Magic and writing tricks differ in at least one happy way: A writing trick’s delights only increase once you see through the sleight of hand.
In “Inhaling the Spore,” writing about a visit to a very peculiar museum, Lawrence Weschler hides his prestidigitation in plain sight, like every good magician. His 1994 Harper’s showpiece makes the reader disappear inside the narration with a bold manipulation of point of view, helped along by a few typographical flourishes.
An explanatory narrative, “Inhaling the Spore” begins with the story of a Cameroonian “floor-dwelling ant” that gets infected with a fungus, whereupon “for the ﬁrst time in its life, it leaves the forest ﬂoor” to ascend to the tip of a vine. There the fungus consumes the hapless creature, leaving behind a horn sprouting from the stink ant’s noggin, which proceeds to rain more spores down on its kin.
For the first two pages, the perspective is a comfortable, third-person, God’s-eye view, a La-Z-Boy vantage point that moves from the spore-ridden ant to similarly driven people. Among the historical marginalia we encounter are the “great mid-century American neurophysiologist Geoffrey Sonnabend,” the similarly “great Romanian-American vocalist Madelena Delani,” and “Donald R. Griffith, Rockefeller University’s eminent chiroptologist,” who captured elusive bats by inducing them to crash-entomb themselves into standing sheets of lead arrayed throughout a Caribbean jungle.
This is all magician’s patter, designed to lull our expectations. We settle in for a natural history tour of some charming oddballs, who, we learn, are among the attractions of the enigmatic Museum of Jurassic Technology.
The trick begins two pages in as Weschler shifts into second person:
But if you happened to hear of it, as I began hearing of it a couple years ago on my occasional visits to L.A. (it’s been at that site for about six years now), and thus actively sought it out; or else, if you just happened to be dallying at the bus stop right outside its portals on one of those occasions when it actually was open – well then, your curiosity piqued, you might just find yourself going up and tentatively pressing its door buzzer.
This is not the trick. You may think it is, because Weschler is not subtle in his use of second person as he steers you through the museum: “You leave him to it. You continue to explore” he begins one paragraph, verging on “Bright Lights, Big City” territory. Forsaking creative writing rules, Weschler even tells you how you are feeling (“confused,” “hesitant”) as a result of touring the museum. (He is also not subtle in his use of punctuational paraphernalia, particularly the em dash and parentheses, the wand and flash-powder of his act. The rare paragraph without either flourish may contain an ellipsis.)
The trick comes four pages into the 12-page piece, after the reader has been quite bludgeoned by “you, too, may be starting to feel a little bit threatened” moments, when Weschler ends the section with one last second-person pronouncement, followed by something simple and extraordinary:
“Um, excuse me,” you may at length hazard. “Ahm, what exactly is this place?”
“Excuse me,” I asked several months back toward the end of my first visit. “Ahm, what exactly is this place?” Wilson looked up from his reading: beatific deadpan.
In one passage, through the miracle of repetition, “you” have disappeared and been replaced by “I”; you are now riding around inside Weschler’s noggin for the next three pages of the piece, as he ventures deeper into the mysterious museum.
How does he sustain the disappearing act from there? That’s the second part of the trick. To keep the voice of the narrator inside the reader’s head, he does an interesting thing to control where that voice is coming from at the end of the tour:
“Um,” I tried again, after having finished the pamphlet, “but I mean, how, specifically, did this place get started?”
“You mean this museum?” Wilson asked.
From there on (except for one place), all of the first-person quotes lack quotation marks. Other players’ voices are surrounded by such marks, but the narrator’s voice (often a short, kinetic interjection like Well, yeah) comes from the same soundless place as thought and therefore doesn’t need such formalities. His thoughts are your thoughts.
Weschler continues to camouflage his interjections through a three-page exploration of the life of David Hildebrand Wilson, the museum’s curious founder, an impresario of improvised natural history. The section drags a bit on second reading, frankly, paling in comparison to the pleasurable immersion of the opening tour. But the tension returns when Weschler finally revisits the museum to question Wilson, armed with all that he (or you or I — it is all a bit addled at this point) has learned.
I mentioned the stink ant.
“See,” he said, “that’s an example of the thing about layers…”
Mr. David Hildebrand Wilson rambles on in a long two-paragraph quote that recalls one of John McPhee’s didactic New Yorker nature guides replying with an encyclopedic quotation to a question, and finally ends:
“…That ant is me. I couldn’t have summed up my own life better if I’d have made him up myself.”
“But David,” I wanted to say (and didn’t). You did make him up all by yourself.
So, the only time Weschler puts quotes around something he says is when it is something he didn’t actually say, but thought. For good measure, he also shifts between plain font and italics, calling attention to this break in his pattern right before the next subhed starts a new section of the story. Why did he do this?
He is kicking the reader out of his noggin. For the last flourish of his magic trick, the kicker, Weschler needs the reader to watch him as he tries (writing in first person and back to losing the quote marks when he speaks) to penetrate Wilson’s illusions one last time.
Watching Weschler fail is enthralling and entertaining. But if we were still inside his head, perhaps his confusion would be ours as well, and less amusing. Luckily, he has broken the spell, giving us the comfort of distance, like the magician’s audience laughing at the poor dupe called onstage to look fruitlessly behind an impaled cabinet for the vanished showgirl. It is a masterly act of controlling reader psychology, and writerly self-sacrifice. Weschler makes himself Wilson’s dupe, not the reader.
There are so many wonderful things about the piece besides its manipulation of point of view, not least the use of a metaphor, the obsessed ant. I first read the piece in a mid-90’s science writing class, and it remains an entrancing example of natural history’s ability to mesmerize readers.
But the real lesson Weschler offers is not so much in showing the possibilities raised by moving the camera view around on the reader, as in the directness with which he performs his tricks. He doesn’t mess around. Bang. He switches to second person. And you, you, you are doing things. Bang, he switches to first person, and ruthlessly turns his words into your thoughts. When he’s done with that, he ejects the reader from his head without a look back.
Weschler’s lesson is to not be timid. Grab the reader. Hammer away at him. In “Inhaling the Spore,” he employs an arsenal’s worth of punctuation, parentheticals and assorted gimmicks to recreate his own delight and wonder in his “Field trip to a museum of natural (un)history,” as Harper’s put it. And it works because he doesn’t falter, because he is relentless, just like his stupified stink ant, climbing high to broadcast a message to the forest below.
Dan Vergano (@dvergano) is a science reporter at USA Today and a former Nieman Fellow. He has been a judge for writing awards given by the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the German Marshall Fund. He is also the husband of Storyboard editor Andrea Pitzer.