Introduction

What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

On Francisco de Zurbarán’s “Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose”


Francisco de Zurbarán, Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose (1633) 














Peter Schjeldahl, in his absorbing “Brotherhood,” in this week’s issue, reviews The Frick Collection’s Francisco de Zurbarán exhibition, Jacob and his Twelve Sons – thirteen portraits depicting life-size figures from the Old Testament. He notes that in one of the portraits, Asher (1640-45), the subject is “carrying a basket of bread loaves that display Zurbarán’s subtle mastery of still-life.” I smiled when I read that, recalling Schjeldahl’s superb “Bearing Fruit” (The New Yorker, April 6, 2009), in which he beautifully describes Zurbarán’s Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose (1633):

“Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose” (1633), the artist’s only signed and dated still-life, amounts to three pictures, side by side, in one: a silver plate holding four citrons (baggy, nubbly cousins of lemons); several oranges with stems, leaves, and blossoms, heaped in a basket; and a two-handled gray ceramic cup, apparently filled with water, on another silver plate, with a pale-pink rose facing it from the plate’s lip. The objects rest on an oxblood-brown table against a pitch-black ground; sunlight rakes them from the left. Scholars speculate that they allegorize virtues of the Virgin Mary (citrons for faithfulness, water for purity, and so on—allegory bores me). Certainly, there is a sense of conceptual rigor in the work’s rebuslike presentation, which invests ordinary comestibles on a piece of domestic furniture with the gravitas of a sacrificial altar. I was overwhelmed when I saw the citrons in the picture, many years ago, at the Simon, in Pasadena, California (inch for inch, the finest collection of European paintings west of the Mississippi). Ever since, they have served me as a touchstone of painterly potency. I was pleased to discover, at the Frick, that my mental image of them had been close to photographic. No nuance of the dusky russet shadows and tiny green inflections, in the fruit’s soprano yellow, surprised me. But the other objects registered with a jolt: I didn’t remember any oranges, basket, cup, or rose. My recollection had amputated two-thirds of a tour de force.

That passage is wonderfully memorable. The moment I read it, Zurbarán’s Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose became a “touchstone of painterly potency” for me, too.

February 12 & 19, 2018 Issue


David Grann’s “The White Darkness,” in this week’s issue, is a riveting account of Henry Worsley’s extraordinary solo attempt to achieve what his hero, Ernest Shackleton, failed to do a century earlier: trek on foot from one side of Antarctica to the other, a journey of more than a thousand miles, passing through the south pole, traversing “what is arguably the most brutal environment in the world.” The key word is “solo.” Grann says,

And, whereas Shackleton had been part of a large expedition, Worsley, who was fifty-five, was crossing alone and unsupported: no food caches had been deposited along the route to help him forestall starvation, and he had to haul all his provisions on a sled, without the assistance of dogs or a sail. Nobody had attempted this feat before.

Grann’s piece is an impressive reconstruction of Worsley’s venture, based mainly on Worsley’s diary and his audio broadcasts (via satellite phone). It puts us squarely there with Worsley on the ice (“It was hard to breathe, and each time he exhaled the moisture froze on his face: a chandelier of crystals hung from his beard; his eyebrows were encased like preserved specimens; his eyelashes cracked when he blinked”), slogging through blizzards (“Trudging uphill, with his head bowed against a fusillade of ice pellets, he moved at less than a mile per hour”), engulfed in obliterating whiteouts (“At times, he could not even discern the tips of his skis through the murk, which, he wrote, was as ‘thick as clotted cream’ ”). Once, in the poor visibility, he nearly falls into a crevasse (“He felt himself slipping into the hole, which was widening around him. He grabbed the edge and clung to it, dangling over an abyss, before he hauled himself up”). Another day, he blindly skis over a ridge:

His head and back and legs slammed against the ice. The sled flipped over twice, dragging him for twenty yards. He lay splattered on the ice, cursing. When he got to his feet, he nervously checked his fuel cannisters. One crack and he would be doomed, but there were none, and, conscious of time slipping away, he untangled his harness and set off again.

The brutal journey takes its toll. Early January, Worsley climbs the Titan Dome. Grann describes his condition:

Yet, as he climbed the Titan Dome, he found the ascent to be “a killer.” He had lost more than forty pounds, and his unwashed clothing hung on him heavily. “Still very weak—legs are stick thin and arms puny,” he noted in his diary. His eyes had sunk into shaded hollows. His fingers were becoming numb. His Achilles tendons were swollen. His hips were battered and scraped from the constantly jerking harness. He had broken his front tooth biting into a frozen protein bar, and told A.L.E. that he looked like a pirate. He was dizzy from the altitude, and he had bleeding hemorrhoids.

