What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, October 7, 2011

McPhee, Hemingway and the Sequence of Motion and Fact

John McPhee (Photo by Yolanda Whitman)

Harry Levin, in his classic “Observations on the Style of Ernest Hemingway” (included in Levin’s 1980 essay collection Memories of the Moderns), says “When Nick Adams goes fishing, the temperature is very tangibly indicated: ‘It was getting hot, the sun hot on the back of my neck.’” The same can be said about the way John McPhee palpably conveys temperature in “The Encircled River” (The New Yorker, May 2 & 9, 1977; Book I of McPhee’s great Coming into the Country, 1977): “My bandanna is rolled on the diagonal and retains water fairly well. I keep it knotted around my head, and now and again dip it into the river. The water is forty-six degrees. Against the temples, it is refrigerant and relieving.”

Levin, in his essay, notes how Hemingway’s writing often “moves from the external plane into the range of a character’s senses, proceeding serially from the visual to the tactile, as it does when the “Wine of Wyoming” is sampled: ‘It was very light and clear and good and still tasted of the grapes.’” In “The Encircled River,” McPhee follows a similar progression: “The Arctic sun – penetrating, intense – seems not so much to shine as to strike. Even the trickles of water that run down my T-shirt feel good.”

Levin also observes that for what Hemingway “lacks in structure he makes up in sequence, carefully ordering visual impressions as he sets them down and ironically juxtaposing the various items on his lists and inventories.” It could never be said of McPhee that his writing lacks structure. He’s one of the great structuralists of all time. But, like Hemingway, he’s also expert at juxtaposing different registers. For example, in the following passage from “The Encircled River,” note the alternation of action and description: “With his bamboo rod, his lofted line, he now describes long drape folds in the air above the river. His shirt is old and red. There are holes in his felt hat and strips of spare rawhide around its crown. He agitates the settled fly.”

In analyzing Hemingway’s style, Levin quotes Hemingway as saying that he always sought “the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which [sic] made the emotion…” That “sequence of motion and fact” is a key aspect of McPhee’s technique, too. McPhee’s descriptions, consisting entirely of fact, are never static. Reading them, you never get the feeling you’re looking at a photo or a still life. McPhee animates his facts. People in his stories are always doing, going, working, moving. He’s a brilliant describer of action. There’s someone or something on the go in almost every one of his sentences. Consider, for example, the following sequence – one of my favorites – from “The Encircled River”:

He borrows Fedeler’s rod and sends the lure on its way. He reels. Nothing. He casts again. He reels. Nothing. Out in the river, there may be less water than salmon, but that is no guarantee that one will strike. Salmon do not feed on the spawning run. They apparently bite only by instinctive reflex if something flashes close before them. Pourchot casts again. Nothing. He casts again. The lure this time stops in the river as if it were encased in cement. Could be a boulder. Could be a submerged log. The lure seems irretrievably snagged – until the river erupts. Pourchot is a big man with a flowing red beard. He is well over six feet. Blonde hair tumbles across his shoulders. The muscles in his arms are strong from many hundreds of miles of paddling. This salmon, nonetheless, is dragging him up the beach. The fish leaps into the air, thrashes at the river surface, and makes charging runs of such thrust that Pourchot has no choice but to follow or break the line. He follows – fifty, seventy-five yards down the river with the salmon. The fish now changes plan and goes upstream. Pourchot follows. The struggle lasts thirty minutes, and the energy drawn away is almost half Pourchot’s. He wins, though, because he is bigger. The fish is scarcely larger than his leg. When, finally, it moves out of the water and onto the gravel, it has no hook in its mouth. It has been snagged, inadvertently, in the dorsal fin. Alaska law forbids keeping any sport fish caught in that way. The salmon must take the lure in its mouth. Pourchot extracts the hook, gently lifts the big fish in his arms, and walks into the river. He will hold the salmon right side up in the water until he is certain that its shock has passed and that it has regained its faculties. Otherwise, it might turn bottom up and drown.

How wonderfully precise, rhythmic, and vivid that passage is! I particularly like the change in register from “The lure seems irretrievably snagged – until the river erupts” to “Pourchot is a big man with a flowing red beard.”

