ESSAYS: Driving Home: An American ScrapbookBy Jonathan Raban Picador, 604pp, £20
THOUGH NATURAL disasters are common and quickly forgotten, the Great Flood of 1993 – when the Mississippi River flooded almost 100,000 square kilometres of the American Midwest – endures with mythopoetic potency. Ole Man River is not just a river. It is a work of literature. It is a sacred dividing line. It is a dark and angry god. Of the Mississippi, Mark Twain wrote: “Ten thousand River Commissions cannot curb it or confine it, cannot say to it, Go here, or Go there, and make it obey; cannot save a shore which it has sentenced.”
Tens of thousands of people were forced to evacuate their homes; thousands of journalists replaced them. For the most part, these journalists came to tell the story of the flood through lifeless facts and figures, or old, sentimental stories of human loss, tragedy, courage, etc. Competition for audience was severe, but their job was easy: to sensationalise.
In the midst of the media swarm, the British-born novelist and essayist Jonathan Raban arrived, commissioned not by a newspaper but by a literary journal. Raban had recently relocated permanently to the US – specifically Seattle. And he had written an award-winning book chronicling a journey down the Mississippi by boat in 1979.
Raban's journalistic essay on the flood, Mississippi Water, was first published by Granta in the autumn of 1993. It is now collected in Driving Home: An American Scrapbook– a collection of Raban's essays, criticism and travel writing written since moving to the US 20 years ago.
Raban does what few writers and journalists dare – he demythologises his subjects, searches for unlikely, complex stories, re-examines the cliches, and brings his stories to life in small, exhilarating parts.
He speaks about the temptation to simplify the river’s character by its volume and velocity: “The trouble with these figures is that they make it sound as if the Mississippi was travelling downstream with the concentrated energy of a train. But its actual motion was more like that of the contents of a washing machine. It spun and tumbled, doubling back in swirling eddies and counter-currents.”
Raban is an extraordinary writer, which is to say his writing is eloquently simple, poetically essential. But what makes him unique among extraordinary writers is his patience, his awe-inducing slow, close descriptions: “The surface of the river was a lacework of rips and swirls: oily mushroom-heads, a hundred feet or so across, bloomed and spun; little whirlpools raced away in private zigzag tracks; everywhere the water was dividing, folding in on itself, spilling, breaking, spitting and sucking.” Meanwhile, the journalists around him seek the obvious, the dramatic. They swoop down in helicopters, argue with police, race each other to the prize.
Driving Homeis a collection of great variegation. The essays range from journalism, such as Mississippi Water, to Bush and the war on terror, to literary criticism, to the internet, to studies of the landscape and people of the place where he resides but refuses to adopt as his new home: Seattle and the American northwest. The variety suits his personality: though his tone is often affable, humorous, even avuncular, there is a mean Socratic streak in him – a desire to pursue the subject of wisdom in every subject he spots, to negate the knowledge we inherit from a society that depends on shallow idealism, greed, power, romanticism and buffoonery to survive.
At the age of 16, while working as a bus conductor, Raban found a book – William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity– that made him "learn to read all over again". Empson's secret to understanding poetry was "to drastically slow down; to read at the level of the word, the phrase, the line; to listen, savour, question, ponder, think". To read at this pace allows one to glimpse "the muddy depths of the living and changing language, a world of stubborn historic association, swarming puns, suggestive likenesses and connections".
Raban's project takes on special urgency because the literary approach to life – or the slow approach, or the Empsonian approach – has been marginalised to the point of extinction by the technological approach to life. It is not technology itself that troubles him; it is that gradually we transform ourselves from individuals who question inherited truths to a frenetic mob of information peddlers who accept these truths in order to speed the achievement of progress– which generally translates into earning money or being entertained or waging war. We hide in "hyperreality".
If the truth that fascinates the greedy, the superficial and the power-hungry exists above reality, beyond individuality and history, travelling at the speed of light, Raban seeks what he calls the “subaquatic” nature of things – depth in texts, depth in landscapes, and associations only superhuman patience can realise. In nature – such as the profoundly deep Strait of Georgia in the North Pacific – he finds complex symbols of human desire and disappointment – his own, of early explorers, of poets: “The tide is always trying to shift more water than the land will allow. The bottom is uneven, with raised sills that create unseen submarine cascades. These deep waters don’t run still.”
Raban looks closely here, and finds, in the turbulent deep, chaos and the ghost of George Vancouver, who explored the northwest in 1792. Vancouver was driven to gloom and despondency by the impossible task of measuring and mapping the “classic chaos theorist’s problem” – a coastline. “The more you measure, the longer it gets – until the whole concept of measurable distance becomes arbitrary and absurd.” Raban often finds himself near water, and if not near water, then borders of the imagination, surfaces, dividing lines, ideas (and ideologies), and texts. He stops and tries to see beneath the apparent. A gloomy and illuminated self is usually staring back at him.
Greg Baxter is the author of A Preparation for Death, published this month by Penguin Ireland