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.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

December 11, 2017 Issue


Calvin Tompkins’ “Somewhere Different,” in this week’s issue, profiles painter Peter Doig. The piece has an ingenious structure, consisting of eight sections, each of which focuses on a key Doig painting, and, in the process, illuminates a portion of Doig’s personal history. For example, the first section, titled “Pelican (Stag), 2003,” tells the story of Doig’s “Pelican (Stag)” (“As the painting developed, he felt that it was getting too dark, so he put in the abstract fall of whitish-blue paint—it came from his memory of a Matisse painting he had seen at the Tate in 2002, ‘Shaft of Sunlight in the Woods of Trivaux’ ”); the second section, “Rain in the Port of Spain (White Oaks), 2015,” tells about Doig’s painting of the same name (“’Rain in the Port of Spain (White Oak),’ which is more than nine feet high and eleven feet wide, is dominated by a full-grown lion, pacing freely but somewhat glumly, head down, outside a yellow building with green doors and a barred green window. A ghostly human attendant approaches from around the corner”); and so on. Eight of Doig’s major works are discussed in detail, together with the backstories that led to their creation. My favorite is section eight, “Two Trees, 2017,” in which Tompkins attends the opening of a Doig exhibition at the Michael Werner Gallery. Tompkin’s “I,” which has been used sparingly in the previous sections, blooms in this one. Near the end of it, he says,

We returned to the front room, to have another look at “Two Trees.” The room is full of memories for me and for many others—this is where Leo Castelli showed Rauschenberg and Johns and the groundbreaking Pop and minimal artists in the nineteen-sixties.

“Somewhere Different” has an arresting, original structure, blending ekphrasis with biography, occasionally adding a dash of personal perspective. I enjoyed it immensely.

Postscript: The striking color photo of Doig, by Daniel Shea, illustrating Tompkins’ piece, is a strong candidate for my “Top Ten New Yorker Photographs of 2017.”

Saturday, December 9, 2017

December 4, 2017 Issue


This week’s New Yorker brims with piquant details: “seagulls, nominally and stickily rendered, as if piped on with black icing” (“Goings On About Town: Art: Whitney Museum: ‘Laura Owens’ ”); “Yvette, a raw industrial duo whose jagged tracks should come with cautionary signage” (“Goings On About Town: Night Life: Eaters”); “black-garlic jam (if mahogany had a flavor it would be this)” (Shauna Lyon, “Tables For Two: Ferris”); the white bones of a dead raccoon’s hand that “seemed to reach / out toward the sun as it hit the water, / showing all five of his sweet tensile fingers / still clinging” (Ada Limón, “Overpass”); the mud-encrusted riding goggles in Thomas Prior’s striking color portrait of Puerto Rican jockeys Irad and Jose Ortiz, illustrating John Seabrook’s excellent “Top Jocks”; Paolo Pellegrin’s arresting black-and-white photos of reed huts for Ben Taub’s absorbing “The Emergency”; the roll of adding-machine tape on which A. R. Ammons composed his great “Tape for the Turn of the Year” (“The poem’s margins were set by the tape’s width, about two inches; it began where the tape started and ended when it ran out, with no chance for revisions as Ammons’s words slalomed down its length”: Dan Chiasson, “One Man’s Trash”); Alexander Calder’s “kinetic, wire-and-collage miniature circus, complete with a full cast of characters, from ringmaster to strongman,” made “creature by creature, out of wire bent with pliers, and powered by everything from springs to balloons” (Adam Gopnik, “Wired”).

November 27, 2017 Issue


Nick Paumgarten has two items in this week’s issue – the Talk story, “Good Taste,” and the reporting piece, “Confidence Game.” Both are terrific. “Good Taste” is about a “listening party,” featuring a three-hundred-and-forty-thousand-dollar speaker system called the Imperia. Paumgarten’s description of it is a gem:

Two seven-foot steel towers, each with a couple of huge flared wooden horns, one atop another, along with some smaller aluminum-alloy horns. Between them, on the floor, are the boxed bass horns. The standing horns, fashioned out of Pennsylvania ash, bring to mind an old gramophone, or a morning glory. They make it sound as if the musicians are in the room.

