Mobile: Study for the Representation of the United States has fifty chapters, and each chapter is more or less devoted to a different state, in alphabetical order, of the United States. The novel does not tell a story or relate a sequence of events. Instead, the disjointed details, mostly about small-town America, consist of information usually found in history books, atlases, encyclopedias, tourist brochures, and Howard Johnson menus. Some continuity is provided by a series of repetitions which are designed to illustrate the scope and diversity of the United States. For example, the first chapter is entitled “pitch dark in CORDOVA, ALABAMA, the Deep South” and that is all. The first word is not capitalized, nor is there a period at the end. The second chapter reads “pitch dark in CORDOVA, ALASKA, the Far North” and continues with a brief, nightmarish description of the land around Cordova. With no apparent connection, the book next lists Douglas, a small town near Juneau, Alaska. The third chapter begins “pitch dark in DOUGLAS, Mountain Time, ARIZONA, the Far West.” Running through the entire book is a seemingly endless catalog of tiny towns whose names are repeated in state after state. For example, there is Concord, California; Concord, North Carolina; Concord, Georgia; and Concord, Florida. Interestingly, Concord, Massachusetts, a town of great importance to both American history and American literature, is omitted.
Nevertheless, there are a number of linking devices. Each of the fifty chapters has the name of a different state, in alphabetical order from Alabama through Wyoming. Twenty-six chapters begin with “WELCOME TO” and end with the name of a state. The first of the twenty-six is entitled “WELCOME TO NORTH CAROLINA,” which would be alphabetized as “Carolina, North” in French. The chapter on North Carolina, however, is almost equally divided between lists of doves, cuckoos, conchs, clams, rivers, and mountains which the narrator places in Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, and Virginia, as well as in North Carolina. There is no apparent reason for omitting the “WELCOME TO” for the remaining twenty-four states, although each state does appear in the chapter title, somewhere on the first page of each new chapter. Despite the quirks of North Carolina’s chapter, in most chapters the discussion is limited to the state listed in the heading.
Another pattern that runs throughout the book alludes to both the importance that Americans attach to their automobiles and the melting-pot quality of the United States. Periodically in the text, fragmentary sentences appear describing the color and make of a particular car, followed by a brief, unflattering description of its driver and a record of how fast it is going. Here is a sample: “A tomato-colored Buick driven by a fat young Japanese in a green shirt (65 miles).”
Another motif concerns the American love for ice cream and the Howard Johnson restaurant chain’s catering to that taste with the company’s famous thirty-two exotic flavors, beginning with apricot ice cream in Concord, North Carolina. In Bristol, Connecticut, the preferred ice cream flavor is pineapple.It is raspberry ice cream at the Howard Johnson’s in Manchester, New Hampshire, and gooseberry ice cream at the Howard Johnson’s in Manchester, Connecticut.
Another recurring theme is established by a series of brief descriptions of various Indian tribes and the various ways in which the Indians have been mistreated. Michael Butor notes that English missionaries had difficulty teaching the ways of civilization to the Cherokee because the missionaries believed that the Cherokee language could not be given written form. The fate of the Calusas and Seminoles was to be driven from their Florida lands and sent to “Indian Territory” in what is now Oklahoma. The Choctaw indians who lived along the Gulf of Mexico were also forced to emigrate to Indian Territory. Then, the narrator reveals that after the Indians were all gathered in Oklahoma, the federal government declared that Oklahoma was no longer Indian Territory. In addition, the Delaware Indians never had a chance to emigrate. In spite of their treaty of friendship with William Penn in 1682, they were exterminated one hundred years later by new settlers who probably had never even heard of the Penn treaty.
Juxtaposed to the unfair treatment of Indians is an account of the absurd accusations against Susanna Martin, who was tried for witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. Portions of the transcript show that Martin was accused of changing into a cat, of causing rain to fall at inconvenient moments, and of causing a puppy to fly.
The narrator also quotes extensively from Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, two of America’s most respected men of letters. The excerpts focus on Franklin’s and Jefferson’s unenlightened views of blacks, in which they equate blacks with horses, oxen, and other beasts of burden.
In addition to the major motifs, there are many minor ones. State birds, state flowers, state flags, service stations, foreign-language newspapers, time zones, and department stores which were designed to serve rural America are only some of the many types of lists. The culminating effect is that of a country of vast but repetitious proportions.