13 March 2014

Into the chalk

John McPhee, who inadvertently screwed up Tom's writing career, returns this week in an absorbing wander through the Cretaceous chalk of England, France, and the Netherlands: "Season on the Chalk" (March 12).

McPhee is considered one of the pioneers of 'creative non-fiction,' a genre Wikipedia defines, flatly, as "using literary skills in the writing of non-fiction." I haven't known about McPhee for a long time, but the magazines containing his stories about river barges and coal trains were some of the few possessions that made it back from Asia with me.

The first paragraph of "Season":

The massive chalk of Europe lies below the English Channel, under much of Northern France, under bits of Germany and Scandinavia, under the Limburg Province of the Netherlands, and—from Erith Reach to Gravesend—under fifteen miles of the lower Thames. My grandson Tommaso appears out of somewhere and picks up a cobble from the bottom of the Thames. The tide is out. The flats are broad between the bank and the water. Small boats, canted, are at rest on the riverbed. Others, farther out on the wide river, are moored afloat—skiffs, sloops, a yawl or two. Tommaso is ten. The rock in his hand is large but light. He breaks it against the revetment bordering the Gordon Promenade, in the Riverside Leisure Area, with benches and lawns under oaks and chestnuts, prams and children, picnics under way, newspapers spread like sails, and, far up the bank, a stall selling ice cream. He cracks the cobble into jagged pieces, which are whiter than snow. Chalked graffiti line the revetment have attracted the attention of Tomasso, who now starts his own with the letter "R."
McPhee is one of the few writers who can take three delicious pages to describe a chef making a hamburger. I know what Tom means, though: You get sucked into a McPhee article, and, bright with admiration, you start affecting his style. But you lack his skill, his ability to fashion a garment from the pretty weave of detail and character. First your editors denounce you, then your readers leave you. And then you're not a writer anymore.

I had a similar brush with J. P. Donleavy a few years ago. All about dropped pronouns.

Enter the McPheeniacs:

Knight Science: "The profligately verbose John McPhee brings his usual, distinctive, mesmerising goulash of facts, asides, rambles, sketches, and odd rhythmic use of science jargon to a fixating tour of Europe’s Cretaceous chalk.

Branner: "I don’t know who else could mingle geology and terroir, geography and genealogy, the personal and the historic, all the while namedropping geologic time periods and stages like they’re a-list celebrities arriving at the Oscars."

NewMexiKen: This week’s New Yorker has an article by McPhee. What’s it about? you ask. Who cares? It’s by John McPhee.
Say 'profligately' three times fast. It's impossible.

Feel free to have a run at his first graf, too. I'd love to hear some dissenting voices.

Originally published on Mar 13, 2007

4 comments:

Rosa said...

John McPhee is wonderful of course--books of his have made me desperately want to visit both Iceland and New Jersey. I love his bit about coal trains in the New Yorker awhile ago.

If your interested--the Scientific American not to long ago ran a story about various causes of the four mass extinctions. The reasons are similar to the one McPhee talks about in the article (anoxic oceans etc.) and the Scientific American article goes into a little more depth--if not so poetically as McPhee. The issue's main story was about Supernovae.

If it was any other writer the constant references to his darling grandchildren would have been annoying...but he can get away with that I suppose.

JJB said...

In total agreement. The beginning bit with the kid writing ROCK ON, SKI-MAN was stretched to the point of breaking, but it held.

If he were two measures less talented, the kitch would overpower you.

I'll check out the SA article -- cheers.

vimax canada said...

John McPhee is wonderful of course--books of his have made me desperately want to visit both Iceland and New Jersey. I love his bit about coal trains in the New Yorker awhile ago...!!

vimax canada said...

John McPhee is wonderful of course--books of his have made me desperately want to visit both Iceland and New Jersey. I love his bit about coal trains in the New Yorker awhile ago...!!