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 Ben McGrath is not like a piece by Jill Lepore, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Goodyear, or Filkins for Khatchadourian, or Bilger for Paumgarten. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Of Spiky Grime and Muddy Wail: The "Night Life" Reporting of Matthew Trammell

Matthew Trammell (Illustration by Stanley Chow)

There’s a great new writer at The New Yorker. His name is Matthew Trammell. His ravishing “Night Life” pieces describe a dense, crazy, fascinating world of names – names of bands (Flatbush Zombies, A$AP Mob, Girlpool, Sheer Mag, Babymetal, Naughty by Nature, Bluntfang, Breakdown, Cro Mags, Token Entry, Antidote, Maximum Penalty, Potty Mouth, King Missile), names of venues ((Rough Trade, Terminal 5, Market Hotel, Barclays Center, Playstation Theatre, Apollo Theatre, Wembley Arena, Stage 48, Citi Field, Highline Ballroom, Trans-Pecos, Madison Square Garden, Tompkins Square Park, Zinc Bar, Union Hall, Brooklyn Bowl), names of platforms (YouTube, Twitter, SoundCloud, Tumblr, Creem, Snapchat, Noisey), names of songs ((“Bitch Better Have My Money,” “Skrt,” “1 Sec,” “Wild Things,” “O.P.P.,” “Hip Hop Hooray,” “Jamboree,” “Feel Me Flow,” “I’m in It,” “The Blacker the Berry,” “Kid A,” “Creep,” “Them Changes,” “Detachable Penis,” “Cheesecake Truck,” “The Bridge,” “The World Is Yours”), names of rappers ((Kodak Black, Silentó, Desiigner, Novelist, Nas, MC Shan, Kanye West, Dean Blunt).

There’s poetry in those names, in their specificity, in the delightful way Trammell blends them in rich skeins of imagery and observation. For example, in his superb “Also Known,” a tribute to the late A$AP Yams, he writes,

Yams was a rap fan first, and expressed this through his work with Rocky, who grew to be an avatar for so many of the things that his mentor loved: the stylish decadence of Sean Combs’s New York, the muddy starkness of DJ Screw’s Houston, the creative fearlessness of Lil B’s Internet.

That “the muddy starkness of DJ Screw’s Houston, the creative fearlessness of Lil B’s Internet” is inspired!

Here, from his recent “Of the Cloth” (September 5, 2016), is another example of Trammell’s combinational art:

“First nigga with a Benz and a backpack,” West rapped on his début album, “The College Dropout,” from 2004, toying with symbols of an old binary: the luxury cars of rap’s late-nineties maximalist period and the scrapbook-stuffed JanSports toted by the era’s anti-platinum purists. Twelve years later, a Lamborghini is a step up from a Benz, and McDonald’s isn’t exactly Harold’s Chicken Shack, but the blueprint remains.

When was the last time you saw “Benz,” “backpack,” “scrapbook-stuffed JanSports,” “anti-platinum purists,” “Lamborghini,” “McDonald’s,” “Harold’s Chicken Shack,” and “blueprints” comprehended in the same sentence? My guess is never. Trammell is a combinatorial genius. I enjoy his work immensely. 

Monday, September 26, 2016

Gideon Lewis-Krauss's "What We See When We Look at Travel Photography"

Robert Frank, "Santa Fe" (1955)

A special shout-out to Gideon Lewis-Krauss for his terrific “What We See When We Look at Travel Photography,” in this week’s New York Times Magazine, a delicious essay connecting Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, Walker Percy’s “The Loss of the Creature,” Paul Fussell’s Abroad, Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines, Edward Hopper’s Gas, Geoff Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment, Janet Malcolm’s Diana and Nikon (a collection of her New Yorker photography pieces), Elizabeth Bishop’s “Filling Station” (The New Yorker, December 3, 1955) with transfixing “road” photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank, and Gary Winogrand. The core of the piece’s combinational delight is Lewis-Krauss’s multilayered interpretation of his friend David’s Instagram image of a nighttime gas station. “ ‘What is it,’ his caption asked, ‘about #gasstationsatdusk?’ ” Lewis-Krauss’s answer is brilliant:

