How Things FunctioN

John McPhee has written many articles and books about how individuals function in the world, and frequently about people working at seldom-heralded occupations. His pieces end up as profiles of these individuals, but very often the piece is constructed not so much around the chronology of their lives as around their occupations (functions).

In La Place de la Concorde Suisse, McPhee didn't follow a structure by function precisely, but many of the chapters concentrated on army units with specialized functions. McPhee also found ways to pull away from talking about this unusual army, an army

158 / writing creative nonfiction organized only to forestall invasion by an enemy, to give fascinating descriptions of terrain, geologic history, and individual officers and men. He gives us a popular Swiss expression, which could have been the book's subtitle, "Switzerland does not have an army; Switzerland is an army," and gives us detailed glimpses of Sections des Renseignements, whose function it is to provide army units with important intelligence information: Which farmhouse could shelter how many soldiers? What are the coordinates of that large barn over there where enemy soldiers might stay? How much ammunition and explosives of what type are stored in that camouflaged cave carved out of solid granite? Another chapter gives us an understanding of the important function horses have in such steep terrain and which farmers' horses are certified as suitable should the invasion come today. In another chapter we learn about the possibilities and problems of armored tank warfare in this mountainous land, while another takes us into the artillery units. We find out, too, how the annual maneuvers involve two "armies," the Blue and the Red.

McPhee, in a less well-known early article (the title story in the collection Giving Good Weight), gives us a fine profile of New York City's Greenmarket. He opens the piece in media res with a scene in that open-air market—people "squeezing the melons," "pulping the nectarines," "raping the sweet corn," and speaking in New York dialects. After we know how such a market functions with its shoppers, he takes us outside the city to other people and places that work to keep the Greenmarket functioning effectively: the huge packing house at Van Houten's farm in Orangeville, Pennsylvania, where cabbage, cucumbers, broccoli, eggplants, and other produce are grown and packed, and then to an area along the New York—New Jersey line where towns stand like small islands in the midst of a black-dirt sea. Pine Island, New York, is the largest and most productive muckland of them all. From this fertile black muck come many of the vegetables bound for the Greenmarket: celeries, beets, iceberg lettuce, carrots—and above all, onions. McPhee says, "What the beluga is to caviar, the muckland is to the onion." From this "ugly black soil" come the Red Globes, White Globes, Yellow Globes, Buccaneers, Bronze Age, Benny's Reds, and Tokyo Long White Bunching onions. This soil functions as onion heaven, a soil so organic it'll burn. By the time the article finishes we know not only what Greenmarket feels, sounds, and smells like, we understand how it functions as a system with lines radiating out from New York City to the still agricultural lands surprisingly close by.

In his collection with the unexpected title Table of Contents, McPhee's major piece is a study of a new breed of doctor in rural communities engaging in what's called "family practice." In this long article, "Heirs of General Practice," he lets us watch how these hardworking, often young, doctors function. We learn that these "generalists" have to know so many different specialties that they are now board certified as "specialists" to legitimize the fact that they're not. These "comprehensive specialists" practice family medicine in the belief that if the doctor treats your grandmother, your father, and your niece, he or she will be better able to treat you. These doctors are responsible for the total health care of the individual and the family— and, where feasible, the extended family of two, three, or four generations. Although the piece is not structured entirely on a function basis, McPhee does walk us around with these doctors, listening in and watching them perform many of their multiple functions.

Mark Kramer provides us with a look at a more traditional medical specialist, the surgeon. In this first book by Kramer, Invasive Procedures, he takes us into diagnosis sessions with the patient and the surgeon. That's fairly unusual for a writer to do, but then he takes us on a most unusual journey right into the operating arena. We watch the surgeon, doctors, and nurses perform their individual and teamwork functions. I recommend reading this book in tandem with McPhee's "Heirs of General Practice."

In a feature article in the New Yorker, "A Reporter Aloft: Small Airports" (August 26, 1985), Burton Bernstein flies his readers to a number of what he calls "tenuous airports" in the Northeast. Although he ties the article together organically by flying us to each airstrip, his real purpose is to show us all the various functions involved in the "small airport system." We learn in a most interesting style all kinds of functions performed by the pilot, the air controller, airport manager, and others pivotal or peripheral to the system. We also learn about gliders, ultra-lights, and flying boats, and how these function differently.


