Ask 10 random people what “Setting” is and they’ll tell you something resembling the following:
The Time and Place a story occurs.
Not so fast.
A third element of setting worth celebrating, though oft neglected, is that of Circumstance, which I humbly submit is actually its most interesting and durable attribute.
In a park at dusk is a time and a place. But in a park at dusk the moment a war breaks out between two warring factions of squirrels known as the “Corns” and the “Oaks,” that’s another thing entirely.
In Ann Patchett’s lovely novel Bel Canto, a group of distinguished guests is held hostage at a vice president’s manor in a small South American country. The setting (the house) is, frankly, not particularly interesting. It’s fine–it’s a big house, lush, and a marked contrast to the roughness of the terrorists who live in the jungles surrounding the city which plays up the unjust ills of the class system in the third world–but they could have been many places and the same set of events (mostly) could have occurred. What makes her use of setting noteworthy is the circumstance of music.
The group of people had congregated there to celebrate the birthday of a rich Japanese businessman named Mr. Hozikawa. He’d been enticed there on the promise of his favorite opera soprano, Roxanne Koss, who’d been paid to come and sing five arias to celebrate his birthday. The plot–a prolonged hostage/terrorist set-up–becomes infected with the presence of music and informs everything that happens. In the presence of beautiful music, strangers declare their love for one another, friendships are formed, time drifts as hostage and terrorist alike are swept away by the universal tide of music.
As the book begins, we already picture the conclusion, the one Die Hard has taught us to expect. We meet the standard cast of characters: the defiant vice president who initially stands firm, the gruff and intelligent terrorist leaders all generically called “General,” the cool headed intermediary negotiator (Swiss, no less), the intelligent Japanese translator, child terrorists with guns and hair triggers who appear ignorant, angry, and afraid. And yet, Patchett must have planned, or decided along the way, that the circumstance of being around music, and not just any music but THE soprano of her generation was far more interesting than mere life and death, and to make that the focus of her story and the engine driving her narrative.
Half way through the book, one of the hostages, a Japanese diplomat, begins playing piano on a whim; the original accompanist has already died from lack of insulin. Roxanne then begins practicing with him every day and they form a duo. Soon she begins to give small concerts to which there are curtain calls and bows and applause. She sends out for sheet music to expand her repertoire. The terrorists assent to her whims, treat her differently because she’s famous, yes, but more so because they are completely astonished and overwhelmed by the power of her singing. She falls in love with Mr. Hozikawa, who she was brought there to entertain, and he is snuck up to her room in the night by one of the female terrorists, who herself has fallen in love with Mr. Hozikawa’s translator, Gen, who has become the official translator for pretty much everyone. Soon after that, on a morning Roxanne has slept in after (presumably) wild hostage sex with Mr. Hozikawa and therefore isn’t there to fill the morning with music, to compensate, one of the young male terrorists, while wielding a semi-automatic rifle, begins singing arias a capella from memory, and turns out to have a world class voice. Roxanne then becomes, wait for it–his teacher. During all this, vast meals are prepared. Terrorist generals play civil games of chess with hostages. The vice president finds a strange love of domesticity and keeps the house immaculate, dusting and sweeping and discovering the joys of weeding a garden. Multiple men declare their love for Roxanne, not able to resist their hearts. For four and a half months things progress in this way, the situation in the house becoming so self-sufficient, so insular, so normal that both hostage and terrorist lose complete track of time. And reality. No one seems to remember that half of them are holding guns and it’s all going to go tits up in the end.
The beautiful thing is that we accept it. Believe that this is probably what must happen during every prolonged hostage situation. The ending is harsh and fast and, to me, was very predictable. The only failing here on Patchett’s part is that the ending undermines the glorious fantasia that’s just transpired, reminds us at the last moment of the extent to which her elaborate conceit (maybe) wasn’t all that possible after all.
Patchett’s created a fantasy that reads like realism, which is really something. And the thing that made it all possible, was music. The circumstance of music. What was primed to be another story of terrorists and hostages becomes one about the miraculous power of voices in flight and fingers in motion, of love and community, how quickly these things can take over and how suddenly they can be taken away.