The party takes place in the loft of Jonathan Weiss, principal and founder of Oswalds Mill Associates, designer and manufacturer of the Imperia. Here’s Paumgarten’s rendition of the Imperia’s sound:

The guests fanned out around the towers, and Weiss snuck in behind them to fiddle with some dials and place stylus on vinyl. Kick drum, E string, pedal steel, an intake of breath: the players were as present in the room as Weiss himself, as he nervously checked on his components.

That “an intake of breath” is delightful. The whole piece is wonderful, putting the reader squarely there, in the loft with the partygoers, as they listen to the extraordinary Imperia.

Paumgarten’s other piece in this week’s issue, “Confidence Game,” is a profile of World Cup slalom skier, Mikaela Shiffrin. Paumgarten visits her in Park City, Utah, where the U.S. ski team and its training facility, the Center of Excellence, is based. He watches her work out “under the lash of her coach Jeff Lackie” (“By the end of the third circuit, as she crawled along the mat, leaving a trail of sweat, I had to look away”). He talks with her parents Jeff and Eileen Shiffrin. He talks with her former coach, Brandon Dyksterhouse, and her close friend, Bud Pech. Most vividly, he describes Shiffrin’s second run in the 2015 World Cup slalom at Aspen:

As the leader, Shiffrin was the last out of a field of thirty to ski a second run (forty others had either crashed or failed to qualify), and was thus facing a degraded snow surface. She wore a tight white bodysuit and a stars-and-stripes helmet—a touch of Evel Knievel. The north-facing slope, in full shadow, was a crepuscular blue, out of which the fluorescent yellow trim of her shin and knuckle guards popped like the chest feathers of a chat bird. Banner ads for Milka chocolate (the venue may have been Stateside, but the main television audience was still overseas) lined the run, along with the dim silhouettes of course workers, many of them wearing crampons to maintain their footing on the icy pitch. (It never looks as steep on TV.) Often, Shiffrin’s first few turns are careful, as she establishes a tempo, but on this occasion, despite her almost impregnable lead, she came out “blasting,” as the TV commentator said, so that, by the time she hit the eighteenth gate (out of sixty), the speed and some cruddy snow seemed to cause her to stumble. But she recovered her form—metronomic tempo, skis parallel, body crouched, “knees to skis and hands in front,” as the family mantra goes—and took on the meat of the course with calm determination, to the extent that calmness can be attributed to a woman punching aside heavy, rubbery poles at a rate of more than one a second, while pogoing from side to side in flat light down a wall of rutted ice. Her style was “quiet,” in the argot, the upper body still, skis biting, tip to tail, with hardly a chatter. (Watching the race again recently, on YouTube, I thought of her in high summer, sliding side to side in her socks, holding a medicine ball.) She knocked away the second-to-last gate with both arms, so that for a moment they were raised as though in triumph, and then she ducked across the finish line, swooped into a big turn to check her speed, and finally, snowplowing (pizza!), looked up at the scoreboard. She seemed almost disappointed. She’d won by 3.07 seconds, the largest margin of victory ever in a World Cup slalom race, breaking a record that had stood for forty-seven years.

That “The north-facing slope, in full shadow, was a crepuscular blue, out of which the fluorescent yellow trim of her shin and knuckle guards popped like the chest feathers of a chat bird” is inspired! The whole passage is brilliant, a top contender for Best New Yorker Paragraph of 2017.

Postscript: Other notable pieces in this week’s New Yorker: Talia Lavin’s “Bar Tab: The Penrose” (“The sound of fashionable boots striking the white floor was muted by a staccato prog-rock soundtrack; a young woman in a clinging leather blazer frowned at her companion by the light of a tiny candle and flicked beer foam at his lush red beard”); “James Wood’s “All Over Town” (“In ‘The Waves,’ Woolf returns, at regular intervals, to painterly, almost ritualized descriptions of the sun’s passage, on a single day, from dawn to dusk: wedges of prose like the divisions on a sundial”); Peter Schjeldahl’s “Masters and Pieces” (“How many times in a row can you swoon to marks that sound the same chord of rippling anatomy?”).