The second variation on structure by function differs from the first primarily in its purpose. Articles and books of the second type are structured largely around functions but have a primary concern— the early development of a thing, person, or system. Examples include how a new house comes to be; how a new kind of computer comes to be; how a minihydro power generation system develops; how Olympic champions develop; and how one goes about selling to the public a presidential candidate.

Tracy Kidder has written two excellent books that deal with two completely different subjects—houses and computers, but he structured each largely by function. In his book House, he chronicles the entire house-creating process from the clients' first dream about a new house, to working with the architect toward a design to approximate the dream, to both groups working with the craftspeople involved to carry out the collaborative vision. Kidder treats other subjects, such as the lumber industry and architectural trends, but he structures the book around three major functioning groups: clients, architects, and builders. This triangle of sometimes opposing, sometimes cooperating forces has the strength inherent in the physical triangle. These major functions, of course, are performed by people, and Kidder does a fine job of making us understand what makes these individuals tick or function. This book could be used as a textbook on how to write nonfiction creatively. At first blush, one would think it unlikely that a writer could treat this topic creatively, but listen to some of the words from House:

The air has some winter in it. On this morning in mid-April, 1983, a New England spring snow is predicted. The sky looks prepared. It has a whitening look. Several weeks must pass before dandelions appear, but the urge to build has turned April into May____Locke [the carpenter] is wearing jeans and work boots and an old brown jacket, a workingman's uniform. His clothes are clean and he is clean-shaven. He has straight brown hair, neatly trimmed and combed, and a long, narrow jaw. There is a delicacy in his features. You can imagine his mother in him. He has a thoughtful air. He studies his transit a moment, laying two fingers to his lips. Then, as he bends again to the eyepiece, he wipes his hair off his forehead and for a moment he looks boyish and defiant. The ceremony can begin as soon as the bulldozer arrives.

Tracy Kidder received a Pulitzer Prize for The Soul of a New Machine, his earlier book about how Data General Corporation's new computer, the Eagle (MV-8000), came to be. That book was not structured purely by function, but most of it dealt with function. Chapters on computers, computer people, and computer functions take up such as "The Wonderful Micromachines," "The Case of the Missing Nand Gate," "Midnight Programmer," and "La Machine." Within each chapter Kidder also gives the reader profiles of the key people providing the various functions involved in the design of a new type of computer. The book achieves tension and suspense because the teams are working on a new computer concept while the corporation's administrators believe the teams are simply trying to improve the existing products to compete against rival Digital Corporation's super-minicomputer, VAX. By showing us the individuals and teams functioning, Kidder shows us how a computer came to be.

To demonstrate the all-inclusiveness of structuring by function, consider the best-selling book The Selling of the President by Joe McGinniss. The book detailed, as no book had before, just how a presidential candidate is "sold" by the mass media to the American voting public. McGinniss structures the book around various media specialists and their functions in the "selling" or "marketing" of the candidate—in this case, Richard M. Nixon.

The author, using scenes as often as possible, shows specialists at work, or "functioning." He opens in the middle of things with a scene in New York's Hotel Pierre, where television directors, camera people, lighting experts (we mustn't see perspiration glistening on Nixon's upper lip), stage managers (we must have cue cards in the center, so we won't see the candidate's eyes shifting), and others function to produce a one-minute political commercial. (See page 94 for an actual scene from the book.)

Elsewhere in the book we learn how an advertising executive from Madison Avenue functions at higher levels as he tries to sell a man. We also listen in as one of the world's most famous still photographers, Eugene S. Jones, is brought aboard to prepare short commercials. His commercials used the then-new technique of "moving on" the still shots to give the impression of motion pictures but using the advantages of still photography. We're even introduced to an "ethnic specialist" performing his function of critiquing the ten panel shows produced by the campaign group, on which men and women from various ethnic backgrounds speak on behalf of the Republican candidate. McGinniss supplements his vivid descriptions of functions with a lengthy appendix that presents memoranda and reports associated with the campaign, with no comments or opinions by him. The cumulative effect of these eighty-two pages of appended real documents from the Nixon campaign is so devastating that any authorial comments would have been superfluous. McGinniss, wise enough to see that, stayed out of the appendix.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment