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 Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear 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, January 18, 2013

January 14, 2013 Issue

One of the key elements of John McPhee’s superb writing style is its expressiveness of structure. As William L. Howarth says, in The John McPhee Reader (1976), “Structural order is not just a means of self-discipline for McPhee the writer; it is the main ingredient in his work that attracts his reader.” In his wonderful “Structure,” in this week’s issue, McPhee shows how he discovered this “main ingredient.” The pivotal development occurred in 1966, after he’d completed all his research for a piece on the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey. He says, “I had assembled enough material to fill a silo, and now I had no idea what to do with it.” After two weeks struggling with writer’s block, “fighting fear and panic,” he finally hit on an organizing principle. He says,

At last it occurred to me that Fred Brown, a seventy-nine-year-old Pine Barrens native, who lived in a shanty in the heart of the forest, had had some connection or other to at least three-quarters of those Pine Barren topics whose miscellaneity was giving me writer’s block. I could introduce him as I first encountered him when I crossed his floorless vestibule – “Come in. Come in. Come on the hell in” – and then describe our many wanderings around the woods together, each theme coming up as something touched upon it. After what turned out to be about thirty thousand words, the rest could take care of itself. Obvious as it had not seemed, this organizing principle gave me a sense of a nearly complete structure….

The piece he wrote is the classic “The Pine Barrens” (The New Yorker, November 25 & December 2, 1967), a work I fondly recall first encountering in 1976, when I bought a slim paperback edition of it. I have it with me now as I write this. Its subtle craftsmanship gives no hint that it caused McPhee such compositional angst. But “Structure” confirms “The Pine Barrens”’s centrality in the development of McPhee’s technique (“Structure has preoccupied me in every project I have undertaken since”).

Of “Structure”’s many pleasures – cool diagrams of some of McPhee’s finest pieces (“A Roomful of Hovings,” “A Forager,” “Travels in Georgia,” “A Fleet of One,” “Tight-Assed River”), practical writing tips (“If you have come to your planned ending and it doesn’t seem to be working, run your eye up the page and the page before that. You may see that your best ending is somewhere in there, that you were finished before you thought you were”), an illuminating discussion of chronology versus theme – the most piquant is the chance to partake again, from another angle, of the joys I’ve experienced within McPhee’s resplendent oeuvre, in the presence of a voice and mind I’ve come to love.

Postscript: Another piece in this week’s issue that deserves a special shout-out is Nathan Heller’s absorbing “Semi-Charmed Life,” a survey of books on “twentysomething culture.” I particularly enjoyed the opening section, a limpid remembrance of a month Heller spent in Reykjavik when he was twenty-two (“My life at that time was full of passing relationships: people I knew for days, or even hours, and who posed for Polaroid-like snapshots in my memory which outlast many of the long-exposure images I’ve collected since”). I like the way Heller moves from personal history to critical analysis and back again. His method generates several gorgeous lines (e.g., “The skin above her collarbone had the clean, smoky, late-October smell of candle wax”). Writing this descriptive, personal, and sensuous infuses criticism with fresh potential. 

1 comment:

  1. I completely agree that McPhee's take on issues of structure in his writing was fascinating.