Well, I knew I had to have McPhee on the shelf. The question was which of his many books to include. I chose Pieces of the Frame because it was one of the early volumes of his that I read, because it's a collection of essays which he wrote in his capacity as staff writer for the New Yorker, and because there's a passage from "Reading the River" that I used for many years in my classes to illustrate how syntax can sometimes be artfully designed to reinforce or add a subliminal charge to whatever description is being attempted. I wrote about this passage in a Throughlines post way more than five years ago. But I'm going to have at it again. Here it is:
When modern canoemen go down a river in a wild-water race, covering distance against a clock, the amplitude of what they do is not so immediately apparent as it is when, at a time of leisure, they stop to enjoy a rapid. They can, for example, go zipping down a braided white torrent and suddenly stop dead in the middle of it, turn around, and hover, like a trout in a stream. Facing the current, they will nose down behind a ledge and let the full force of the river pour upon their bows while they sit there contemplating. They will come schussing through a rip, crash through an eddy wall, rest a moment, poised and quiet, then peel off through the far line of the eddy and drop so fast that soon only their heads are visible from the place where they paused to rest. Darting into an eddy on one side of the river, they will sit steady, facing in the direction from which they came, then slice the canoe decisively into the main current, paddling hard upstream. The result of this maneuver, called a ferry, is that they go skidding sidewise directly across the river, despite its velocity, without moving six inches downstream. To them, the white water is not a chaos of flow and spray but a legible language, and they know how to read it.
What interests me about this passage is the way the language moves, and, more to the point, the way that the movement of the language mirrors the movement of the "modern canoemen." Two sentences illustrate this particularly well.
They can, for example, go zipping down a braided white torrent and suddenly stop dead in the middle of it, turn around, and hover, like a trout in a stream.
What I admire here is the work done by the commas. The two commas at the start of the sentence set up a tentative, stop-and-go rhythm that is released in the middle part of the sentence, which not coincidently is about canoemen zipping down the river. When they stop, the commas return, three of them this time, to again create a rhythm in the syntax which mirrors that of the men in the water. I also note with satisfaction the placement of the simile at the end of the sentence, where the canoemen are compared, aptly, to fish.
They will come schussing through a rip, crash through an eddy wall, rest a moment, poised and quiet, then peel off through the far line of the eddy and drop so fast that soon only their heads are visible from the place where they paused to rest.
The same dynamic is at work here, but with the commas clustered at the start of the sentence, four of them this time, before the sentence plunges headlong with no interruptions to its end. Again, the movement of the language mirrors aurally the movement of the men in their canoes being described visually.
It's about at this point that my students will object, asking something like "Do you really think the author thought about this (their hypothesis being that no one would), or did it happen by accident. At which point I admit that I have no real way of knowing, but that there is ample evidence that careful writers respectful of their craft, like McPhee, do in fact think about such things. Raymond Carver, for example, has this to say in his essay "A Storyteller's Shoptalk":
Evan Connell said once that he knew he was finished with a short story when he found himself going through it and taking out commas and then going through the story again and putting commas back in the same places. I like that way of working on something. I respect that kind of care for what is being done. That's all we have, finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones, with the punctuation in the right places so that they can best say what they are meant to say.
Perhaps McPhee did consciously deploy his commas in this way with these effects in mind. Or perhaps he was just working intuitively to find the right way to capture this very complex reality in words. Either way, it works, and there's there for those who have eyes to see. To steal his own metaphor and turn it back on him, I'd argue that in the same way that the canoemen are learning to read the river through long experience of paying careful attention over time, careful readers need to learn to navigate the waters of prose by reading alertly and attentively over time
McPhee is the kind of writer who rewards that kind of close attention, which is one of the reasons why he's on my list.
Addendum Jan 7, 2013: Just got an email with the table of contents for the January 14 issue of the New Yorker, which features an interesting essay by McPhee on design structures in writing. (You'll need to be a subscriber to read the article, or pick it up on the newsstand or at the library.)