesses are often the same thing. It's a matter of owning them, and perhaps leaning into them even further. I never did take a class with this teacher and maybe the whole exchange was fine, but in my mind he dismissed an element of this student's style.

A walk can contextualize a new encounter within a larger story's progression. Let's look at Bendrix and Sylvia's walk from the train to Sarah's funeral at Golder's Green. Sylvia hadn't intended to come along. Their conversation is a seduction, moving from Sylvia's schedule to her clothes as Bendrix entices her to stay with him. The pauses in conversation allow Bendrix to note his loneliness, his need for "her beauty to support" him. The power dynamics are constantly shuffled, with Sylvia leading the way on this journey she hadn't intended to go on. A passing observation, smoke from the crematorium, comes back a page later to be the smoke of Sarah's ashes. They only realize this as they approach the slow stream of walkers emerging from the building. At this point the reader might remember that the narrator had told us already that Bendrix would be late for the funeral, but this walk with Sylvia has crowded out the funeral, creating a new drama for the reader to follow, that of their mutual lust. Only when they reach the end of this walk and Bendrix invites Sylvia to dinner does the first "miracle" occur, in which Bendrix prays to save Sylvia from himself. This walk develops the relationship of the walkers. It allows for Greene to build a new point of tension (will Bendrix and Sylvia sleep together) while continuing to move the larger narrative forward (who will Bendrix see at the funeral). In the end something unexpected happens, with Bendrix missing the funeral altogether and having his prayer to Sarah answered for the first time.

The technique of using a walk to define a relationship is employed at the end of the novel as well. This time with Bendrix and Henry. By walking over the Common to the Pontefract Arms, this last walk presents images that sweep across the novel, the crossroads, lovers, and ruined steps, landing in the image of these two sad men who have nothing but one other, Henry's sorrowful "[these walks] are the only things I do look forward to," and Bendrix's final prayer to say that he's had enough of love.


We're getting at something interesting here, at the way a walk can trigger memories and references across time. But first, let's look at how walks relate to time itself. The bulk of Håkan's adult life is contained in the sentence: "Through countless frosts and thaws, he walked in circles wider than nations." Travel takes time. Sometimes a narrative wants to skip ahead. A line like "three day's walk" can be useful to push a character forward in time. This, of course, could be applied to any journey. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the decade it takes for Odysseus to find his way home. But how might a walk slow the progression of time, or break out of it completely?

On that day, Mr. Potter walks to Mr. Shoul's garage and the sun remains in its usual place. We follow Potter past the pregnant dog and the blind man and he does arrive at the garage and in fact the first thirty pages or so of Jamaica Kincaid's novel progress as linearly as that walk from garage to car to the home of Dr. Weizenger. But how many times do we return to this walk? It is always that walk, on that day that Mr. Potter meets the narrator's mother. Each time he's still walking to the garage. In a sense we do see him arrive as he greets Mr. Shoul and finds his car. In a sense he never arrives, as he's always walking. His entire life takes on the characteristic of an eternally aimless walk. He walks without cares until Annie Richardson interrupts it all. He "wend[s] his way into the world" until he meets and marries Yvonne. He "moved toward his end in an unhurried way" until his funeral. The walking is without origin or destination, without company, conversation, or any clear goal. The only progression, though even this we only see in a roundabout way, is his progression toward loss and eventual death. His final walk (final in that it's the last one we see as readers), "Walking along Market Street one day," leads us to the clock tower ringing, which will be the same ringing that's heard at his funeral where we find ourselves at the end of the chapter and book, having left that walk entirely behind.

What exactly is going on here? This walk feels increasingly abstract. Yet still it's a particular walk, on a particular day of great importance. But since it doesn't have a clear goal or starting point, Kincaid can dip into the walk whenever she pleases, using it as a refrain to resituate the narrative around this image of Potter, symbolic of Potter's life, perhaps a kind of description of this man who really lived that the author knew so little about, describing the man walking in his unhurried and unaware way.