It wasn’t an act of representation at all, and it certainly wasn’t private. It was the expression of affect he wanted to communicate in that moment — something a little smart, and a little sad, and a little funny, and all in all very David. The image, an internet square of labyrinthine self-referentiality — a photograph that recalled a painting that was at home in a poem — recalled for me a different line of Geoff Dyer’s, where he quotes John Berger on Paul Strand’s portraits: They arrested a moment “whose duration is measured not by seconds, but by its relation to a lifetime.”

The “lifetime” Berger is referring to is, I think, the lifetime of Strand's subjects. Berger, in his superb essay, writes, “Strand’s photographs suggest his sitters trust him to see their life story.” Lewis-Krauss, in his piece, seems to be saying that David’s gas station photo is self-referential - “the expression of affect he wanted to communicate in that moment.” I agree with both writers. Photographs have a double aspect, as much that of a mirror as of a lens.

Friday, September 23, 2016

September 19, 2016, Issue

Of the many pleasures in this week’s issue – Richard Brody on Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (“Along the way, the film offers verse by Christina Rossetti; a record of Caruso; Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony; souped-up cars, and a man crushed under one; a woman on a meat hook; a whiff of narcotics; a primordial answering machine; bloody street fights; and nuclear catastrophe”), Becky Cooper’s “Lunch à la Mode” (“The real star, though, is the hot sauce. It’s the marigold color of a Buddhist monk’s cloak, with a complex bitter heat, and it should be spooned onto everything”), Colin Stokes’s “Bar Tab: King Tai” [“The #5 (Barr Hill gin, Cocchi Americano, Dimmi, grapefruit bitters) is a caustic confusion, but the #1 (Yaguara Cachaça Branca, apricot, Licor 43, grated nutmeg) was described by a drinker as ‘lovely stuff.’ ”], Rebecca Mead’s “Costume Drama” (“The seductiveness of Michele’s vision was signalled by a barely subdued clamor among the guests over the emerald seat cushions, which were to be taken home as gifts”), Nick Paumgarten’s “Wild Man” (“Guilt and high principle mutate into marketing: this was the Patagonia feedback loop, on high screech”) – the most sheerly enjoyable, for me, is Ian Frazier’s “Patina,” an inspired reflection on the irreproducible color of the Statute of Liberty’s patina (“that elusive, flickering, familiar, sea-polished shade of copper-green”). There’s poetry in “Patina” (“When you have Statue of Liberty green on the brain, you see it all around you, especially on infrastructure. Being aware of the color somehow makes the city’s bindings and conduits and linkages stand out as if they’d been injected with radioactive dye. When you look for the color, the city becomes an electric train set you’re assembling with your eyes”) and lots of fascinating Statue of Liberty facts (e.g., The Statue’s copper is “only three-thirty-seconds of an inch thick and unusually pure”). “Patina” is this week’s Pick of the Issue.

Postscript: Another pleasurable piece in this week’s New Yorker is Jane Kramer’s “Eat, Memory,” a review of Paul Freedman’s Ten Restaurants That Changed America. Kramer writes delicious long lines. For example:

Reading Paul Freedman about America, stalking myself through the taste of meals at eight of his ten restaurants, each sampled for different reasons at different moments in my life, I began to draw the outlines of a world I shared with other people, people more or less like me, and to wonder what “like me” meant when it came to expectations of inclusion, of common flash points of reference, of understanding and participating in the coded language of what we eat and how it is prepared and who is sitting at all those tables around us.

I relished Kramer’s recollections about eating in Le Pavillon, Antoine’s, Sylvia’s, Shrafft’s, the Grill Room, and Chez Panisse – all on Freedman’s list. But I wish she’d provided at least one extended quotation from Freedman’s book to help me decide whether I’d enjoy reading it. John Updike, in his “A Poetics of Book Reviewing” (included in his 2011 collection Higher Gossip), says, “Give enough direct quotation – at least one extended passage – of the book’s prose so the reviewer’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.”

