Whenever I read a book that isn’t great but merely good, the writer will fall into two categories. The first is where the writer could be great, if only some trimming and tweaking were done. Frank McCourt falls into this category with his classic memoir Angela’s Ashes, for while the book is filled with terrific scenes and description, structurally the book is weak. The second involves a writer that, despite being good technically, lacks the “highs” of the first writer. Macfarlane falls into this second category, for while The Wild Places is technically a good, solid book, there is something missing from the writing that no amount of tweaking could ever make it a great work. Many of the reviewers have been raving about how “poetic” Macfarlane’s prose is. Just to give you part of a blurb from the back of the book: “Boldly celebrates places that aren’t supposed to exist, and in prose that is at times very nearly as vivid and beautiful as the thing itself”—Rebecca Solnit.
This kind of blurb really aggravates me because of the selective, tip-toe aroundish word choices such as: “at times” and “very nearly” (since reviewers never want to come out and have a real opinion lest offend anyone), but all that is beside the point. Writing today has gotten so bland and dull, that when you have some writer with the slightest twist of phrase, he or she is immediately labeled “poetic.” In short, The Wild Places has a handful of memorable moments and some nice turns of phrases, but I wouldn’t label Macfarlane a “poetic” writer.
Just to give an example, here is probably the worst paragraph from the book:
- When I woke in the corrie above Doo Lough that night, at some point in the small hours, the cloud had passed away, and the moon was pouring its light down on to the valley. I was thirsty, so I took my metal cup and walked to the side of the corrie, and held the cup beneath the spill of one of the waterfalls. The water hit the tin and set it ringing like a bell. I drank the cold, clear rainwater, and looked down over the dark valley. The shadows of the mountains on either side of the lough were cast over its floor in clear black shapes.
Not exactly Loren Eiseley. Now, this isn’t bad per se, but note the predictable modifiers that tread into cliché and the straightforwardness of the scene. There are not rapturous turns of phrasings here, just matter of fact description that is in no way “poetic.” The back of the book even states: “With lyrical elegance and passion, he entwines history and landscape in a bewitching evocation of wildness and its vital importance.”
Lyrical elegance and passion? Uh, no. Yet, because this scene is just what it is and the writer is not trying to evoke emotion, saves it from being mawkishly trite. Instead, the above writing doesn’t do much of anything but act as filler. There are a number of times when his description dulls with obvious word choices and predictable phrasings, yet he does have some nice moments. Here is a scene where the author describes himself when he’s up in a tree:
- If I remained still for a few minutes, people out walking would sometimes pass underneath without noticing me. People don’t generally expect to see men in trees. If I remained still for longer, the birds would return. Birds don’t generally expect to see men in trees, either. Blackbirds fussing in the leaf litter; wrens which whirred from twig to twig so quickly they seem to teleport; once a grey partridge, venturing anxiously from cover.
This is better than the previous quote, the description is more memorable and the words have a nice music to them. Still, although The Wild Places is a good, solid book, what keeps it from being a great book is that Macfarlane lacks (at least from what I’ve seen) that Keatsian sense of Negative Capability – or those illogical leaps, in his writing. His essays, while pleasant, are still somewhat predictable, and I always know how they’re going to end. Never once, while reading, was I presented with something done in a new way. For a book that is celebrating the wild, it is ironic that these essays seem to be bundled up in cages. Moments do escape, like the previous one quoted above, but then predictable modifiers and obvious description pull the essay back in. “Moon was pouring its light,” “ringing like a bell,” "cold, clear rainwater,” “dark valley,” “shadows cast.”
How is any of this “lyrical elegance and passion” much less a “bewitching evocation of wildness”? Of course, most critics would not notice boring word choices, since so much of writing today is so flavorless.
The end of the book lists some of the author’s personal reading selections, yet I am baffled how he can recommend a crap poet like Ted Hughes under his “Wild” category and not list a great one like Robinson Jeffers? Or how Loren Eiseley could have gone ignored? I was surprised to find that the author and I are only six days apart in age – we’ll both be 32 this month. Yet the reason for my surprise is not because the book is rife with insights well beyond his years, but because he can come across as a bit old manish at times. (He’s a professor so that explains the didacticism and his affinity for bad and mediocre poets). In fact, it wasn’t until he spoke of his good friend Roger dying when he seemed to finally lead on that he had a pulse. When reading this, you’ll wonder if the author (given the dangerous circumstances he puts himself into, such as nearly freezing to death on certain summits) has ever muttered a curse word in his life. Fuck if I know.
And that’s not a criticism, just an observation. (I’m not suggesting he lard his next book with curses, just be a little less of a tight ass). Heavy emotion has generally been a problem with contemporary works – they saturate the reader with it, they are mishandled and result in scenes that are mawkish and trite. The Wild Places doesn’t have this “emotional” problem, yet there exists this bit of distance between writer and reader, and the work isn’t cerebral enough to challenge philosophically. But is it readable? Sure.
The Wild Places offers reflections on a myriad of places: water, land, summits, trees and more. Should you choose to read this, his message will be impossible to disagree with. It’s a mostly entertaining read, and although I sound like I’m complaining, I’d probably give it a 75 or 80 out of 100 – much better than most books. Lacking some of the passion of Krakauer’s Eiger Dreams and the depth and poetry of Loren Eiseley or even Barry Lopez at his best, The Wild Places has landed in some spot not among, but off to the side somewhere. Despite the formulaic weight academia has upon creativity, the author, let us hope, is still working his climb.