• Nowhere Spaces

    Holly Goddard Jones

    Winter 2024

    Over COVID lockdown, my kids and I got into the habit of watching fantasy cartoons each night before bed. One of our favorites was Hilda, a Netflix series inspired by an also-excellent graphic novel series by Luke Pearson. There’s a lot to love about Hilda, which tells the story of the titular character, a little girl who lives a typical modern child’s existence of school and scouts and growing up in a single-parent household—in a reality that happens to be juxtaposed against high-fantasy elements inspired by Scandinavian folklore. Hilda’s universe, and its populous cast of magical characters, is far too ornate to explain here, but as I began contemplating the topic of negative space in fiction, I found myself picturing some creatures from the series, the Nisse. In Pearson’s interpretation, Nisse are house trolls that occupy forgotten areas of the home called “The Nowhere Space”—pocket dimensions, unused and mostly unnoticed by humans, where the Nisse can live, and where they store the items that humans have misplaced or neglected to the point of forfeiture. A Nisse can also use the Nowhere Space to interdimensionally travel—by entering an opening that’s tucked away behind a heavy bookcase, for example, one can exit from underneath a sofa in another house, or in the crack between the refrigerator and wall in still another.

    It occurs to me that one reason Hilda’s version of the Nisse so compels me is that the Nowhere Space reminds me of one of my most frequent recurring dreams, a dream that I’ve learned is extremely common: the hidden-room dream. In it, you’re home—or, sometimes for me, in a house I just agreed to purchase—and you realize that your house has extra, unused square footage. I can guess what dream interpretation websites would say about the meaning of the hidden room: that you’re plumbing undiscovered aspects of yourself, something about the subconscious, blah blah blah, but what I always feel, in these dreams, is a simultaneous sense of freedom, possibility, and stupidity. I start thinking of all the things I’ll be able to do with this found space, and I start wondering how I could have been so oblivious as to have missed its existence all along.

    As I have gotten to be an older and more seasoned writer, I’ve experienced a similar set of emotions as I’ve contemplated the extra rooms or Nowhere Spaces within my own prose. I’ve realized just how much of a story gets told off the page. Now, this obviously isn’t some new or surprising insight. We have a whole host of cliches at the ready to address the Nowhere Spaces in literature: we talk about reading “between the lines,” we scrutinize what occurs “in the white space,” and we analyze, as readers, “subtext”—all that matter and meaning “under the surface.” Metaphors abound, and Hilda’s Nisse aren’t necessarily a new and helpful symbol to add to the catalog.

    Now, a confession: I’m a writer more inclined to rhapsodize on the joys of decadent expository play than I am on the necessity of austerity. I like elaborate character backstories, trivial ephemera, digressions, and side quests. I often feel more at home tooling around in a character’s abstract thoughts than I do staging a straightforward scene. Having owned this predilection, this sometimes-weakness (or indulgence), I’m going to invite you along as I consider a craft topic that does not come so easily to me: the ways that the material we choose not to put explicitly into words contributes to the texture and meaning of our prose.

    A good gateway form for exploring this topic, at least as it pertains to prose, is the epistolary story. An epistolary story operates as a found document, often divorced of context, addressed to a character who will only gradually, if at all, assume a concrete presence in the reader’s mind. A writer working in the epistolary form must strike a balance between plausibly representing a portion of an interaction and giving the reader all the information they need to understand the situation and its significance. As such, it’s a form well suited to stories that derive power from explicit mystery.

    Take, for example, the story “Love Letter” from George Saunders’s collection Liberation Day. Please note the repetition of that title in the excerpt below; it’s there because I want to recreate the experience of reading an epistolary story for the first time. The title tends to be at least one moment—and, in some stories, including this one, the only moment—when an epistolary story is contextualized—commented upon in a thematically meaningful way—by the author. The gulf between that title and the point where the found document begins is one of the epistolary story’s most impactful nowhere spaces.

    Holly Goddard Jones is the author of four books of fiction, most recently Antipodes: Stories. She teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at UNC Greensboro.

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