Chronology is useful but hostile to thematic content, the writer says.
You can build a structure in such a way that it causes people to want to keep turning pages. A compelling structure in nonfiction can have an attracting effect analogous to a story line in fiction.—John McPhee, in The New Yorker
“There’s nothing wrong with a chronological structure,” McPhee explains in a recent New Yorker essay. “On tablets in Babylonia, most pieces were written that way, and nearly all pieces are written that way now.”
And yet, after ten years of chronology at Time and The New Yorker, McPhee, who is famous for his intricate structures and says he is obsessed with structure, yearned for a thematically dominated piece. In his new essay, “Structure” (Jan. 14, 2013), he says almost always there is “considerable tension” between chronology and theme, and chronology wins. “The narrative wants to move from point to point through time, while topics that have arisen now and again across someone’s life cry out to be collected.”
You must, he says, find some way to “tuck them in.” In the case of his 1969 profile of an art historian, he was frustrated by how hostile chronology was to content, or what McPhee calls themes: “the theme of forgery was scattered all over the chronology of his life.” McPhee realized something: “A piece of writing about a single person could be presented as any number of discrete portraits, each distinct from the others and thematic in character, leaving the chronology of the subject’s life to look after itself.”
McPhee returned to chronology, more or less, for his famous 1973 article “Travels in Georgia,” about a team of biologists collecting road-killed animals and sometimes eating them. It opens with scene not on day one but later, and after that proceeds chronologically: “There are structural alternatives, but for the story of a journey they can be unpromising and confusing when compared with a structure that is chronologically controlled.”
I remember “Travels” also employing a huge flashback section later on that supplies background on its subjects at one’s Atlanta redoubt. But I may be wrong, from faulty memory or because, if you try to trace the biologists’ route across Georgia as presented in the story, it moves confusingly. They ping-pong from one corner of the state to another and—if you are trying to pinpoint their location—seem to make puzzling jumps. Once, about two years ago, after I thought I had its structure figured out, I tried to lead a class through it using a Georgia map and McPhee’s pretty but odd drawing, and we all became perplexed.
McPhee always lets the reader know where the actors are in “Travels in Georgia” but does not ensure the reader knows how they got there, which maybe isn’t important. Most readers go with the flow and aren’t ex-Georgians like me. Yet anyone trying to follow McPhee’s structural diagram while reading the piece may conclude its structure is too clever by half, however great the article—and it is wonderful.
There’s more on structure, a lot more, in McPhee’s chatty “Structure,” another of a series of valedictory essays the octogenarian immersion journalist and (of late) essayist has been publishing in The New Yorker. They’ve made me glad I’m a subscriber even if reading a writer on his structure tends to be only slightly more comprehensible than hearing a politician explain the fiscal cliff.
Still, having written a memoir that’s chronologically structured I rejoice to hear McPhee speak candidly about what a hard mistress chronology can be. We live our lives chronologically, of course, so it’s an easy structure for readers to grasp. But human memory doesn’t work that way—it’s a jumble from which images arise—and neither does our understanding.
In memoir, I realized several years ago, chronology is somewhat hostile to reflection. To say a memoir is chronological is to say, in effect, that it is driven by events; the person experiencing the events is, by definition, comparatively clueless. The tension between chronology and reflection accounts for why so many writers and critics are forever seeking a memoir that can escape the trap of chronology and ignorance and, instead, emphasize meaning (conveyed by a wiser, distanced narrator). And do this while preserving some sort of timeline. That is, to have a modicum of plot.
Bestselling memoirs tend to be plot-driven, while those that achieve the most literary respect tend to be reflective. Trying to bridge this chasm seems cruelly difficult, though it may be more wholesome to view it as a glorious challenge.