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Palm Springs is a city in California, renowned for its hot mineral springs, and is the setting for much of the novel's narrative action. The fact that the community is a resort city - that is, a community essentially founded on the industry of leisure and/or healing - can be seen as reinforcing certain elements of the central characters' life situations. For further consideration of this idea, see "Style - Setting" and "Topics for Discussion - In what ways do you think ..."
The Bungalow Complex
The central characters - Andy, Dag and Claire - live in a grouping of small bungalows circled around a communal swimming pool. This sense of community within a community (the community of houses within the city of Palm Springs) reinforces the idea, developed throughout the novel, that the three friends are themselves a community within a community. That is to say, they are a community of individuals striving for an identity within the larger community of those whose middle class status (as defined by Andy - see Chapter 26) has left them without identity.
The Sun / Light
Throughout the novel, the sun and its light (not to mention light in general - see Andy's narrative of the Christmas candles, Chapter 26) serve as symbols of transcendence, new life, and hope.
This well-intentioned gift from Dag to Claire (see Chapter 15) can be seen as both foreshadowing and symbolizing the toxicity of Claire's relationship with Tobias who, at the time the beads are introduced, is about to arrogantly stroll into Claire's life. The fact that Claire moves away from her home to get away from the beads symbolizes and foreshadows her eventual moving out of the relationship. Finally, the fact that Andy and Dag devote so much time and energy to cleaning up the beads represents their loyalty, not only to Claire but to the small, self-supportive and self-protective community they've found together (see "The Bungalow Complex," above).
Elvissa's Nail Polish
The catchily named "Honolulu Choo Choo" nail polish is first introduced in Chapter 16, where it comes across as silly and frivolous (a clear contrast to Elvissa herself, who later in that chapter and in Chapter 17 seems to reveal herself as having a significant amount of depth). Later, however (Chapter 28), Claire discovers the same nail polish in Tobias' apartment in New York, evidence that Elvissa and Tobias are still seeing each other, which is in turn evidence that Elvissa is a liar. This, in turn, suggests that Elvissa's apparent "depth" might also have been a lie. For further consideration of this aspect of Elvissa's character, see "Themes - Storytelling."
This wild-growing garden, referred to in Claire's story in Chapter 22, functions on two levels - as a symbol of Linda's unexpected, untamed, thriving spiritual beauty as she goes deeper into her misguided healing process, and as a metaphoric expression of what seems to be Claire's deeply held, secret longing for her own sense of spirituality and inner beauty. For further consideration of the relationship between Linda and Claire, see "Characters - Otis, Edward and Linda."
Tack the first syllable of the word "Texas" onto the last three syllables of the word "Oklahoma" and you have the name "Texlahoma," the setting for one of the novel's more outrageous flights of fancy (see Chapter 8 and "Quotes," p. 39). The name conjures up images of both south-central states - heat, dryness, the city-defined explosions of wealth found in Texas juxtaposed with the desolate expanses of empty space found in both states. There is a certain patronizing quality to the characters' description of Texlahoma, as though the individuals who live there are physically, emotionally and spiritually stuck. It's clear, however, that on some level this sense of being stuck both applies to and is evocative of the three central characters being stuck (and even lost).
The Vietnam War
The Vietnam War, which took place in the mid-to-late 1960s and early 1970s, is widely regarded as one of the most significant events in 20th Century American History. Thousands of American soldiers lost their lives in what was presented to the American public as a war to protect democracy from the spread of communism, but which the public eventually saw as a vast, politically motivated betrayal of core American ideals. Opposition to the war originated on university campuses and eventually escalated into conflict on almost every socio-political-economic-racial-intellectual level of American society, and as Andy himself suggests (see Chapter 27), was the volatile backdrop for the youth and young adulthood of an entire generation.
The Torched Car
Dag's accidental destruction of a very expensive, pretentious car (the nervous Andy his unwitting accomplice) represents his desire to destroy, or at least live without, the devotion to materialism the car embodies. It might not be going too far to suggest that because Dag describes himself (or, more accurately, is portrayed by Andy as describing himself) as the owner of such a car (see "Chapter 4"), the destruction of the car can be seen as the ultimate, specific destruction of the materialistic side of himself he claims to despise.
The Y-shaped stick found by Claire in New York shortly after her breakup with Tobias (see Chapter 28) is described in narration as resembling a dowsing rod, a Y-shaped twig or branch that, according to folklore, is used to find water. The searcher holds the branches of the Y in either hand, allows the stem of the Y to point towards the ground, and walks about the area to be searched. The story goes that for some reason and in some way, the stem will eventually find water (in the same way, perhaps, as the stem of a tree or other plants also can be seen as pointing the way towards water in the ground). Claire's finding of the stick at that particular point in her life can be seen as representing her readiness and/or willingness to finally let go of her obsession with Tobias and, as she herself claims, find the true relationship she's been seeking. It's interesting to note that as she ends her journey of transformation, Claire finds a true side of herself not in the company of her romantic interest but in the company of her loving, supportive friends (see "Themes - The Value of Friendship").
The White Bird and the Black Field
In the same way as the torched car symbolizes Dag's transformation (or at least the need for it) and the Y-shaped stick symbolizes Claire's, Andy's transformation and need are symbolized by the white bird and the burnt black field he encounters at the end of the novel. The most important aspect of this encounter is his discovery of spontaneous joy in the beauty and freedom of the white bird, which is totally and utterly itself, and the bird's initiation of him into that kind of selfhood as symbolized by the almost ritualized cut on the forehead. Most importantly, the transformation is marked by the unconditional and uninhibited hugs Andy receives from the bus load of mentally disabled children - a surging celebration of the bird's self-hood, Andy's initiation into his own, and the beauty and freedom associated with both.
This section contains 1,193 words
(approx. 3 pages at 400 words per page)