When you repeatedly hear about a walk it begins to lose its specificity. It becomes easier to place it beside other walks. This is one way of presenting memory. Kincaid does this with Potter himself. First, as a child, Potter is Drickie and he walks around corners tossing stones in the air. He's happy, it seems. Later, as an adult, Potter walks past buildings toward the garage and tosses a coin in the air, catching it king-side up, again in his momentary happiness. When Potter's mother Elfriede walks into the sea, the narrator remembers her own mother bringing her to the same spot, Rat Island on the sea, and imagines losing her mother to the waves. Her loss layers upon her father's. What's happening here is that the walk, being a series of images, can be repeated at different times. And by presenting the same location or the same sets of images, one walk can trigger the memory of another. In this way, an image-laden walk can be a way to move through time even if the walk itself does not.

The overall framing of Kincaid's narrator in Mr. Potter might be said to be a walk. The narrator exists in her story, not only as the one who can write and is "writing this right now," but as the woman visiting her father's grave in Antigua. Early on, before we go into the history of Potter's parents and his own life, the narrator follows the grave master through the graveyard to the unmarked site that he claims is Mr. Potter's. And in the final pages we return to this grave, with the grave master (now named Tan-Tan) telling her how it had rained so much that they could not lower the coffin. This walk and the conversations it holds provide a narrative present for Kincaid to frame the songlike stories she tells of her ancestors. It functions a bit like Håkan telling his story at the campfire, anchoring a digressive tale in something tangible, physical, and relatable to just about everyone.

As a last example of what a walk can do for memory, let's look at the end of Sebald's Emigrants (to say nothing about his Rings of Saturn). The final image of the book, the women weaving like the sisters of fate, does not take place in the narrative present. It's remembered. After his walk to see the Ferber family graves in Kissingen, the narrator returns to Manchester where Max Ferber is in the hospital. The narrator leaves for a walk, at which point he passes the Midland Hotel in great disrepair. It's this image which he encounters on this walk at the end of the narrative that reminds him of his stay some time before, and it's in the memory of this stay, as he remembers listening to old Siegfried singing at the music hall, that he imagines the singer walking backstage past the photographs the narrator once saw in Frankfurt, walking toward the final image of the weavers. These layers of associative memory are difficult to follow, to say the least. What walking does is add a sense of movement to these layers. It gives the reader a sense of space that makes these movements through memory much smoother than say: A reminds him of B which reminds him of X so he imagines Y remembering Z. The walk provides a progression to help the reader through the progression of images and thought.

December 4, 2020 -> RETURN

I remember resort-like ranches and trailer homes, horses, goats, and chicken coops. I removed my jacket and felt the cool sweat on my lower back. Above me, two massive Trump flags stood above concrete blocks. Across the street, Tibetan prayer flags hung draped across a manzanita tree. Below it, in the shade, lay a pile of stuff marked "Free." Scattered in a plastic bin, were old tools and a bag of pool salt. I found a stack investment self-help books. Behind the last title, I found a deck of children's spirit animal cards. I kept the cards, a sort of Tarot-for-kids.

They sit on my desk now as I write. One day ago, I took a walk. Each day is the same. It's dry for early December. The rains haven't yet begun. I was surprised to see so many trees. My host had mentioned the Valley Fire of 2015, a fire that I'm very much familiar with. Among the homes and towns that had burned were those of another family friend's where I had spent most holidays as a child. Less than twenty miles away, the hillsides where I now sit were narrowly spared five years ago. As I took my afternoon walk, this knowledge brought a sense of anxious observation. Each time I saw a house surrounded by trees I wondered whether they'd placed a fire break.

It isn't pleasant, thinking of trees as something to fear. I haven't seen my host in twenty-four hours. The online expo is over. I don't know how much more IT help I can give. I'll be here till the end of the week. I choose an animal card at random. It's the butterfly; it says get ready for big changes. Perhaps I'll take another walk.