Sunday, May 12, 2013
April 22, 2013 Issue
Burkhard Bilger’s “The Martian Chronicles” and Ben McGrath’s “The White Wall,” both in this week’s terrific Journeys Issue, translate epic journeys into vivid prose. It’s interesting to compare their approaches. Bilger’s piece is about the landing of NASA spacecraft, Curiosity, on Mars. McGrath’s article chronicles the running of the 2013 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Both are descriptive marvels. For example, in “The Martian Chronicles,” Bilger describes Curiosity’s landing system, known as the Sky Crane, as follows:
The Sky Crane was a splayed, skeletal thing, with rocket thrusters for legs and cables spooling out of its belly. It looked like a robotic spider. The rover was more of a camel, with a knobby-kneed chassis and a long, many-jointed neck, surmounted by a binocular head. It was powered by a nuclear generator and bristled with lasers, scoops, cameras, and mechanical claw.
And here, in “The White Wall,” is McGrath’s depiction of musher Lance Mackey:
He had the lean face of a hound, a long braided ponytail, and kinetic energy that was almost feral. His neck, so taut that it resembled a system of ropes and pulleys, had an imprinted circle on its right side, as though he’d swallowed a key ring – the result of surgery, ten years ago, to remove a softball-size cancerous growth.
Both pieces are suspenseful: Will Curiosity’s newfangled Sky Crane (“‘A cockamamie device,’ one NASA researcher called it”) work? Will veteran musher Mitch Seavey (“a bit of a prickly character”) win the race? (I was rooting for him.) Of course, “The Martian Chronicles” contains more science (e.g., “Biologists now believe that cyanobacteria, which produce oxygen through photosynthesis, probably first appeared around 2.7 billion years ago, but the Great Oxygenation didn’t begin for nearly half a billion years”). But “The White Wall” has its complexity, too, comprehending a world of sled-dog racing detail (e.g., “Sled dogs consume as many as fourteen thousand calories a day while racing, but the abnormal weather had been threatening to wreak havoc with the athletes’ metabolisms. Into the soup went kibble, psyllium (for stool-strengthening), and a multivitamin, for the dogs fur”).
Both pieces are classic examples of New Yorker first-person reportage, in which the writer is a participant observer, e.g., “Late in the fall, during a rare lull in his work on the Mars program, Grotzinger and I took a drive to Death Valley – due east from his house in lush San Marino, across the front range of the San Gabriels, past Apple Valley and Barstow, and down into the great basin of the Mojave” (“The Martian Chronicles”); “Late in the morning, I had my first interaction with the kind of Iditarod fan who might fit the broader demographic that Dallas Seavey and Jim Keller were hoping to capture in their mainstreaming pursuit” (“The White Wall”).
Like some of John McPhee’s great pieces, “The White Wall” begins in medias res, on the third day of the race, with Dallas Seavey riding into Takotna on his sled. In contrast, the opening section of “The Martian Chronicles” (“There once were two planets …”) is statelier, more traditional, like the prologue of an epic narrative.
Which article contains the most inspired sentence? In terms of artful figuration, I like “On either side of the road, along the jagged crease of the San Andreas, the land rose and fell like crumpled butcher paper,” in “The Martian Chronicles.” But on the basis of capacity to surprise and delight, this combination from “The White Wall” is hard to beat: “‘I’ve never sunbathed on the Iditarod Trail before!’ a vet from New Zealand exclaimed, after stripping to her sports bra on the tarmac as she waited for a planeload of dropped dogs.”
Both pieces are extraordinary. I enjoyed them immensely.