The linear narrative essay: This essay structure is self-explanatory. The story is told in a straightforward narrative, and is usually told in chronological order. Sometimes, there are flashbacks contained in the essay, but that doesn’t disrupt the forward motion of the narrative. One essay that may be of interest in the coming weeks as we approach the August 21 “Great American Eclipse” is Annie Dillard’s “Total Eclipse,” which is published in her collection, Teaching a Stone to Talk.
The triptych essay: Just as a triptych painting features three panels, so too does a triptych essay feature three separate sections that are not continuous with each other, but that may shed light on the other two parts. See “Triptych” by Samina Najmi, which was published in World Literature Today.
The collage essay: This type of essay features bits and pieces – vignettes – of prose that are collected together to form an essay. They often resemble poetry as the writing for a collage essay tends to be lyrical. One of my favorite collage essays is Sherman Alexie’s “Captivity,” which appeared in First Indian on the Moon.
The experimental essay: These essays seem to buck all known structures. One of the most unusual of these essays is “The Body” by Jenny Boully. The pages of the essay are blank – except for the footnotes, which are extensive. It turns out that the footnotes are the entire essay. “The Body” is characterized as a lyrical essay
The last two forms of essay that I wish to discuss are the “hermit crab” essay and the “braided” essay, and here I’d like to offer more exploration of two particular essays that are examples of them.
The hermit crab essay: In 1972, John McPhee wrote “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” and it was published in the New Yorker. He used the original game of “Monopoly” – the original American version that was based on the streets of Atlantic City, New Jersey – and he uses going around the board as the frame for the essay, making this a perfect example of a “hermit crab” essay.
In the essay, McPhee is playing a game of Monopoly but he is also recounting walking the streets of Atlantic City. The game is taking place at an international singles championship of Monopoly play, where it is possible for two skilled players to play an entire game in fewer than fifteen minutes.
McPhee intersperses the history of America in the details, but also how Atlantic City was the planned “invention” as a railroad terminus that would be a “bathing village.” In preliminary sketches, the village was labeled as an “Atlantic city,” and the name stuck. In the early 1930s, Charles B. Darrow took those early sketches of the city and based a game board on it.
So, as McPhee lands on each property or group of properties, he tells the story of each part of town. When McPhee’s piece lands him in jail, he uses it as an opportunity to visit the city jail, which in 1972 seemed to be chock-full of drug offenders. He also documents the “facade” aspect shared by resort towns. Once you travel off the beach-side main drag, you are in “the bulk of the city, and it looks like Metz in 1919, Cologne in 1944. Nothing has actually exploded. It is not bomb damage. It is deep and complex decay. Roofs are off. Bricks are scattered in the street.”
He walks these streets and sees long lines of people standing in line at the unemployment office. Newspapers in 2017 tell us that we have an “opioid crisis,” but a multiplicity of signs urging addicts to get help are present in Atlantic City in 1973 (perhaps another reminder that something doesn’t become a crisis until middle class white kids in the suburbs are dying).
McPhee walks through these neighborhoods looking for the one Monopoly property he can’t find: Marvin Gardens. No one with whom he speaks, those living in their bombed-out neighborhoods, has heard of it. It turns out that Marvin Gardens, “the ultimate out wash of Monopoly, is a citadel and sanctuary of the middle class.” It is a suburb within a suburb, what we might now refer to as a “gated community,” separated from the rest of Atlantic City and patrolled with a heavy police presence to keep the rest of the city out.
If you’ve been paying attention while reading, you realize that McPhee has used his hermit crab essay to write a critique of capitalism.
The braided essay: “The Fourth State of Matter,” by Jo Ann Beard is, I must confess, my favorite essay. It, too, was originally published in the New Yorker in 1996. Beard offers a braided essay – in which she is telling a number of stories that are all related to the time she spent on the editorial staff of a physics journal at the University of Iowa. Over the course of the essay, which begins with Beard’s poignant description of the daily routine she experiences as she cares for her aged, incontinent dog, the reader is braced in anticipation that the dog will die.