In Coming into the Country, John McPhee's account of the land and people that make up the entity of Alaska, the author frequently blends narrative and exposition in order to inform his readers of scientific or historical facts while engaging them in an entertaining story, and the passage below exemplifies this technique as McPhee uses it throughout his book. Within a fairly short description of one evening spent fishing, the author incorporates the detailed drama of Fedeler's landing a fish, scientific information about the migration patterns of salmon, and a complex characterization of his friend Pourchot. Not only does McPhee mingle these different aspects of his work within a single paragraph, but at points he even presents them simultaneously: the description of the salmon's behavior is at once a simple statement of fact, an engaging story, and a personification of the fish themselves.

Standing on the shore, Fedeler snaps his wrist and sends a big enamelled spoon lure, striped like a barber pole, flying over the water. Not long after it splashes, he becomes involved in a struggle with something more than a grayling. The fish sulks a little. For the most part, though, it moves. It makes runs upriver, downriver. It dashes suddenly in the direction of the tension on the line. His arms now oscillating, now steady, Fedeler keeps the line taut, keeps an equilibrium between himself and the fish, until eventually it flops on the dry gravel at his feet. It is a nine-pound salmon, the beginnings of dinner. I catch one, a seven-pound adolescent, and let it go. Pat Pourchot, whose philosophical abstinence from fishing has until now been consistent, is suddenly aflush with temptation. Something like a hundred thousand salmon will come up the Kobuk in a summer. (They are counted by aerial survey.) The Kobuk is three hundred miles long and has at least fifty considerable tributaries — fifty branching streams to which salmon could be returning to spawn — and yet when they have come up the Kobuk to this point, to the mouth of the Salmon River, thirty thousand salmon turn left. As school after school arrives here, they pause, however, reconnoitre — prepare for the run in the home stream. The riffles we see offshore are not rapids but salmon. Pourchot can stand it no longer. He may have phased himself out of fishing, but he is about to phase himself back in. Atavistic instincts take him over. His noble resolve collapses in the presence of this surge of fish. [p. 23]

This sort of blended narrative can have a subtle and yet powerful effect on McPhee's readers. Because the author does not separate background information from the first-person story he tells, but rather presents each as it is relevant to his account as a whole, he succeeds in allowing readers to experience Alaska as he does. McPhee answers the factual questions that readers are likely to have as they arise in the context of his story; using techniques such as the parenthetical note "They are counted by aerial survey," he demonstrates that, like the reader, he was once unfamiliar with the information at hand. The author's seamless integration of narrative and exposition allows readers to enter Alaska along with McPhee, understanding its objective and subjective facets in their inherent interrelation.

Questions

1. McPhee himself only enters into this passage once, with the sentence: "I catch one, a seven-pound adolescent, and let it go." Why does the author choose to include this nonessential detail? How might the passage have been different if he hadn't?

2. Why does McPhee select the word "atavistic" to describe Pourchot? How does this description relate to the themes explored in the rest of Book I?

3. In describing the behavior of the salmon, the author uses a number of precise figures ("a hundred thousand salmon," "three hundred miles," etc.). How do these specifics affect the way you read the passage? How do they affect McPhee's persona as a narrator?

4. McPhee describes Federler's salmon as "sulking," a fishing term which means remaining motionless after being hooked. In addition, does this term add to the characterization of the fish? How do the short sentences immediately following this one further develop that characterization?

5. How does the integration of informing and entertaining readers that McPhee employs here relate to the various ways in which exposition and narrative have interacted in the other works we've read? Does Didion's first-person narration use a similar technique? How does the combination of character and information (or argument) appear to have evolved since Wilde's dialogue "On The Decay of Lying"?


Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses

Last modified 7 November 2007