I have finished the 2007 edition of the Best American Essays, and I’m a bit skeptical about whether they really are the best. Or maybe they are, I don’t know, I haven’t read enough essays to know if there were better ones, but I found myself wondering which ones might fit in a volume like Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay or the volume Joyce Carol Oates edited, The Best American Essays of the Century, and I don’t think there are many that would. Perhaps that’s too much to ask, though; how often do wonderfully great essays, ones that are good enough to last for centuries or millenia, get written?
Part of the problem, I think, is that I approached this volume immediately after reading Seneca’s Letters to a Stoic, which is, obviously, good enough to last for millenia. Seneca writes wise, philosophical essayistic letters that attempt to make sense of human nature and the world — their subjects and their tone seem significant and weighty and lasting. The essays in The Best American Essays are often weighty and serious, and they are occasionally philosophical, but they don’t seem lasting to me.
But there were a few that impressed me. I wrote about Marione Ingram’s essay “Operation Gomorrah” here; one other I think might possibly be great is Daniel Orozco’s “Shakers.” “Shakers” is about earthquakes in California, and I don’t think I can describe just how wonderful it is; it starts off scientifically, describing an earthquake’s P-waves and S-waves and L-waves, and then moves into a catalogue of how animals respond to these waves, before humans are aware of what is about to happen (I’m only giving you part of the passage):
Crows go mute. Squirrels play possum. Cats awaken from naps. Dogs guilty of nothing peer guiltily at their masters. Pigeons and starlings clatter fretfully on the eaves and cornices of buildings, then rise en masse and wheel away in spectacular rollercoaster swoops. Pet shop parakeets attempt the same maneuver in their cages. In the San Francisco Zoo, every single Adélie penguin dives and swims around and around their Plexiglas grotto, seeking the safety of what they believe to be open ocean. Big cats stop pacing, tortoises drop and tuck, elephants get antsy as pee-prone toddlers. The chimps on Monkey Island go ape-shit. Horses everywhere go mulish and nippy. Implacable cattle get skittish as deer. And a lone jogger on a fire trail on Mount Diablo gets lucky, for the starving cougar stalking her gets spooked by the subsonic pulse that rolls under its paw pads, and breaks off the hunt and heads for the hills, bounding silent and unseen up a hidden defile and leaving behind only a shudder of knotweed grass burnished amber by the waning light of an Indian-summer dusk.
Then the essay moves from scene to scene in places all across California describing people and animals as they feel the earthquake hit. It gives you little glimpses into a whole range of people and it does this dispassionately, describing minor events next to major ones without comment or transition. You read about a telephone repairman who falls off his ladder to his death; a woman stealing cigarettes, who, after the earthquake hits, carefully puts the box back; inmates in Folsom prison who “glare at one another as century-old mortar shakes off the ceiling and sifts down, dusting the tops of their heads like cannolis”; and a day hiker who falls into a ravine and breaks an ankle. He is left only three miles from his car, but he can’t move and has no water or warm clothing for the cold night.
This last story sets up the essay’s remarkable ending, which I’ll quote in full although it’s long:
And hours from now, after the sun has gone down, when he is shivering from the cold, when the cold is all he can think about, something remarkable will happen. A diamondback rattlesnake will hone in on his heat-trace and unwind itself from the mesh of a creosote bush and drop to the ground and seek the warmth of his body against the chill evening, slicing through the sand and sweeping imperiously between his legs and turning into itself until coiled tight against his groin and draped along his belly with the offhand intimacy of a lover’s arm. He will watch his dumpling-sized head in repose on his sternum go up and down with his breathing, its eyes open and indifferent and exquisitely wrought — tiny bronzed beads stippled black and verdigris. And his breaths will soon come slow and steady, and his despair will give way to something wholly unexpected. He is eyeball to eyeball with a rattlesnake in the powdery moonglow of Mojave Desert. He can hear birds calling back and forth — birdsong! — in the middle of nowhere. He can look up at a night sky that is like gaping into a chasm boiling with stars as if the celestial spigots were opened wide and jammed, and he can remember nothing of the life he’s lived up to now. And he will shake, not from cold or fear or from any movements of the earth, but from some vague and elemental conviction about wholeness or harmony or immortality. He will shake, resolute in a belief in the exaltation of this moment, yet careful not to disturb the lethal snake on his best. How cool is this! he will think. Wish you were here! he will think.
Also worth notice are Richard Rodriguez’s essay “Disappointment,” also about California, and Marilynne Robinson’s essay “Onward, Christian Liberals” about holiness and politics (really!). None of the essays are bad, exactly, they just aren’t all exactly great. But I suppose finding three or four great essays in a collection like this makes it worth while.