The standard bearer for “creative non-fiction,” John McPhee has a clean writing¬†style that reads like you’re reading a magazine. The problem is, you are¬†not reading a magazine–you’re reading a book. And therein lies my problem¬†with McPhee. I have nothing against fix-up books, i.e., taking magazine¬†articles and collecting them into volumes for book publication. It’s a¬†long and established tradition, and preserves great magazine writing that¬†would otherwise languish in microfiche drawers. But it seems that some¬†writing makes the transition better than others. Take Stephen Jay Gould,¬†for instance; although his essays originally saw print in Natural History,¬†when you read the collection, they seem as fresh and lively–as timely–as¬†the day they were written. McPhee seems dated, and the connections seem¬†tenuous at times, with the endings sometimes falling flat.

I read The Control of Nature over a year’s period. This was the¬†most recent book given to me by Jill to read (we have alternated recommending¬†books to each other, but gotten behind in recent months), and then, prior¬†to going to Switzerland, we obtained La Place de la Concorde Suisse¬†to study up on that country. By these, I assume that most of McPhee is¬†well-researched, anecdotal non-fiction on a topic, wandering merrily from¬†place to place with a theme in mind, if no actual structure. Maybe I’m¬†being harsh, and I’ll freely admit that McPhee can get across some of the¬†most mundane details, but I really had trouble with his article construction.¬†I’m not expecting topic paragraph, explication, and conclusion, per se,¬†but a road map and a legend would not be too much to ask in some cases.

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La Place de la Concorde Suisse, John McPhee, Noonday, 1984, ISBN 0-374-51932-3, $10,00, 150pp.

La Place de la Concorde Suisse is about the Swiss army, but,¬†as they say, when you talk about Switzerland, you talk about their defense.¬†Because everyone in Switzerland is in the army, you are talking about their¬†country. An incredibly rich country, and thus, an incredibly paranoid country.¬†Although many people are now looking at the Swiss, and especially their¬†banks, with new eyes following the revelations of Nazi war booty being¬†hid within their anonymous, numbered accounts, McPhee put them in the spotlight¬†a decade earlier here. While his light is not as bright as some of those¬†today, he did discover some interesting bits which had been hid by shadows¬†before, like their placement of explosives (or identification of where¬†to place such) under each bridge into the country, a discussion of the¬†surreptitious bombing they suffered under Allied planes in the war, and¬†the old boys network that links the army and the industry. At the end,¬†you don’t necessarily emerge with a message, but rather a portrait of the¬†country.

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The Control of Nature, John McPhee, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1989, ISBN 0-374-12890-1, $17.95, 272pp.

In contrast, message is the medium of The Control of Nature.¬†In a series of three essays, each regarding a different geographical region,¬†McPhee shows that in the war between man and nature it’s a case of the¬†humans on horseback facing a blitzkrieg of geological heavy artillery.¬†What amazes McPhee, and thus what comes across to the reader, is the arrogant¬†hubris of the people who feel that nature can be controlled. One essay¬†is about the Mississippi river, and how it has been channeled by dikes¬†and levees to stay on the course that it has been set on since the early¬†part of this century, although anyone can see that it is in its nature¬†to change course. Essay two is about the lava flows in Iceland, where the¬†engineers used the cooling power of the sea to divert the flow from a township–at¬†least for now. And, last, McPhee covers the shifting mountainsides of southern¬†California–not the mud of the beach homes, but the Santa Gabriel mountains¬†which are so geologically new that the rocks that they consist of are more¬†akin to sand. In each essay, the humans have fought the battle to a draw,¬†but the enemy is worse than any evil fantasy. Nature is unsleeping, its¬†forces are legion, and each battle it suffers no losses. The expense, in¬†both money and lives, of trying to withhold the inevitable seems to doom¬†the humans to lose. But they do not give up.

It’s not that I do not like McPhee. On the contrary, I find his subjects¬†fascinating, and his writing vivid. I just expected something more tight¬†and focused.

[Finished June 1998]


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