Adam Gopnik says there are three types of essay: review essays, memoir essays, and what he calls ‘odd-object’ essays. I’m particularly interested in this last-mentioned type. It’s fascinating how the unlikeliest objects can provide the impetus for a piece of writing. Before I started to explore this genre I never realised how many things are poised to spring ambushes, luring the essayist into the astonishing mazes of meaning, memory, and association that they contain. Essays help attune the ear to the music of things. But I’m still startled – and delighted – by the sheer unexpectedness of the connections that proliferate once I start to really listen to the notes that sound in the objects that catch my attention.
The first essay I wrote – over twenty years ago – was sparked by thinking about the metal ferrule that capped the end of my father’s walking stick. The essay I’m working on now examines a vulture’s egg I found when I was twelve.
Looking through my seven published collections and the eighth that’s currently in press, I can pick out numerous other odd-object essays to add to the ferrule and vulture’s egg examples. Sometimes the identity of the object in question is evident from the title alone: ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Briefcase’, ‘Meditation on the Pelvis of an Unknown Animal’, ‘Sleepers’ — meaning railway sleepers. But often you need to go beyond the title in order to identify the originating object. In ‘Miracles’, for example, I’m concerned with a 32-million-year-old fossilized whalebone; ‘The Walking Buddha Beckons’ focuses on a nineteenth-century statuette from Thailand; ‘Memory Sticks’ considers four old walking sticks.
Of course odd-object essays aren’t just ‘about’ the objects they look at in a straightforwardly descriptive sense. It wouldn’t do to see the essayist as the verbal equivalent of a slavishly literal still-life painter, trying to lay down in words an accurate portrait of what appears before their eyes. There may be an element of plain representational writing (and the skill needed to do this well shouldn’t be underestimated) but it’s never the primary concern. As Adam Gopnik puts it, an essay of this type
Takes a small, specific object, a bit of material minutia, and finds in it a path not just to a large point but also to an entirely different subject.
It’s these unexpected, often meandering paths to destinations you couldn’t have anticipated at the outset that holds my fascination and keeps drawing me back to this type of writing. The essay about the ferrule turns into a meditation on language and how we acquire it; the essay on the vulture’s egg starts as a memoir about my boyhood egg collecting, but soon moves far away from that, to consider aspects of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, sky burial, archaeological finds on Orkney, and the history of touch. ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Briefcase’ may begin and keep returning to a briefcase, but it’s more concerned with aspects of sectarianism in Northern Ireland, the nature of leather, drumlins, the Book of Kells, and the artistic potential of sets of variations. At one point in that essay I say:
The briefcase, which on its own seems so limited, straightforward, closed – uninteresting – in fact harbours unexpected doors, locked only by our strange custom of not trying them; doors that give access to other times, other places, that quickly lead from the ordinary into the extraordinary.
Though I love finding these unexpected doors in odd-objects and exploring what lies behind them, I wouldn’t want to give the impression that all my essays fall into this category. ‘Obelisk’, for example – the longest essay I’ve published – may end up with an object – the obelisk of the title, which is part of a headstone at a remote cemetery in the hills above Belfast — but the essay explores the so-called ‘Lisburn Tragedy’ of 1898 which left a son shot dead and his father seriously injured under what remain mysterious circumstances. Far from looking at objects, what interests me here is the way different versions of history are manufactured and how difficult it can be to reach through the stories individuals remember or invent to find out what really happened. Often what I write about has nothing to do with objects — unless you could expand the usual definition of object so that it would include tracks left in snow, a cycle path, train sounds, remembered phrases, the sinking of the Lusitania, or encountering a terrorist in a secondhand bookshop.