Hemingway equated writing with making. In A Moveable Feast (1964), he says, “Since I had started to break down all my writing and get rid of all facility and try to make instead of describe, writing had been wonderful to do.” McPhee, too, is a maker. In his Paris Review interview (Spring 2010), he stresses the importance of structure in his writing: “If your structure really makes sense, you can make some jumps and your reader is going to go right with you.” McPhee is a master craftsman. His pieces are like the handmade bark canoes he describes in The Survival of the Bark Canoe (1975): “Turn them over – their ribs, thwarts, and planking suggested cabinetwork. Their authenticity seemed built in, sewed in, lashed in, undeniable.”

In the Paris Review interview, when asked which writers he’s liked, McPhee answers, “I was drunk on Hemingway.” I detect traces of Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River" in "The Encircled River." Both begin with vivid descriptions of fish seen from a downward looking angle through a river’s surface. In “The Encircled River,” McPhee looks down over the side of a canoe:

Paddling again, we move down long pools separated by short white pitches, looking to see whatever might appear in the low hills, in the cottonwood, in the white and black spruce – and in the river, too. Its bed is as distinct as if the water were not there. Everywhere, in fleets, are the oval shapes of salmon. They have moved the gravel and made redds, spawning craters, feet in diameter. They ignore the boats, but at times, and without apparent reason, they turn and shoot downriver, as if they have felt panic and have lost their resolve to get on with their loving and their dying. Some, already dead, lie whitening, grotesque, on the bottom, their bodies disassembling in the current. In a short time, not much will be left but the hooking jaws. Through the surface, meanwhile, the living salmon broach, freshen – make long, dolphinesque flights through the air – then fall to slap the water, to resume formation in the river, noses north, into the current. Looking over the side of the canoe is like staring down into a sky full of zeppelins.

In “Big Two-Hearted River: Part I,” Nick looks down into the river from his position on a railway bridge:

Nick looked down into the clear, brown water, colored from the pebbly bottom, and watched the trout keeping themselves steady in the current with wavering fins. As he watched them they changed their positions by quick angles, only to hold steady in the fast water again. Nick watched them along time.

He watched them holding themselves with their noses into the current, many trout in deep, fast moving water, slightly distorted as he watched far down through the glassy convex surface of the pool, its surface pushing and swelling smooth against the resistance of the log-driven piles of the bridge. At the bottom of the pool were the big trout. Nick did not see them at first. Then he saw them at the bottom of the pool, big trout looking to hold themselves on the gravel bottom in a varying mist of gravel and sand, raised in spurts by the current.

Nick looked down into the pool from the bridge. It was a hot day. A kingfisher flew up stream. It was a long time since Nick had looked into a stream and seen trout. They were very satisfactory. As the shadow of the kingfisher moved up the stream, a big trout shot upstream in a long angle, only his shadow marking the angle, then lost his shadow as he came through the surface of the water, caught the sun, and then, as he went back into the stream under the surface, his shadow seemed to float down the stream with the current, unresisting, to his post under the bridge where he tightened facing up into the current.

In both passages, the river is clear, the “gravel” bottom is visible, “shoot” and “shot” are used to indicate fish movement, fish break the water’s surface (“the living salmon broach, freshen – make long, dolphinesque flights through the air,” “a big trout shot upstream in a long angle, only his shadow marking the angle, then lost his shadow as he came through the surface of the water”). McPhee writes, “noses north, into the current”; Hemingway writes, “noses into the current.”

Granted, there are major differences between the pieces, too. For one thing, “The Encircled River” is a fact piece; it’s about real people on a real river encountering a real bear. For another, three sections of it are written in a glorious, streaming present tense. “Big Two-Hearted River,” like most of Hemingway’s stories, is narrated in the past tense. Also, McPhee’s syntax is richer than Hemingway’s, and his sentences are more complex. And his verbs and adjectives are more evocative. His similes are more striking. (Note, for instance, that wonderful “Looking over the side of the canoe is like staring down into a sky full of zeppelins” in the above-quoted passage.) Maybe Hemingway has a keener ear for dialogue. But I’m not sure about that. In “The Encircled River,” John Kauffmann has a line – it consists of only two words (“Good God!”) – that cracks me up every time I read it.

Suffice it to say that “The Encircled River” and “Big Two-Hearted River” are both remarkable achievements. In order to understand how they were achieved, I suggest a good starting point is "the sequence of motion and fact.”

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