One after another, and then in bunches, like helmet tops of surfacing mermen, they came up in the outwash along the smooth wet sand.
What a great sentence. The kind you read and think, “I wish I’d written that.” It’s taken from a piece by Ian Frazier in the April 14 issue of the New Yorker titled Blue Bloods, which reflects on the current status of horseshoe crabs. And with that reveal, you can better appreciate the metaphorical gem at the heart of the sentence, describing a multitude of horseshoe crab shells inversely dimpling the surface of dark water lapping up on a full moon-lit beach in breeding season.
Frazier is a long time New Yorker staff writer, but as I read this piece I realize that he’s capable of much more than I’ve appreciated in the few pieces of his I’ve sampled in the past. It’s a particular surprise, since Frazier is also a humorist, and I’ve found his pieces in the Shouts and Murmurs section of The New Yorker to be horribly formulaic and devoid of humor (example: his “Cursing Mommy” pieces – oh please).
In this non-fiction piece, though, he’s a totally different author. That’s good, because whenever a new issue of this venerable, self-referential (and -reverential) magazine arrives, I look for articles of interest first, and second for my favorite staff authors. Some (like John McPhee) I’ll read regardless of the topic at hand, while others, like the just-deceased Jonathan Schell, I’m biased towards reading based on the author’s reputation for treating serious topics seriously, but not unduly impressed with as stylists. Too often, an issue arrives where neither the author nor the fluffy article selection tempts me to read anything at all. With this article, I’m shifting Frazier into the first list, and looking forward to his next time at bat to see whether he stays there.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Frazier has caught my eye, as he’s a writer in the mode of another New Yorker staff author, John McPhee: someone whose topics may not in fact be very topical or of great import, but whose writing is so well-crafted that it makes whatever he has chosen to write about worth reading. That’s certainly the case with this article, despite the fact that I learned nothing that I didn’t already know. But like McPhee, he populates his essays with interesting people introduced, and perfectly brought to life, in the merest handful of words.
Frazier shares the wealth of his style more liberally than McPhee, however. While the older author often throw off many pages of competent prose before bestowing a perfect metaphor or wry aside on the reader, in this piece every few paragraphs you encounter something that makes you smile, or stop to appreciate how economically, but effectively, Frazier has painted a scene or captured a revelation. Here’s another example:
I remembered a famous horseshoe crab fossil I’d seen pictures of. The horseshoe crab is in a matrix of rock that includes the fossilized imprint of the animal’s final tracks. In some distress, it left a wobbly, winding set of tracks and, at the end of them, died. Its fossil lies at the conclusion of its preserved last pages. Perhaps it found itself in anoxic water and couldn’t get out. But there is sense in what happened to it, a one-thing-after-another set of consequences, as there was, in fact, to everything around it and to all existence after and before. When no human consciousness existed, everything that did exist, including this dying horshoe crab, had its own story and made its own sense.
That’s gorgeously indulgent prose for The New Yorker, which for some time has defaulted in its non-fiction to a totally neutral, Spartan prose style, making for a dry read and leading the reader to an almost embarrassing sense of gratitude when someone (like McPhee) deigns to slip the reader a nugget when the editor isn’t looking.
As I’m between books, I plan to give one of his better-known books, Great Plains, a read. I’ll report back when I’ve finished it. In the meantime, if you have a similar love/hate relationship with The New Yorker, you might find that an earlier essay of mine on that topic may strike a chord.