One of the odd-object essays I most enjoyed writing was ‘Substitute Psychometry’, in my first collection, Irish Nocturnes. ‘Psychometry’ is the (alleged) ability, claimed by some mediums, to divine directly by touch the qualities, properties, and history of a thing. It’s a faculty I’ve often wished I possessed. Imagine if an essayist was able just to pick something up – a discarded shoe, a child’s doll, a rust-encrusted key, a hat, a sword, anything – and divine its story by touch alone. That would make essay writing easy! But writers have to work harder to open the unexpected doors in things. I had to employ the substitute psychometry of research in order to tell the story of the object that sparked this essay — a two-hundred-year-old bronze Japanese temple bell that I found being used as a doorstop in a County Antrim junk shop. Using individuals’ recollections, the inscriptions and symbols on this object’s four faces, and some knowledge of Buddhism and Japanese history, I was able to reconstruct its story — and add another chapter to it. In part, this essay is about the odd-object constituted by the bell — its manufacture in 1807; how it hung in Renge-Ji temple in Hiroshima Prefecture; its fate in World War II — namely confiscation for turning into armaments; how an Irish serviceman most likely took it from a military scrapyard and brought it home as a souvenir; its sale by a Belfast auction house whose records were destroyed in the Troubles; the years it hung in a quiet garden in Hillsborough and how, after a bereavement and house sale, it turned up in the junk shop. Finding all this out held something of the allure of a detective story. But the essay is as much about the contingencies of history as it is about this particular object, and about how we tune the elements of the earth into such different keys — from the haunting resonance of a temple bell to the detonation of an atomic bomb.
What gave me particular pleasure about this essay was that in the course of writing it I contacted Renge-Ji temple and offered to return the bell. It was deeply satisfying to be able to play a part in sending it home, seeing it come full circle and being re-hung at the temple in a special ceremony. I was especially touched by what an elderly member of the congregation told me. Whenever she gets sad, she says, she goes to the temple, rings the bell and finds comfort in the story of its homecoming.
The nineteenth-century Scottish essayist Alexander Smith, whose collection Dreamthorp deserves to be better known, once remarked that ‘the world is everywhere whispering essays and one need only be the world’s amanuensis’. This makes essay writing sound too much like taking down dictation, but I agree with Smith that there are openings into essays all around us.
Virtually any object can be a starting point — dog food, suburban lawns, the potato crisp, briefcases have all provided starting points for essays. Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects provides numerous examples of how all kinds of things can lead to the large points and entirely different subjects that Gopnik says characterize writing of this type. Reading MacGregor’s engaging history always reminds me of a comment made by Edmund de Waal in The Hare With Amber Eyes:
You take an object from your pocket and put it down in front of you and you start. You begin to tell a story.
Though not always as obviously interesting as the netsuke collection passed down through several generations of de Waal’s family, many objects nonetheless provide promising raw material for the weaving of essays. No wonder they’re sometimes viewed as nonfiction short stories.
Of course essayistic writing doesn’t need to be short. A focus on objects has led to some inspired book-length writing. The work of Henry Petroski is particularly notable in this regard. As he puts it in The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, ‘to scrutinize the trivial can be to discover the monumental’. That’s a sentiment most essayists would agree with. Petroski’s work shows how ‘the story of a single object told in depth’ can reveal more than a wide-ranging perspective. The Pencil offers a beautifully sustained example of the way Adam Gopnik says the odd-object essay proceeds: using a piece of material minutia as a springboard from which to dive into unexpected depths.
Gopnik isn’t alone in stressing the importance of objects in essay writing. In the Summer 2017 issue of New Hibernia Review, James Silas Rogers says that ever since Montaigne
It has been a favorite strategy of personal essayists to take a simple object and use it as a point de départ for a much larger consideration.
A lot of the pieces I’ve composed are examples of this strategy in action.
I think it’s quite correct to identify objects as an important feature of this genre. I’m happy to confess that many of my essays display the characteristics that Adam Gopnik, James Silas Rogers and others identify. But when I think of the objects I’ve written about — ferrules and temple bells, briefcases and whalebones, vulture’s eggs and clocks, pelvises and pieces of linen, it’s not so much the ‘oddness’ of the objects that needs emphasized, more that the ordinary things around us, the constituent bits and pieces of the blizzard of flotsam that falls on any life, once examined, once essayed, will come to seem odd. Essays that stress the peculiarity, the mystery, the strangeness of the ordinary, are surely much more interesting than those that just flag up what’s weird. Estranging the familiar, reminding us that the everyday is utterly extraordinary, is more what my essays are about than offering a peep show into mere grotesquery.
Chris Arthur is author of eight essay collections, most recently Hidden Cargoes — listed by the California Review of Books in its ‘Ten Best Books of 2022’. A new collection What is it Like to be Alive? will be published in March. For details of his work see: https://www.chrisarthur.org/.