The White Road: Journey into an Obsession
Edmund de Waal
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
401 pp., $27.00
A Circuitous Route
One can see resemblances, of course, with the paragraph above, such as in the narrator's eye for detail. But the stylistic difference is immediately evident with the bland and grammatically untethered first word, "it," which is disappointingly repeated twice in the space of ten words. We can be sure based on the evidence of his earlier writing that the author knows what he is doing, and we easily discern his purpose: to provide the impression that our pilgrim is rattling off his thoughts and observations as they arise amid the commotion. There's no need—or no time—to finesse or elevate the language. I will not call such writing lazy, since it bespeaks a design; I simply find it dull.
The paragraph, furthermore, fails to assign a larger significance to the string of fairly ordinary images that our narrator observes on the streets of Jindezhen, the ancient Chinese capital of porcelain; and, indeed, when a few paragraphs later de Waal reaches his destination—a hillside of ostraca—we realize that these details don't bear any greater meaning. Nor does his passing comment (given its own paragraph on the first page), "When did farmers get rich in China?" Again, the inclusion of such remarks is not without purpose: they seek to render experience immediately, rather than in a more polished prose that suggests subsequent rumination. To be fair, the whole book is not like this, and at other moments the strategy of immediacy produces its own brand of brusque beauties (often resulting from the use of asyndeton, or the omission of conjunctions). De Waal has made a writing career, as noted above, describing ceramics, and accordingly his lyricism is especially high-pitched when he's faced with a pot. In these moments, his syntax often becomes mimetic, pressed and pulled to convey the shape of the object under scrutiny. But these passages are surrounded, and thus diminished, by far too many desultory ones, which, moreover, add unnecessary tonnage to a volume that even fellow diehards—for porcelain, for de Waal, for creative nonfiction—are likely to find bulky (nearly four hundred pages in the US edition).
Regarding the book's architecture, let's begin with the table of contents. The White Road contains a prologue, 65 chapters (arranged into five parts), and a coda (which is also listed as chapter 66). The sections are named for the principal setting(s) to which de Waal travels directly or imaginatively: to cite a few examples, "Jingdezhen-Venice-Dublin" (the prologue), "London-Jingdezhen-Dachau" (part five), "London-New York-London" (the coda). Ultimately, the circuitous and increasingly congested itinerary detracts from our full engagement with the "three white hills"—in China, Germany, and England—that the prologue puts at the purported center of the narrative. Once more, we may detect a plan in these haphazard arrangements. Chaos is, in fact, the point. The book's disorganization corresponds to de Waal's hectic research process (which, as we are repeatedly reminded, is carried on amid his preparations for major exhibitions of his pottery in Cambridge and New York) and his ever-evolving sense of where porcelain's history really lies. All this shuttling, however, may induce a degree of jet lag in the reader.
As noted above, de Waal mixes his field notes of each pilgrimage site with the stories of the historical personages who made each spot holy ground "of sorts." In this way, the book comes to resemble a multi-plot novel, particularly the anarchic early works of Dickens (such as Pickwick Papers) when the novelist began publishing his stories serially without a fully laid-out plan. Some chapters contain three or four thematically related strands, while at other times de Waal follows a particular character or cohort for several chapters successively. The second chapter, for example, begins with personal anecdotes about de Waal's childhood, transitions into a somewhat scientific explanation of porcelain's ingredients, kaolin and pentuse, and then ends with an account of how the author climbs a hill, visits a shed, and steals a brick of pentuse, which he later accidently leaves in a bar.