Soon afterwards he’s afflicted by stomach pain so bad he starts taking painkillers. Grann writes,

On January 19th, after man-hauling through another storm, Worsley was too tired to give a broadcast, and with his frozen hand he scribbled only a few words in his diary, the writing almost illegible: “Very desperate . . . slipping away . . . stomach . . . took painkillers.” He was incontinent, and repeatedly had to venture outside to squat in the freezing cold. His body seemed to be eating itself.

Keep going or call it quits? What would Shacks do? Never give up, is Worsley’s first thought. And here, at this pivotal moment, is where Grann writes his most inspired passage, shifting into free indirect style, inhabiting Worsley’s perspective:

But maybe that was wrong. Hadn’t Shackleton survived because he had realized that, at a certain point, he had no more moves and turned back? Unlike Scott and others who went to a polar grave, Shackleton reckoned with his own limitations and those of his men. He understood that not everything, least of all the Antarctic, can be conquered. And that within defeat there can still be triumph—the triumph of survival itself.

On January 22, 2016, after seventy-one days and a trek of nearly eight hundred nautical miles, Worsley calls for help. Two days later, in a Punta Arenas hospital, he dies of peritonitis.

“The White Darkness” is an unforgettable story of courage and endurance. Grann tells it magnificently.  

Saturday, February 10, 2018

February 5, 2018 Issue


This week’s issue contains four excellent pieces: Michael Chabon’s “The Recipe for Life,” Ian Frazier’s “Airborne,” Peter Schjeldahl’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and Thomas Mallon’s “House Style.”

Chabon’s “The Recipe for Life” is a vivid exploration of his memories as a kid tagging along with his father, a doctor, on his evening visits to people’s homes to conduct insurance physicals. The piece is marvelously specific. Here, for example, is Chabon comparing his toy doctor bag, which he brings with him on these outings, with his father’s real one:

My black bag is plastic, too, a flimsy, lightweight affair with none of the pachyderm heft and dignity of my father’s. The mouth of my father’s bag opens and closes smoothly on the hinges of a secret armature, clasped by a heavy brass tongue that slides home with a satisfying click. Mine pops open when you flip a plastic tab that has begun to shear loose and will soon snap off. A vial of candy “pills” was the sole advantage that my black bag possessed over my father’s, but I have long since prescribed and administered them to myself. The empty vial rolls around at the bottom of the bag.

That “clasped by a heavy brass tongue that slides home with a satisfying click” is inspired! The whole piece is inspired! It ends beautifully with Chabon lying beside his frail father, both of them watching Fritz Lang’s Metropolis on TV (“We lie there for a long time, contemplating Lang’s quaint dystopia as it silently unravels”). Chabon has an epiphany:

And then, equally unbidden, comes a thought: This is how it will be when he is gone. I will be lying on a bed somewhere, watching “Citizen Kane,” or “A Night at the Opera,” or “The Man with the X-Ray Eyes,” or some other film that became beloved to me through my father’s own loving intervention, and, even though he won’t be there anymore, I will still be watching it with him. I will hear his voice then the way I am hearing it now, in my head, this instrument that was tuned to my father’s signal long ago, angled to catch the flow of his information, his opinions, all the million great and minor things he knows. After he’s gone into that all too imaginable darkness—soon enough now—I will find another purpose for the superpower that my father discovered in me, one evening half a century ago, riding the solitary rails of my imagination into our mutual story, into the future we envisioned and the history we actually accumulated; into the vanished world that he once inhabited. 

Chabon wrings deep meditated meaning from those long ago father-and-son house calls. “The Recipe for Life” is a “Personal History” masterpiece.

