By John McPhee
“Transparent things, through which the past shines!” Nabokov writes in his short novel regarding the wellsprings and pitfalls of memory. For John McPhee, longtime New Yorker staff writer, pioneer of narrative nonfiction and author of some 28 books, wood-and-canvas canoes, English chalk lines, zirconium lacrosse shafts, a pair of jump seats in a mid-century Cadillac, and indeed, silk parachutes, comprise a few such transparent things. In his newly minted book of personal essays, Silk Parachute, McPhee moves fluidly between generations of family history, gradations of physical turf and layers of belletristic strata in search of nothing less than what’s interesting.
McPhee’s work in Silk Parachute is to turn wacky subtopics, such as the history of lacrosse and rattlesnake gastronomy, into relatable human narratives by introducing himself into the equation. All lines converge on the author’s experience, and he has two primary modes for presenting this material. First are his ardent, lavish pieces, such as “Season on the Chalk” and “Spin Right and Shoot Left.” These longer essays allow McPhee room to investigate not only a given storyline and its core implications, but also important minutiae, providing his work the richness and complexity that real understanding demands. As an essayist, McPhee gathers an exhaustive amount of keen detail on each subject, culminating in work that is studied, trenchant, easily palatable, and, in a few cases, groundbreaking.
The second mode consists of McPhee’s shorter episodes of lyrical reflection, exemplified most poignantly in “Silk Parachute” and “Swimming with Canoes” and, later, with knuckles bared, in the collection’s brusque topper, “Nowheres.” These stunning shorter pieces, which extract beauty and cogency out of unique experiences in the author’s childhood, ring across the page like arias, refocusing the greater body of the author’s work and whiplashing his readers to attention with their lyrical grace and rhetorical competence.
At his finest, McPhee is capable of delivering sentences and paragraphs so luminous and signal they recall Goethe. From the first lines of the book, one recognizes the presence of a subtle master at work. A list-maker, among many things, McPhee enjoys expertism in its myriad guises, (photography, lacrosse, geology) and takes on the double burdens of exactitude and assimilation in every last sentence of his field-tested, detail-ornamented prose. McPhee’s is an athletic American intellectualism, rife with the vocabulary and the verve of its varied subjects, conversant with the writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Wendell Berry, and Bill McKibben.
The title story, largely a reflection on his mother, Mary Ziegler McPhee, draws to a close with a moment of rumination on a toy she gave him for his birthday—a plastic figurine, which was attached with string to a silk parachute. This toy becomes a touchstone for the book’s material, an emblem of the power of image and memory recalled in the mind, time and again, with varying shades of misremembering. The figurine is one of many physical triggers—one of many recurrent, transparent things in the collection meant to exemplify the interpolation of imagination and remembering.
Folded just so, the parachute never failed. Always it floated back to you—silkily, beautifully—to start over and float back again. Even if you abused it, whacked it really hard—gracefully, lightly, if floated back to you.
John McPhee brings to the page a supreme interest in human ingenuity and creation. His overarching subject is the human experience of life itself. Nowhere in Silk Parachute is this pursuit more exactingly evidenced, nor is the writer’s zeal for literary memory more in abundance than in “Season on the Chalk.” While in Gravesend, England, McPhee’s grandson, Tommaso, writes words in chalk on the banks of the lower Thames. The author observes this versification and at once watches the yawls and dinghies on the water and in a sort of instantaneous mental causation, begins excerpting Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This multi-tiered literary reverie exists as a function of the author’s reminiscence—present tense images from life recall literary images rooted in the mind. This reverie also functions as a mechanism for remembering itself: the chalk, like the silk parachute, becomes the touchstone for the experience. The result is golden.
What doesn’t work in Silk Parachute? A few elements warrant consideration. Despite McPhee’s achievements in research and storytelling, there’s a strong element of old boy intellectual tourism in his writing. Although he is punctilious in his T-crossing and I-dotting when considering issues of race, class, or sexuality, at times one feels that his explorations are performed solely on behalf of, say, Princeton alumni. (He has lived in Princeton for 50 years and mentions the school at least once in nearly every essay). In a related sense, the longest piece in the book, by far, is wholly about the game of lacrosse, which McPhee himself acknowledges as a “privileged” sport.
Separately, several of the essays in Silk Parachute have a tendency to fall away from the reader without achieving an “epiphany moment.” “Rip Van Golfer,” for example, doesn’t round its introductory narrative to completion—it takes us to the end of the 2007 U.S. Open and rather leaves us there wondering what was the point.
Nevertheless, there’s plenty to love about this book. You will enjoy Silk Parachute if you enjoy reading about food, travel, family history, geology for laymen, and sports history. You will enjoy the book if you are fond of scrupulous attention to detail, qualitative analysis, and a variety of subject matter. You will enjoy this book, Silk Parachute, if you enjoy book culture, cosmopolitanism, good humor, and pedantic risk-taking. This is all to say that you will enjoy this new book of John McPhee’s if you enjoy reading the magazine that has been McPhee’s home for many years, The New Yorker.