Saturday, March 17, 2007

Writer's grandson chalks grafitto with white sedimentary rock. Anticlimax ensues.

I've long been a fan of John McPhee, poet of the restless earth's continental drift. He's a marvelous writer. I still retain a sense of wonder at the organic life of rock which comes directly from Annals of the Former World, the collection of New Yorker articles for which he was awarded the 1999 Pulitzer Prize. But geology is only a small part of his output in a long writing career. He has written about everything -- including two classics of sports writing and creative nonfiction, Levels of the Game, about Arthur Ashe's early career, and A Sense of Where You Are, his first published book, about Bill Bradley. But McPhee can also be prolix, mannered and digressive to a fault.

I must confess that I did not finish his most recent piece in the March 12 New Yorker, "Season on the Chalk." I made it most of the way through but flagged near the end, and the magazine is still resting on the shelf in the bathroom, where I might pick it up again, or I might not. The article is about the huge chalk deposit that started to accumulate 100 million years ago and underlies the English Channel and its surroundings. It starts promisingly enough.
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."
(Since the article isn't online, I'm indebted to John Bucher at New Yorker Comment for the opening graf, which he must have typed up himself -- unless the article started out online in last week's issue, and he copied and pasted it into his blog before it was subsequently taken down. That's possible, because his link to the article no longer links to the actual article, but maybe that's not his doing. Now it links to another new feature of the redesigned online New Yorker: a rather leisurely and detailed summary of the article titled "Abstract," an apparent placeholder for missing or broken links to articles. John's post about "Season on the Chalk" links to several others and invites comment. This started out as a comment, but his comment link seems to have gone missing for the McPhee post, so I guess this is my comment. End of digression.)

While writers' dwelling on their own or closely related children usually puts me in mind of W. C. Fields' views about children, I was open-minded about the introduction of little Tommaso. After all, chalk has been associated with graffiti from time immemorial. Maybe McPhee could gather some metaphorical resonance from his grandson's reenactment of the human need to imprint ourselves wherever we go. Unfortunately, no. The extended passage becomes downright precious as Tommaso completes his graffito, with a bit too much grandfatherly pride breaking what spell the writing might have generated, and winding down anticlimactically with evidence that young Tommaso is not nearly the writer his grandfather is, though his grandfather is himself, in point of fact, undermining his own credentials with this little bit of familial indulgence.

Although I kept slogging on as McPhee meandered around the English and French landscapes and underground into caves carved into the chalk that have held champagne as it ages for hundreds of years and which pilots shot down during World War II used to escape from the Germans, my momentum was broken. Ultimately, all the signs of human activity never quite rose to the level of metaphor but only distracted from the rock itself. For this reader at least, McPhee simply did not animate the history of chalk with nearly the passion and poetry he previously brought to the history of rocks like limestone, basalt and granite.


JJB said...

Cheers for the heads-up -- I got the comments malfunction sorted out.

True enough about flagging attention. I did make it all the way through the first time, and tried the article again when I got stuck with nothing to read on the bus, but it doesn't repay rereading. I flamed out after the bit about the grape-crusing machine.

zp said...

Tell me about it. Children + New Yorker = Dreck. Most Often.

Dr Diablo said...

I recently finished IRONS IN THE FIRE, a collection of pieces in which McPhee takes us behind the scenes of various occupations. His article on forensic geology was fascinating. I also read ORANGES, his inside look at the citrus industry.

This "poet of the particular" stuff gets on my nerves sometimes. McPhee assumes there is interest in everyone and everything if we only get up close. That's true, but like most truth, it is only true to a degree. He pads ceaselelly with accounts of trivial social interactions and marginal bits of history. He is one of those rare authors who can write 75-page books in which it is possible to bog down.

I wouldn't be surprised to see McPhee follow Bud the janitor around as Bud discourses about the various types of lint, the spicy email drafts in the wastebaskets in the executive suites, and the unwritten Custodial Code that says you don't turn in the previous shift for failing to lock doors behind them. The resulting book, CLEAN SWEEP, will be twice as long as it needs to be.

Don't get me wrong. I like McPhee and will read more of him. However, his lack of emotional impact and lack of scope make him just the kind of minor writer that NEW YORKER readers love. You can read him on the train and never arrive home too agitated to eat dinner.