When you call John McPhee on the phone, he is instantly John McPhee. McPhee is now 86 years old, and each of those years seems to be filed away inside of him, loaded with information, ready to access. I was calling to arrange a visit to Princeton, N.J., where McPhee lives and teaches writing. He was going to give me driving directions. He asked where I was coming from. I told him the name of my town, about 100 miles away.
“I’ve been there,” McPhee said, with the mild surprise of someone who has just found a $5 bill in a coat pocket. He proceeded to tell me a story of the time he had a picnic at the top of our local mountain, with a small party that included the wife of Alger Hiss, the former United States official who, at the height of McCarthyism, was disgraced by allegations of spying for the Russians. The picnic party rode to the top, McPhee said, on the incline railway, an old-timey conveyance that has been out of operation for nearly 40 years, and which now marks the landscape only as a ruin: abandoned tracks running up a scar on the mountain’s face, giant gears rusting in the old powerhouse at the top. Hikers stop and gawk and wonder what the thing was like.
“It was amazing,” McPhee said. “A railroad created by the Otis Elevator Company. An incline of 60-something percent.”
Being a novelist is hard work. You are at your desk for often long, often irregular hours. Or for short hours that you wish could be longer. Frequently you struggle through one or the other without knowing whether a paycheck awaits you at the end. When your novel is published, you have to switch to a whole new skill set to assist with marketing and publicity. You may also have to face a new set of trolls.
At the same time, making up stories for a living is crazy wonderful. Having a legitimate excuse to obsess over language is utter relief. My books, although not autobiographical, still carry a piece of my heart; in becoming a published novelist, I feel as though I’ve in a way become the very thing I spent my life loving.
But what if becoming a published novelist was to rob the pleasure that inspired it? What if it was to hamper the act or, worse still, joy of reading?
New Mexico art collective Meow Wolf specializes in art you can walk around in; it’s built an interdimensional boat, a tiny coral reef, and a surreal grocery store. But the group’s first permanent installation, the House of Eternal Return, isn’t just a magical landscape. It’s also a huge, immersive science fiction story the size of a building. (Specifically, the size of an abandoned bowling alley, although once inside the only hint of the space’s provenance is a bowling ball embedded in one of the walls.)
You don’t exactly read it, of course—or rather, you don’t read all of it. Dotted around the two-level, 20,000-square-foot space are diaries, blogs, experiment logs, day planners, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, and notes you can sit down and page through. But there are also treehouses, arcade games, a laser harp, a giant musical light-up mastodon skeleton, and a washing machine you can slide through into a sparkling laundry hole. These, too, are part of the story.
There are two types of cooks, those who follow recipes and those who freestyle. I am a freestyler, cooking from instinct, intuition and habit. Sometimes it doesn’t work and I have to eat bad food. But when you’re over the stove, adding a little bit of this, and a little bit of that – tasting as you go to see if it’s working – cooking becomes more creative and playful. It’s like a different part of your brain takes over. You enter that elusive state that musicians, artists and writers can access at their peak creative time … you go into flow.
Recipes are instructions, which are the enemy of flow. Following them feels too much like work, like assembling Ikea furniture, or getting a new phone that you need to program from scratch. After work where all day you have people telling you what to do, it seems unbearable to me to also have to follow a recipe.
The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve is undoubtedly what scholars used to call a “whiggish” book: a study of western disenchantment, of intellectual progress, of the fading powers of the myths of a simpler age. But it is a more complex study than that. It is also an ode to human creativity and to the powerful grip of narrative.
Egan works a formidable kind of magic, however. This is a big novel that moves with agility. It’s blissfully free of rust and sepia tint. It introduces us to a memorable young woman who is, as Cathy longed to be again in “Wuthering Heights,” “half savage and hardy, and free.”