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20Dec 2012

Esquire on fracking: Prose that could blow out a wellhead.

Esquire on fracking: Prose that could blow out a wellhead.

The January issue of Esquire is out with an almost 8,000-word story called "Thank You for Fracking" by Tom Chiarella, which wants to be a manly, Esquire-ish, ultrahip analysis of a current environmental policy debate. It falls far short of that. Chiarella has a point; but the overheated prose so distracts from the substance of the article that it's hard to say what that point is.

Fracking is a way to expand energy reserves by pumping fluids into the ground to fracture rock, allowing the extraction of otherwise unreachable reservoirs of oil or natural gas. The oil and natural gas industries say it's an important tool to help us meet our energy needs; environmental activists say it poses unacceptable risks. 

Chiarella sets the stage by describing fracking as an inevitability, as our destiny. It "doesn't promise a mere possibility; it is not exploration," he writes. "It is our most ancient certainty that we can break the earth to take what we must have." For Chiarella, fracking is not an extraction process; it's an attitude.

"Everyone knows the gas is there," Chiarella continues. "So it must be had. And when that's gone, we'll look for more — deeper in the earth, at the bottom of the ocean, in moons, in the sun, probably in the stars. Now, we crack more crust, seeking power." Resistance is futile.

I understand that this hyperbole is not meant to be taken seriously, but finding natural gas in the sun and the stars? Imagine the plumbing required to deliver that gas to our homes; the Keystone pipeline is a soda straw. A more important point is that the hyperbole distorts the reality: Moons and stars extend to infinity; oil and natural gas do not. They are finite.

There is more of this. "In the black of the earth," Chiarella writes, "where stone is broken by water, gas permeates the rock. Therein lies our salvation, the answer to our energy needs for a century, for a decade, for some stopgap moment in our history." The epicness of water breaking stone in the black depths so entrances Chiarella that he doesn't care how long this gas will last--a century, a moment, whatever.

Chiarella eventually eases up on the imagery and introduces us to a company he visited that is fracking in Pennsylvania. He pauses to give us a bit of geology, but he seems more intent on finding clever new ways to say things than in exploring the issues. The office of the oil company is "scaldingly white." Someone just mopped it, and "it smells like victory." The natural gas "gold rush" can "feel like a carnival, with dark corners and illusions, with joy and dizziness bound up in one another..." And the weather? "The sun a brilliant disk, the air without temperature, neutral as a pencil drawing of the moment." 

None of this helps me to understand that feelings of the people involved, the economics of fracking, whether it is necessary to meet current or future energy needs, and many other obvious questions that one might expect in a story about fracking.

As Chiarella continues, we meet some interesting characters, and he does a reasonable job of making those characters come to life on the page, despite the wild language, not because of it. And by the time we finish all 8,000 words, we've learned a bit about fracking, about the environmental risks, and about those who stand to win or lose in the gas "gold rush." Or gas rush.

Chiarella is clearly a guy who likes to experiment with language, but his experiment proves to be a fatal distraction. Writing that calls attention to itself is not good writing. Those who like this story will say, when they finish it, "Man, that guy is a helluva writer." They will not say, "I finally get what fracking is all about."

In the wake of the Newtown school shooting, Esquire has just republished on its website an essay Chiarella wrote after the Columbine school shooting in 1999. It's quite different from the fracking story. Chiarella's essay, about a routine breakfast on a routine day with a routine drop-off at school, is suffused with feeling, and Chiarella doesn't struggle to be clever or hip. Chiarella's other Esquire articles include, "How to Kiss Well," "The Sex Scandal in Your Bedroom," and profiles of such celebrities as Halle Berry and Carmen Electra. (The search for his name comes up with a staggering 1080 hits!) The writing in these pieces is goofy and generally features Chiarella as the hapless loser. But even here, where loose talk, ultrahipness and silliness are allowed, or required, the language isn't as overblown as it is in "Thank You for Fracking."

Wikipedia identifies Chiarella as a visiting professor of creative writing at DePauw University and writer-at-large and fiction editor of Esquire. Some people must like his work. I applaud the effort to avoid clichés and to try to write something new, or to write in a new way. I just don't think Chiarella has found a new way that works for the story on fracking.

And I'm distressed by the carelessness with facts; nonfiction, if it is to succeed, must be non-fiction. 

-Paul Raeburn

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