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

My Igloolik "New Yorker"

One of the most memorable days of my life began with The New Yorker. September 14, 2003, 6:30 a.m., I laid in bed at the Igloolik Hotel in Igloolik, Nunavut, reading Robert Gottlieb’s absorbing “The Years With Thurber” (The New Yorker, September 8, 2003). Near the end of the piece, Gottlieb quotes Thurber: “People are not funny; they are vicious and horrible—and so is life.” On that cheery note, I rose, dressed, and headed for the dining room for coffee. Shortly afterwards, my friend George Qulaut appeared and invited me to go seal hunting with him. We went out in George’s big freighter canoe. Foxe Basin brimmed with ice floes. George got a harp, a ring, and a bearded seal – the Inuit equivalent of hitting for the cycle. Late in the afternoon, we stopped at an ice pan – multiyear ice, George called it. It contained an aqua-colored pool. George scooped water from it and made tea on his Coleman stove. While we were there, we heard what sounded like a hissing air hose - psssssssss. George said it was a bowhead. We looked and looked. Suddenly, about twenty feet away, the glistening black back of a bowhead calf emerged from the water. It was visible for only a few seconds, and then it disappeared. George said its mother was likely nearby. We thought we could hear her breathing. We looked for her, but didn’t see her. We headed back to Igloolik. “This is the sad part of the journey,” George said. But I didn’t feel sad. I was elated. It had been a wonderful day. Thurber was wrong. 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

September 12, 2016, Issue

Hooray! Bilger is back! He’s been absent from The New Yorker for almost two years. I’ve missed him. He’s one of the New Yorker greats, in my opinion – right up there with Liebling, Mitchell, McPhee, and Frazier. Now, here he is, with a terrific “Personal History” piece called “Ghost Stories,” set in Germany, in which he participates in a weird form of group therapy known as Familienaufstellung. His participation isn’t just for reporting purposes; it’s personally motivated. He says, “Like the others in the room, I was there to untangle a knot in my mind. I’d come to Germany to research the life of my grandfather Karl Gönner.” Gönner was born in Weil am Rhein, Germany. He fought in the First World War. During World War II, he was sent to Occupied France to work as a schoolteacher in an Alsatian village. He was also a member of the Nazis Party, and eventually became the village’s Ortsgruppenleiter, or Party chief. Bilger writes,

My mother rarely talked about his years in France, but she was well versed in the atrocities committed by men in his position. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on the Vichy regime. It must have been a torment to her, trying to square what she learned with her memories of her father. How could he have been both the man she knew and the monster history suggested?

Bilger participates in two Familienaufstellungs. His description of the second one produces one of the piece’s most vivid passages:

By the end of the second day, I’d been a brother, a grandfather, Restlessness, and the country of Germany. I’d watched people burst into tears, climb into one another’s laps, and pretend to be God. I’d heard a woman scream that she was bleeding from her vagina and that crows had eaten her baby. At times, the sobs and shouting rose to such a pitch that I worried that the police might come.

Bilger is skeptical about the reliability of Familienaufstellung narratives. He likens the process to “a visit to a psyche under the sober auspices of therapy.” What impresses him is “the careful attention people paid to one another.” He says, “The very act of empathizing so deeply seems to help people understand themselves.”

“Ghost Stories” is different from Bilger’s previous work. It’s more personal. He’s always written in the first person. But here his “I” is very close to his material. I think it’s one of his best pieces.