Ian Frazier’s “Airborne” is about (to quote the story’s tagline) “the rise of drone racing and its elite pilots.” Normally, I’d take a pass on such a subject. I’m just not interested in electronic games. But this is a Frazier piece, and Frazier is my idol. So I reluctantly plunged in. The first paragraph grabbed me:

In a canyon in the Rocky Mountain Front above Fort Collins, Colorado, a young man named Jordan Temkin is flying his drone. He wears goggles that show him a video feed from a camera built into the drone, and he holds a console with twin joysticks that control the direction, angle, pitch, yaw, and speed of the flight. He sets the drone on the gravel at his feet. Just downhill is the Cache la Poudre River. The canyon rises to maybe three hundred feet above. He gives a command and the drone leaps to the top of the canyon in an instant. Then it is soaring over the highest places, looking down on Temkin, a small figure sitting on the tailgate of his car. At eighty miles an hour, the shadow of the drone flashes across the face of the rocks. Then Temkin swoops it down to the surface of the river, where it zips a few feet above the water. Because of where the sun is, the river is a blast of silver light. Temkin takes the drone upward again and veers into an intersecting canyon.

I relished Frazier’s use of the present tense, and that “Because of where the sun is, the river is a blast of silver light” is wonderful. I continued reading, savoring the Frazierian touches, e.g., his finding a small drone caught in a tree (“I examined it in wonder, as if I were Stone Age Man”), his visit to the home of two ace drone pilots in Fort Collins, Colorado (“I was amazed to find their domestic arrangements so orderly, and not like the chaos I inhabited when I was twenty-six”), and, most enjoyable, his inventory of the stuff in the pilots’ basement:

Soldering equipment, extension cords, boxes upon boxes of batteries in various states of freshness, quad motors, control consoles, F.P.V. goggles with the name Fat Shark (the main goggle manufacturer) prominently displayed, quads of many sizes—down to the pocket-size minis that the pilots use to make insect-eye-view videos of their living room and kitchen, flying the little drones between chair legs and couch sections and around the peanut-butter jar on the counter—such a profusion of gear gave the basement a sorcerer’s-workshop richness. 

Frazier’s delightful piece proves the old saw that almost any subject can be interesting if you write about it well enough.

Peter Schjeldahl’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a review of the Morgan Library & Museum’s exhibition of photographs by Peter Hujar. Schjeldahl writes,

Each photograph shoulders aside its neighbors and stops you dead: a glittering nocturnal view of a West Side high-rise above a soulfully trusting Italian donkey, a naked young man and an expanse of unquiet Hudson River waters, William S. Burroughs being typically saturnine and a young man placidly sucking on his own big toe, a suavely pensive older man and a pair of high heels found amid trash in Newark, a dead seagull on a beach and a Hujar self-portrait. The works have in common less a visual vocabulary than a uniform intensity and practically a smell, as of smoldering electrical wires. 

In “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Schjeldahl eschews stylistic analysis in favor of sensual response. That “The works have in common less a visual vocabulary than a uniform intensity and practically a smell, as of smoldering electrical wires” is brilliant.

Thomas Mallon’s absorbing “House Style” is a review of Martin Amis’s new essay collection The Rub of Time. Mallon says,

Amis’s efforts toward precision and freshness—an explicator’s attempt to “make it new” whenever he can—are everywhere apparent. He may, like most writers, aspire to aphorism (“envy being best understood as empathy gone wrong”), but, by the nature of its brevity, aphorism is evidence-free, and what Amis enjoys most—outside those priestly moments of Bellow recitation—is offering the proof of things: opening up the patient, putting the organs on the table, and taking a poke at the evidence. 

I agree. Amis is a great literary critic, right up there with John Updike and James Wood. What they have in common is a love of quotation – “offering the proof of things,” as Mallon puts it.

Mallon himself has written some memorable reviews. My favorite is “The Norman Context” (In Fact, 2001), which begins,

Howard Norman’s four works of fiction amount to only about a thousand pages and seem somehow less like an oeuvre than an eccentric stash, similar to the cryptic paintings and antique radios and wooden bird decoys that line the pages of the books themselves. And yet, for all their humble clutter, they prove exquisite, like pieces of folk art whose simplicity postpones a sly impact.

Mallon's “House Style,” in this week’s issue, is one of his best.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Gretel Ehrlich's Brilliant "This Cold Heaven"


This is just a quick note to say how much I’m enjoying Gretel Ehrlich’s This Cold Heaven (2001). Last night, I read the chapter titled “Qaanaaq, 1997,” in which Ehrlich and two Greenlanders, Jens Danielson and Niels Kristiansen, travel by dogsled from Qaanaaq, on the Greenland peninsula called Piulip Nuna (Peary Land, named after the American explorer Robert Peary), to Siorapaluk, “the northernmost continuously inhabited village in the world.”

