Running Off the Edge of the Imagination: Becoming-Alaska in John McPhee’s ‘Coming into the Country’.

Coming in to the Country (1977)

What follows is a (very!) early draft of a chapter concerned with the representation of Alaska in John McPhee’s excellent book ‘Coming into the Country’. My primary aim here is to attempt to position the work as minor literature – a key concept for the expanded critical regionalism sought here. These are some very preliminary observations and weaving together of existing ideas on McPhee’s output. The title – hopefully – hints at the Deleuzeoguattarian thought I aim to explore and employ here, alongside their idea of a minor literature . These will be expanded upon as the chapter develops and later drafts will be posted here. It is probably lacking some context (since this will be the fourth of five chapters in my thesis) but any feedback or comments will be gratefully received. Thanks.

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If the role of the surveyor was to present an abstract topography by drawing it into the grids of the map, the writer was often engaged in a reverse process, creating a substantive place in the reader’s imagination, unmeasurable and volatile, the “true” places Melville noted as impossible to map” (Van Noy, 2003:17).

Characters are not harmonious and unified substances but assemblages or ‘refrains’: a collection of body-parts, gestures, desires and motifs. Each character therefore opens out on to a unique world or becoming, a unique way of moving through life and connecting with life” (Colebrook, 2002:107).

At Anchorage International Airport, there is a large aerial photograph of Anchorage formed by pasting together a set of pictures that were made without what cartographers call ground control. This great aerial map is one of the first things to confront visitors from everywhere in the world, and in bold letters it is titled “ANCHORAGE, ALASKA. UNCONTROLLED MOSAIC”” (McPhee, 1977:135).

John McPhee’s distinctive brand of literary non-fiction, honed first at Princeton, later at The New Yorker and in 30 subsequent books, offers an invaluable insight into how competing versions of region – and of regionalism and critical regionalism themselves – might produce polyphonic, dialectical and, most crucially, active readings (and readers) of American landscapes. The term ‘literary non-fiction’ is, in itself, a slippery one but, if one is to take Pearson’s (2003) definition of it as having arisen “in the turbulence and disorientation of the 1960s as a literary challenge to consensual wisdom and accepted authority” (145), then its usefulness to the critical regionalist becomes readily apparent. Furthermore, existing analyses of McPhee’s prodigious output, whilst not naming it as such, hint just as clearly at the critical regionalist credentials of his work both as process and product; aligning it, on numerous occasions, with ideas of both structure and architecture both of which provided the initial impetus for a theory of critical regionalism. Much of this existing scholarship revolves around McPhee’s most celebrated work, Annals of the Former World (1998), wherein, according to Howarth (2003), “the earth is integral, connected, tectonic: a word meaning built or constructed, creating the architecture where nature makes a home” (46). Here, as Stevens (2003) has suggested, McPhee “does not recount a single narrative but rather touches upon tens of hundreds of lithic (Greek lithos = stone) stories” (227), exploring the radical changes wrought upon the field of geology by the theory of plate tectonics since its emergence in the 1960s: in itself, another challenge to ‘consensual wisdom and accepted authority’. By employing the language of geological science – wherein McPhee (1998) himself finds “a fountain of metaphor” (31) – Annals itself becomes ‘tectonic’: on the one hand, constructed upon its subject, on the other, aware of the shifting, unstable plates on which it is sited. Whilst geological time might be theorised as ‘straight’ – stretching backwards from the present to the past – tectonic theory significantly challenged this notion and McPhee’s exploration of this process is realised in the product wherein, “he often digresses from the story’s forward motion to suggest an experiment in progress, lurching ahead ten years and then sideways for twenty” (Howarth, 2003:33).

Howarth (2003) further elucidates McPhee’s writing process as an “array: beginning, middle, end” (31): again suggestive of rootedness. But “its logic is of no ordinary, abecedarian variety, running from A to Z, 1 to 10” (ibid). Hence, for Howarth, his work “begins to loop and link like a literary Möbius strip” (ibid:50). It is this sense of movement, fluidity and rhizomatic narrative meandering, which I wish to explore in more detail in McPhee’s Coming into the Country (1977) which details his travels around Alaska in the 1970s, shortly after the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay and a time in which the rugged landscape, the permanent frontier, found itself subject to the imposition of competing meanings and understandings. In much the same way as the early surveyors and ‘boundary markers’ and later literary figures such as Thoreau, Melville and Muir, McPhee (as in his use of geological and scientific terminology in Annals) “rel[ies] on and extend[s] conventional landscape rhetoric in [his] depiction of the region yet … [does] so in order to challenge and critique the ways nature writers have historically imagined Alaska” (Kollin, 2001:25). In this way, it is my contention that Coming into the Country can be positioned as minor literature – a key component of the expanded or reframed critical regionalism we are seeking here – since McPhee has “to conquer [his] own language … in order to place it in a state of continuous variation (the opposite of regionalism) … us[ing] the minor language to send the major language racing” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987:105) (emphasis in original).

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