Braden Welborn

Peter Turchi, Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer,Trinity University Press, 2004

[Review Guidelines]

Maps of the Imagination is Peter Turchi's extended meditation on the parallels between mapmaking and writing. Both processes reveal what we value and to what degree. Maps and writing, as Turchi notes, put forth "a more imaginative knowledge" than what our daily perceptions offer. Both are based in some way on previous attempts. And in the end, both mapmakers and writers contend with the acrobatics of prediction and surprise, deliberation and spontaneity, form and chaos, intention and intuition, and selection and omission.
      "What we see," Turchi writes, "depends on what we want to see." Turchi is the kind of thinker/writer who can get away with stating the obvious, because he isn't trying to totalize. He's creating a book that is—forgive me, dear reader, for co-opting this metaphor—a journey.
      As Turchi considers the parallels between maps and writing, we follow him down meandering (but carefully pruned) lanes. Sometimes we find that we have returned to where we began, but we don't regret having followed Turchi. His observations, often delivered in one- to six-page sections, are probably best taken in at a leisurely pace, over a period of, say, weeks. This book is not for speedsters.
Turchi's points are illustrated both verbally and visually with compelling and often surprising allusions, including gameboards, Moby-Dick, elaborate medieval mappaemundi, the Freytagian triangle, Anne Carson's Sapphic translations, Turchi's kid's map of favorite luging routes, the Pony Express route, Lolita, a blueprint of a mole tunnel, Calvino's novels, fractal geometry, Giacometti's paintings, subway maps, birthplaces of Ch'ing poets, Memento, the Road Runner, Proust, and Basho. Dozens of full-color plates depicting maps—sometimes analyzed in the text but often appearing without explanation— make browsing a delight.
The book's greatest strength is Turchi's style, refreshing in its clarity and vigor. The prose is anecdotal but rarely seems indulgent.
      As for content, Turchi is capable of reiterating ideas without seeming needlessly repetitive. Maps of the Imagination works toward an important and deceptively simple idea: realism is a fantasy. Turchi emphasizes that both maps and realist fiction are manipulations or constructions of the actual, privileging certain details and omitting others. After all, no map is truly comprehensive or accurate; even Borges's ideal map, with its 1:1 scale, cannot tell all about its territory. Similarly, psychological realism in fiction is based on fallible ideas about characters and events.
      Both mapmaking and writing conceal and distort even as they reveal. As Turchi admits, "No matter how hard we work to be 'objective' or 'faithful,' we create....we are defining, delineating, the world that is coming into being." This sentence hints at a possible role for Maps of the Imagination, one that Turchi might not have intended: a devotional for sufferers of writers' block.
"Seeing is an art which must be learned and relearned," Turchi says. We are constantly discovering the ways in which our own and others' presentations of the world have fallen short. Maps of the Imagination reminds us that relearning—making new choices based on our own everchanging perceptions—is always possible.