Ehrlich is a superb sensuous describer. “We feasted on ice,” she says, “on sunless days and sun-gorged nights perched on an ephemeral floor.” Her eyes fill with Arctic sights: “changing planes of light, clipped turrets of stranded ice bergs, drifting islands of fog, the undersong of the four-legged dogtrot, and the waltz of sequined snow across a universe of ice.” In their saggy snow-covered tent, she thinks, “We were sleeping on the bare skull of ice with only a skin and a few slats of wood between us and its cold brain.” Out on the ice, Danielson shoots and skins a ringed seal (“Steam from the dead seal’s still-warm body rose from beneath the tarp”). They cross an expanse of frozen sea, “an impenetrable maze of pressure ice” (“A piece of sharp ice sliced open the ends of my fingers. The dogs scrambled and fell, caught up, hooked on edge, fell in a crevasse, scrambled out again”). They encounter “drowning fields” – open water hidden by snow:

When the ice smoothed out Jens and Niels joined me on the sled. Behind us was the wall, the Hiroshige-style high sea of frozen waves. Jens looked back at me: I smiled and made a small gesture to say that everything was copacetic. Then I heard something breaking … like a goblet being smashed. Was it glass? No, it couldn’t be. The sled began sinking. It wasn’t glass but ice I heard breaking. The sled dropped straight down. I grabbed for something to hold on to, wedging my gloved hand under the lash rope. What happened next, I’m not sure. I saw dogs disappear, dogs falling through broken pieces of ice, splashing into water … then slabs of ice bobbing back up … but where were the dogs?

My favorite scene in this remarkable chapter takes place at a hunting camp, where Ehrlich observes a group of bird catchers:

Carrying their fragile, long-handled bird nets, the hunters scaled the nearly vertical talus slopes as if climbing stairs, rising up a crumbling chimney, never grabbing at handholds, just stepping effortlessly to the top. From below I could see their nets swing – like brooms sweeping the sky – as squadrons of birds spiraled down toward the cliff from great heights as if caught in a hurricane.

Ehrlich follows them up the slope. She writes,

As I climbed the slope behind the hunters, I entered a symphony. Curds of brown turf fell away from my feet as I stepped up and up into the auks’ thick hum. Birds whooshed past my head. Near the top, I perched on a rock: hundreds of little auks landed around me. In a moment of quiet the melodious song of the snow bunting filtered across the canyon to me. Far below, a dog, chained up alone by a rock wall, began to howl. Its melancholy chant uncoiled, echoed; then the other dogs joined in and their group song pierced the snow buntings’ twitter.

That “as I stepped up and into the auks’ thick hum” is very fine. The whole chapter brims with vivid observation. I devoured it.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

January 29, 2018 Issue


Pick of the Issue this week is Nick Paumgarten’s brilliant “Getting a Shot,” an account of the making of Madeleine Sackler’s prison movie O.G. Sackler shot the movie at the Pendleton Correctional Facility, a maximum-security state prison near Indianapolis, described by Paumgarten as follows:

The state pen isn’t one of those spare, futuristic, lightless dystopias, as in “Oz.” It’s an old-fashioned hoosegow—brown brick, arched windows, red tiled roof—not unlike Shawshank. From the parking lot, you might mistake the place for a dingy version of Stanford. But, like any prison, it is a soul-crushing complex, with its own fraught history of violence. In the eighties and nineties, the inmates called it Little Nam.

Paumgarten visits the prison in June, 2016, during the final week of rehearsals, and again the following month, to watch the filming of some of the movie's more violent scenes. He tells about being led through a series of locked gates (“ ‘If it’s a lock, lock it,’ the signs read”); he describes “the offenders’ baggy milk-coffee-colored jumpsuits”; he observes “the mazes of fencing and razor wire.”

A unique aspect of Sackler’s film is that most of the cast consists of inmates (“ ‘Prison—it’s like a character-actor convention,’ Sackler said”). Paumgarten sits in on a rehearsal in which an inmate playing a white-supremacist gang member practices shouting a slur: “Fucking coon!” Paumgarten describes the scene:

Murray stopped. “I feel so odd saying this.”

“It’s make-believe,” Holbrook replied. “I don’t care if we’re in a prison or a fucking hedge-fund office. A certain rage builds up in each of us.” He tapped out a rhythm.

Murray tried to make it rote: “Fucking coon! Fucking coon! Fucking coon!”

