Reviewed by Michael Paul Mason
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Silk Parachute is John McPhee’s latest collection of essays, and perhaps his most revealing to date.
Longtime readers of The New Yorker know McPhee as a writer whose geological and gastronomical peregrinations have lent a distinct heft and flavor to the magazine over the years–and yet McPhee has always managed to keep himself in the margins of his work.
For readers old and new, Silk Parachute offers a number of insights into McPhee’s personal and work life, from the touching recollections that open the book, to the behind-the-scene glimpses of the editorial processes at the New Yorker. Together, the essays compose not a biography, but a self-portrait in prose, or the closest thing we might expect from the writer.
In a chapter about his daughter’s collaboration with another artist and an antique Deardorff camera, McPhee overhears the remark that “Color film prefers overexposure,” and quips that “I prefer not to be and was absorbing nothing.” In the paragraph, the sentence brings the quiet smile of a Zen joke, but alone, the sentence suggests McPhee’s position as a character–and he is a character–throughout the work.
As the book progresses, McPhee consistently delights us with amusing comments about his friends and coworkers. We wriggle alongside New Yorker editor William Shawn as McPhee writes about the creeping things that both he and Ian Frazier have eaten, and we’re introduced to the Holmesian methods of the magazine’s fact-checking department. With McPhee as a guide, it’s a pleasurable read to anyone, but for New Yorker enthusiasts, it’s a rare and wondrous treat to be let in on the magazine’s inner workings.
A disclaimer: I share editors with McPhee at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Those familiar with McPhee will assume the disclaimer unnecessary. Just as McPhee doesn’t need to include a single source in his work, he doesn’t need me to tell you that Silk Parachute is a curious, wonderful gift he’s given to his readers.
Michael Paul Mason is the author of ‘Head Cases: Stories of Brain Injury & Its Aftermath,’ published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. His work appears in magazines and newspapers, including Discover, The Believer, and NYT. Learn more at michaepaulmason.com