Three other excellent articles in this week’s issue are: Tom Kizzia’s “The New Harpoon,” Ian Parker’s “Knives Out,” and Dan Chiasson’s “Force of Nature.” In “The New Harpoon,” Kizzia visits the Inupiat community of Point Hope, on the Chukchi Sea in northern Alaska. The piece brims with interesting details (“a whaling skin boat provides the center support for a glass-topped boardroom table”; “a drum made of whale-liver membrane”). Parker’s “Knives Out” profiles The New York Times’ restaurant critic, Pete Wells (“His expressions of enthusiasm often take the form of wariness swept away: Wells found joy in a conga line at Señor Frog’s, in Times Square”). Chiasson’s “Force of Nature” is a review of Alice Oswald’s new poetry collection Falling Awake (“These poems give us the sensation of living alongside the natural world, of being a spectator to the changes that mark our mortality”).

I devoured all these pieces. This week’s New Yorker is one of the year’s best.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Helen Vendler's Great "Stevens and Keats's 'To Autumn' " (Contra Mark Jarman)

Mark Jarman, in his “The Judgment of Poetry” (The Hudson Review, Autumn, 2015), praises Vendler as “one of the best close readers of poetry today.” But his treatment of her great “Stevens and Keats’s ‘To Autumn’ ” seems peevish. He writes,

In her discussion of Keats’s “To Autumn,” she hears the great ode in Stevens’ poetry, especially in the final strophe of “Sunday Morning.” Her argument is illuminating, and yet it seems as if no other modern poet read Keats as Stevens did. She believes the central problems of Keats’s ode “become central to Stevens’ poetry as well.” But what about the fact that Frost’s “After Apple-Picking” gathers together two of Keats’s great odes, “To Autumn” and “Ode to a Nightingale” and links sleep, poetry, and imagination in similar ways?

At no point in “Stevens and Keats’s ‘To Autumn’ ” does Vendler argue that Stevens is the only poet to rework the materials of Keats’s ode. But I think it’s safe to say, based on Vendler’s essay, that the magnitude of Stevens’s rich reworking of it is unmatched by any other poet. Frost may have had “To Autumn” in mind when he wrote “After Apple-Picking.” But his poem doesn’t come close to reinterpreting, reusing, and recreating “To Autumn” the way that, say, Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” does. Vendler writes,

The resemblances have been often remarked. Both poets use successive clauses of animal presence (gnats, lambs, crickets, redbreast, and swallows in Keats; deer, quail, and pigeons in Stevenson; both poems close with birds in the sky (gathering swallows in Keats, flocks of pigeons in Stevens) and with the sense of sound (including a whistling bird in each); Keats’s soft-dying day becomes Stevens’s evening.

Vendler shows that the end of “Sunday Morning” is a rewritten version of the close of Keats’s “To Autumn.” But what’s even more arresting is her analysis of how Stevens, in his rewriting, made the materials of Keats’s great poem distinctly his own:

Keats writes a long clause about the gnats, then follows it with shorter ones dwindling to “hedge-crickets sing,” then broadens out to end his poem. Stevens writes short clauses followed by a final long one. The result is a gain in climactic force and explicit pathos, but a loss in stoicism and discretion of statement. Keats’s pathos (at its most plangent in the small gnats who mourn in wailful choir, helpless in the light wind; less insistent but still audible in the bleating lambs; but largely absent in the whistle and twitter of the closing lines) reaches us with steadily diminishing force, in inverse relation to Keats’s recognition of the independent worth of autumnal music, without reference to any dying fall. Stevens’s pathos, on the other hand, is at its most evident in the closing lines. In short, Stevens has adopted Keats’s manner – the population of animals, the types of clause, the diction, even the sunset landscape – without embracing Keats’s essential stylistic argument against nostalgia. Nor has he imitated Keats’s reticent diction and chaste rhetoric; instead, he writes with an increasing opulence of rhetorical music, and imposes explicit metaphysical dimensions on the landscape.

Jarman calls Vendler’s discussion of “To Autumn” and “Sunday Morning” “illuminating.” Yes, it certainly is. But it’s more than that. It’s an extraordinary work of comparative analysis. Jarman doesn’t do justice to it.