Lawrence, leaning back in his chair, chuckled. “That’s bothering him.”

During a break, Murray recalled an earlier version of the scene, in which the script had him addressing Wright as an ape. “I didn’t want to do it,” he said. “I told them, I’m not gonna say the N-word, either. I have to live with a lot of people in here.” He also wasn’t sure that, in the context of Pendleton, either was a realistic insult. “Coon” was the compromise.

For me, the central figure in Paumgarten’s piece isn’t Sackler; it’s an inmate named Theothus Carter, who plays one of the main characters in the movie. Carter is serving a sixty-five-year sentence for armed burglary and attempted murder. Here’s Paumgarten’s description of him:

Theothus Carter strode into the rehearsal room. An immediate presence: he was tall, lean, and broad-shouldered, with long low-calibre dreads drawn up in a ponytail, gentle-seeming brown eyes, a deep voice, an air of self-containment, and no shortage of self-confidence. He had on heavy brown boots and a fancy-looking watch, which he’d accepted in payment for a gambling debt.

Paumgarten says of Carter:

No offender carried a bigger load, or evinced greater devotion. He read the script more than a hundred times, hardly venturing from his bunk except to attend rehearsals. He steered clear of the rec center and the chow hall, in order to avoid entanglements. There were certainly inmates and guards who disapproved of the “O.G.” shoot, whether because of their racial views (some white inmates complained to the filmmakers, in idle moments, that the script was too sympathetic to black inmates) or because they objected to coöperation with authority of any kind. And so Carter was vulnerable to provocation. It is hard for a civilian to understand what form such challenges took—he was coy about all this, and no one, among the daytime visitors, could really comprehend what it was like to live there—but he made it clear that the threat of instigation was incessant.

As usual with Paumgarten, “Getting a Shot” contains numerous inspired details. For example, at the beginning of Carter’s rehearsal, Paumgarten notes, “Through the windows you could hear the thwok of a handball hitting the wall.” He describes the film crew “crammed into holding pens that, like submarine airlocks, acted as passages from one environment to another.”

Over the years, Paumgarten has written many superb pieces – “Deadhead,” “Berlin Nights,” “Useless Beauty,” “Life Is Rescues,” “The Country Restaurant,” to name five that come quickly to mind. “Getting a Shot” is one of his best.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Relation of Fact to Thought in Elif Batuman's "The Memory Kitchen" (Contra Daniel Soar)


Photo by Carolyn Drake (from Elif Batuman's "The Memory Kitchen")













Daniel Soar, in his “The paper is white” (London Review of Books, December 14, 2017), a review of Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot, is critical of Batuman’s New Yorker writings. He says,

As a staff writer for the New Yorker, living for a time in Turkey, she has in recent years reported on football fandom in Istanbul, archeology in south-eastern Anatolia, transcranial direct-current stimulation in Albuquerque and an unusual kidney disease found only in the Balkans. These pieces are witty, personal, comprehensively reported (“But when I tried to get in touch with him I was told that he was unavailable, having recently been shot”), but they are also dutiful and information-heavy, with the occasional Wikipedia-like bit of background that anyone could have filled in (“In 1908, the sultan’s absolute rule was curbed by the Young Turks, who went on to encourage soccer as a means of Westernising and nationalising Turkish youth”). She has traded thoughts for facts. She doesn’t always have the room to reflect on how selective and partial those facts can be – or on whether, for example, working-class Beşiktaş fans may have a politics beyond the facts of their violence.

She has traded thoughts for facts – is this true? I don’t think so. It fails to credit the complex mental process underpinning Batuman’s factual writing. Take her wonderful “The Memory Kitchen” (The New Yorker, April 19, 2010), for example, profiling the extraordinary Turkish chef Musa Dağdeviren, whose Istanbul restaurant Çiya Sofrasi has “tapped into a powerful vein of collective food memory,” “producing the kind of Turkish cuisine that Turkey itself, racing toward the West and the future, seemed to have abandoned.”

