Thursday, July 5, 2007

Why I Hate John McPhee: An Admiration

I’m not too proud to say that I’m not a great writer. There are just some things that I haven’t yet been able to work out of (or into) my emergent style. (Do I have a style? I hope.). Writing is practice, and I need more.

That said, there are a good many people I admire, who seem to have it down pat that I would like to emulate. Barry Lopez and Cass Sunstein jump to mind quickly; there are many more, of course. Lately, though, the first person on this list has been John McPhee. Point blank: he’s amazing, if only for his output. In his forty-two year career, McPhee’s written twenty-eight books. Yes, twenty-eight—that’s two-third of a book a year, not even counting the occasional pieces and the two readers made of selected work. To borrow from one of his titles, he gives good weight.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve read three of them and bought even more, hoping to knock them out over the rest of the season. They are amazing books that are about whatever it is that catches his eye. Several are about the hard science of geology (the four books and a new essay collected in one volume as Annals of the Former World), others are more pointedly about the environment and humanity’s place in it (like Encounters with the Archdruid and The Control of Nature). One—his first, A Sense of Where You Are—is about Bill Bradley’s pre-politco, pre-pro-baller days as a player on Princeton’s basketball team. His most recent—Uncommon Carriers—is a catalogue of the people who drive and pilot the world’s shipping vehicles, along with places in-between.

Instead of trying to give a report on each book I’ve gotten to so far—a job that would no doubt go on too long—I’d rather point out the things that turn me a little green with envy, things that almost immediately inspire awe at his ability to weave so many things together cogently.

(For the record, the reason three books—Encounters with the Archdruid, Oranges, and Basin and Range—keep popping up is because they are the ones I have read just recently.)

One thing that strikes the reader almost immediately about McPhee is that he has a curious, wandering eye. Plotting out the distances he covers, both literally and in terms of subject matter, boggles the mind. The story of Oranges—the narrative of meeting orange producers—stays almost exclusively in one small growing area in Florida. The research manifest in the workings of the book, however, goes literally around the world, as if he went to a library and didn’t leave until he had found every reference to oranges in written history. And it reads like it, too; one section is simply a loosely connected compendium of anecdotes in the history of citrus cultivation. Once, referring to Faulkner, Virginia Hlavsa remarked how the Southerner had a “promiscuous intellect.” That description seems to apply to McPhee as well, in that he’s as much happily distracted by details, of cataloguing the things in his gaze, as he is outlining the big, abstract ideas. I imagine him on assignment with pockets full of notebooks, scraps of paper tucked between pages, while he idly watches the scenery and making mental notes about the people with whom he travels.

It’s that ability to blend in and take notes, I think, that makes him a great watcher. While he often employs the first-person, telling stories of his own or how he meets certain people, when he gets into discussion with others, the interviewee almost always dictates the direction of the conversation. There are times, like in the three outings that constitute Encounters with the Archdruid, that McPhee lets his travelmates (conservationist David Brower and his antagonists) go on and on and on, arguing and poking at each other. It is not uncommon to see an unbroken, page-long quote. If anything, his apprentice’s mode of talking with (more like listening to) people seemingly allows his subject to get closer to the core of what each person really wants to say. Instead of the agenda one gets in even the best articles of the slick magazines, McPhee’s quality in interviewing is to let people go on undirected, asking for clarification only when absolutely necessary. McPhee knows that people best tell their own story, that the writer’s job is to put the pieces together in an interesting way. In Basin and Range this method lets the geologists he travels with look like stereotypical, idiosyncratic intellectuals, chewing up some of the soft shales they knock out of roadcuts. At the same time, because he and his subjects often spend such a long time together, people open up to him. Those same off-the-wall geologists are willing to admit that most people in their profession have at best educated guesses about the history of the earth, that they’re storytellers as much as the next person.

I could go on for days. From the interviews he does, he creates some of the most coherent, shorthand metaphors and similes for complex thoughts; Basin and Range is rife with the distillation of tricky geology into nifty little packages. Other comparisons are just beautiful images—from Encounters, “Spread around the summit like huge, improbable petals were nine glaciers.” His pacing is impeccable, keeping his hands off the action, letting the stories almost tell themselves.

But what’s worst—for me, being depressed at the amount of work ahead in order to live up to his standard—is that he does it all so effortlessly. His prose is completely unlabored. His sentences have a clear grace that never bore. I mean, a book about oranges? I love them, could eat pounds a day. But 149 pages about a single fruit? I read the book in a day. When I got to the end of the book, I literally cursed aloud at McPhee’s easy style. I was completely hooked, hungry for oranges and another 150 pages about them.

If anything, his Oranges is the most concise example of what McPhee does best—writing stories that maintain throughout them a sense of awe. As MBQ and I were talking the other day, it’s the kind of books we’d like to see academics write but don’t for whatever reason—tradition, aloof intellectual pretense, pride, lack of skill, stubbornness, whatever. (To be fair, this is a "more often than not"; of course there are academics that makes the list I mentioned at the opening.)

So, for the record, when I call McPhee a jerk, it’s out of love, respect, and admiration (read: envy). He's a jerk because he put the bar so high that I doubt I'll ever reach that level. In any event, though, if you don’t have any of his books, go get one, any of them—they’re amazing.

8 comments:

MBQ said...

I've been thinking a lot of McPhee's style as I struggle to read as many of his books as I can before I have to turn my focus completely over to the prospectus/dissertation and there are several theories and conclusions I've come to about why his books are so damn good. (Which, for the record, are Encounters with the Archdruid and Looking for a Ship.) Instead of making a coherent reply, I'll just list a few of them:

One - He's more reporter than poet. That's not to say he can't turn a poetic phrase every now and then but he's not rhapsodic about his subjects or their cause. He's clearly got a fondness for David Brower, but he gives Park, Fraser, and Dominy their space. In fact, he has this interesting technique where he'll saddle up next to Park, Fraser, and Dominy as Brower has moved on ahead of them and let the Brower antagonists just talk and talk through their issues with conservationists in general and Brower in particular.

Two - The Subject is Not John McPhee. In the books I've read, he doesn't forget that he's not the subject. The subject is the subject. Again, that's not to say he won't offer his own personal opinions, but rather that his books center on a person/subject and then the larger ideas that person/subject is interested in, or that we need to get a more complete picture.

Three - He's grounded. There's little romanticism in his books, which I like.

Tommbert said...

That romanticism is yet another of those best parts. In Basin and Range he reminisces about hearing geologic terms for the first time, which he says as a fourteen year-old, is something erotic. He's okay getting overwhelmed by his subject and playing with it in a fantastic way. Meaning: there's a place in his books for all brands of thought, and that weaving them together is what he enjoys. He's no hard realist or soft daydreamer--everybody can have their say.

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