Postscript: Helen Vendler was The New Yorker’s poetry critic from 1978 to 2001. Her work is one of this blog’s touchstones.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

September 5, 2016, Issue

Pick of the Issue this week is unquestionably Janet Malcolm’s “Performance Artist.” Malcolm is one of this blog’s presiding deities. A new piece by her is an event. At age eighty-two, she’s still very much in the game. Her “The Master Writer of the City” was one of last year’s most memorable reviews. And her Forty-One False Starts was one of 2013’s best books. What makes Malcolm great is her combination of sharp-eyed journalism with sharp-edged criticism. And she likes to be provocative. “Performance Artist” contains all three of these elements. It’s a profile of piano virtuoso Yuja Wang. But it’s a profile with a difference. It has a subtle sexual aspect, introduced in the opening sentence:

What is one to think of the clothes the twenty-nine-year-old pianist Yuja Wang wears when she performs—extremely short and tight dresses that ride up as she plays, so that she has to tug at them when she has a free hand, or clinging backless gowns that give an impression of near-nakedness (accompanied in all cases by four-inch-high stiletto heels)?

The piece is peppered with references to Wang’s “stripper-wear,”  “nude dress,” “skintight flame-colored dress,” etc. Malcolm describes Wang playing at Carnegie Hall:

As she performed, the thigh, splayed by the weight of the torso and the action of the toe working the pedal, looked startlingly large, almost fat, though Yuja is a very slender woman. Her back was bare, thin straps crossing it. She looked like a dominatrix or a lion tamer’s assistant. She had come to tame the beast of a piece, this half-naked woman in sadistic high heels. Take that, and that, Beethoven!

“Performance Artist” culminates in a wild photo-shoot in a Steinway piano showroom. Malcolm describes the scene:

Yuja went to the designated piano, and Dukovic—a handsome young man, with a warm and charming manner—began circling around it, snapping pictures with a handheld camera, as she played bits and pieces of repertoire. At first, she played tentatively and quietly, starting a piece and trailing off—and then she worked her way into a horrible and wonderful pastiche of Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart, Gershwin, Horowitz, Tchaikovsky, all mushed together, playing louder and louder and faster and faster, banging with mischievous demonic force, as Dukovic continued his circling and snapping, like the photographer in the famous orgasmic scene in “Blowup.” Yuja ended with a parodic crescendo as Dukovic shouted, “I love you!” and she burst into laughter.

Photo by Pari Dukovic
I enjoyed that passage immensely. It builds and builds, enacting the musical climax it describes. And it’s cool seeing The New Yorker’s Pari Dukovic in action, “circling and snapping, like the photographer in the famous orgasmic scene in Blowup.”

“Performance Artist” is also a self-portrait of sorts. It touches on Malcolm’s preoccupation with apartments. She’s a master interpreter of apartments, using them as an indicator of their occupants’ taste (see, for example, her brilliant “A Girl of the Zeitgeist”). Malcolm’s description of Wang’s apartment contains an interesting detail:

When you walk into the apartment—which is small and dark—the first thing you see is a royal-blue nylon curtain suspended from the ceiling like a shower curtain and drawn around a lumpish object that turns out to be a Steinway grand piano. The curtain is there to muffle the piano’s sound, to accommodate a neighbor for whom the practicing of a world-class pianist is not the thrill it would be for you and me.

I smiled when Malcolm proposed visiting the apartment again – this time with a notebook – and Wang “politely demurred.” It showed Wang drawing a boundary, limiting Malcolm’s scrutiny. She does it again later in the piece when Malcolm asks her what her concert fee is and Wang refuses to tell her.

Malcolm and Wang appear to have more than just a journalist-subject relationship. They appear to be friends. Their discussions at the Sky Lounge are, at times, fairly intimate. This made me uneasy. Would Malcolm betray Wang’s trust and write something embarrassing about her? As we all know, she’s quite capable of it. Her classic The Journalist and the Murderer famously begins,

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.

I’m pleased to report there’s no betrayal in “Performance Artist.” It’s a superb portrait of an alluring, passionate, immensely gifted artist. Bravo, Ms. Wang! Well done, Ms. Malcolm!