“The Memory Kitchen” is an artfully shaped narrative comprehending, among other things, the taste of Çiya Sofrasi’s kisir (“The bitter edge of sumac and pomegranate extract, the tang of tomato paste, and the warmth of cumin, which people from the south of Turkey put in everything, recalled to me, with preternatural vividness, the kisir that my aunt used to make”); the story of Dağdeviren’s rise “from errand boy to dishwasher, from apprentice to chef, and on to head chef and master chef”; an excursion to Kandira, on the Black Sea coast, to shop for foraged herbs (“We made one round of the wild-greens sellers. Most were women, wearing bright flowered head scarves, oversized wool cardigans, and long skirts or baggy pantaloons”); lunch at a fish shop (“The shop owner brought the fish, which had been fried in cornmeal. Musa ate in moderation, but with quick, restless, almost peremptory movements”); and, most memorably, a visit to a turkey farm (“Turkeys were wandering everywhere, producing their strange ambient gurgle, under the lugubrious eye of a large German shepherd”).

Writing is selection, John McPhee says in his Draft No. 4. In Batuman’s great “The Memory Kitchen,” the selection of facts and words is brilliant. The presence of a thinking, creating mind is palpable.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Sven Birkerts' Inane "The McPhee Method"


I’ve just finished reading Sven Birkerts’ “The McPhee Method” (Los Angeles Review of Books, November 20, 2017). What a tepid, piffling, silly, cockeyed, vacuous review. The piece is riddled with inanities. For example:

1. Birkerts’ comparison of McPhee’s writing with “mansplaining” (“But there is this one all-important difference between the mansplainer and John McPhee”). According to Birkerts, that “one all-important difference,” is that the mansplainer imposes his explanations, whereas McPhee “deploys his wiles of craft to have the reader not looking to escape, but rather to have her be saying, ‘Really? Tell me more.’ ”  But for that one difference – the ability to hook the reader’s attention – McPhee would be a mansplainer, as would, apparently, every journalist, male or female, who sets out to report on a particular subject. As I understand the term, “mansplaining” means explaining something to someone, characteristically by a man to a woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing. It’s totally inapplicable to McPhee’s innovative factual reporting, which David Remnick describes as “the best of what has been in The New Yorker” (“Notes From Underground,” The New York Review of Books, March 2, 1995).

2. Birkerts’ obsessive use of “context” to define McPhee’s compositional process. He uses it six times: “Context creates interest; the right disposition of detail creates context. The McPhee method”; “And each subject receives his best attention. It has been given deep establishing context, and then strategically staged for us”; “but possibly because it is self-reflexive, as opposed to outwardly directed, it lacks the slow and purposeful accretion of context which has always been McPhee’s greatest strength”; “His impulse to elaborate detail is as strong as ever, but for some reason the vital accompanying context has lost its vitality”; “Even the most gifted maker of contexts and supplier of explanations, the most cunning of raconteurs, must push hard against the universal distraction”; “We come back to interest and attention, to the idea that the interesting is what stands out, and that the art is to make the subject stand out — to create the context that will allow the particulars to connect in a provocative way.” “Context” is Birkerts’ word, not McPhee’s. It’s opaque, abstract, inert; it doesn’t illuminate the writing process the way, say, “structure” does. “Structure” is McPhee’s touchstone – his organizing principle. Here, from McPhee’s Draft No. 4, is one of my favorite passages from his description (with accompanying diagrams) of the structure of his great “The Encircled River” (The New Yorker, May 2 & 9, 1977):

One dividend of this structure is that the grizzly encounter occurs about three-fifths of the way along, a natural place for a high moment in any dramatic structure. And it also occurs just where and when it happened on the trip. You’re a nonfiction writer. You can’t move that bear around like a king’s pawn or a queen’s bishop. But you can, to and important and effective extent, arrange a structure that is completely faithful to fact.

3. Birkerts’ opinion that McPhee’s structural analyses are “tedious” (“Still, if McPhee is instructive on the more generalized aspects of structure, he gets tedious, when he starts to offer up examples from his own work”). This is not a fans response. If you’re a fan of McPhee’s work, as I am, you’ll find his notes on how he worked out the structures of some of his greatest pieces exhilarating. Birkerts’ jaded response makes me wonder why he chose to review McPhee’s Draft No. 4 in the first place.

4. Birkerts erroneous statement that one of McPhee’s subjects is weightlifting (“He has taken on: oranges, Bill Bradley, the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, Alaska, Russian art, canoes, weight lifting, nuclear engineering, the geological history of our continent — have I missed anything?”). This is a major gaffe, in my opinion, showing Birkerts has no clue what he’s talking about.

For a warmer, much more appreciative and accurate review of John McPhee’s Draft No. 4, see Parul Sehgal’s “The Gloom, Doom and Occasional Joy of the Writing Life” (The New York Times, September 13, 2017).