Friday, November 24, 2017

November 20, 2017 Issue


It’s great to see Leo Robson back in the magazine. His last piece was “Doings and Undoings,” October 17, 2016 (on Henry Green), and the one before that was “Delusions of Candor,” October 26, 2015 (on Gore Vidal) – both excellent. His “The Mariner’s Prayer,” in this week’s issue, is a review of two books on Joseph Conrad: Maya Jasanoff’s The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World and J. Hillis Miller’s Reading Conrad. He calls Jasanoff’s book “a special case of privileged-access criticism,” i.e., criticism that draws on Conrad’s life to illuminate his work. This contrasts with “Miller’s favored critical mode,” which Robson describes as deconstructionist. Still, he says, The Dawn Watch and Reading Conrad, “have one area of overlap – an almost complete indifference to everything that Conrad published after 1910.” Robson writes,

It’s surprising that neither gives more space to “Under Western Eyes,” a novel crowded with enigmas and transmuted personal history. But to ignore “ Chance” (1914) is to miss a crucial clue about Conrad’s sensibility—and his aversion to what he saw as the sea stigma.

Reading Robson’s absorbing piece, I recalled George Steiner’s “An Old Man and the Sea” (The New Yorker, April 23, 1979), in which Steiner rips Frederick R. Karl’s Joseph Conrad: Three Lives, calling it, among other things, a “turgid leviathan,” “composed in a style of the texture of ageing jello.” Steiner refers to Conrad’s “veiled, implicit way of conveying physical action.” This gets at what is, for me, a major stylistic weakness of Conrad’s writing – his oblique, muffled tone. Robson, in his piece, doesn’t touch on Conrad’s muted style, except to note his use of “philosophical digression” and his preferred method of transforming material “from particular to general.”   

Robson describes Saul Bellow as “the most Conradian novelist in recent American literature.” I disagree. Bellow’s writing brims with exuberant specificity. It’s the exact opposite of Conrad’s foggy obliqueness.  

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Agnès Varda and JR's Wonderful "Faces Places"


A couple of week’s ago, at City Cinema, I saw Agnès Varda and JR’s wonderful Faces Places. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. What a sublime piece of personal filmmaking! It reminds me of Ian Frazier’s work. “You read an essayist like Frazier primarily for the encounter between his sensibility and the world,” Carl Rotella says, in his New York Times review of Frazier’s Hogs Wild. Yes, exactly. And that’s what I go to Varda’s films for – the encounter between her genial, curious, idiosyncratic sensibility and the world. To quote Richard Brody, “Shot by shot, line by line, moment by moment, Varda rescues the vitality and the beauty of the incidental, the haphazard, the easily overlooked—because she fills each detail with the ardent energy of her own exquisite sensibility” (“What to Stream this Weekend: Seaside Frolics,” newyorker.com, August 18, 2017).

In Faces Places, Varda travels with JR in his van (equipped with a photo booth and a large-format printer), exploring a number of small French towns, talking to various people (e.g., goat farmers, dockworkers, chemical plant workers). To quote Brody again, “The subject of Faces Places is the heroism of daily life, the recognition of the daily labor and struggles of factory workers, farmers, waitresses, and, for that matter, women over all whose private roles in sustaining the public lives of their male partners go largely uncommemorated” (“Agnès Varda and JR’s Faces Places Honors Ordinary People on a Heroic Scale,” newyorker.com, October 10, 2017). Varga and JR honor the lives of ordinary people, but also transfigure them, making huge black-and-white murals of their portraits, and pasting them on arresting surfaces such as railway tank cars, barns, and towering stacks of shipping containers. In the process, Faces Places magnificently fulfills one of art’s primary aims – giving the ordinary its beautiful due.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

November 13, 2017 Issue


Pick of the Issue this week is Ian Frazier’s wonderful “Clear Passage,” a report on the revamping of New York City’s majestic Bayonne Bridge. Frazier observes the construction from a park located at the foot of the bridge on the New Jersey side of the Kill Van Kull (“At a well-situated bench I listen to the machinery on the bridge, the shouts of the workers echoing in the steel beams, the hammering of metal on metal, and the beeping of lifter-arm vehicles backing up”). He tells about the bridges history and the engineer, Othmar H. Ammann, who built it, in 1931. He talks to some of the bridge workers (“On an afternoon in early spring, I talked to two painters from Ahern Contractors, in Woodside, New York, who told me that they were painting the bridge pewter-cup gray. It’s a nice shade, and everything that day—bridge, water, clouds, birds, sky—seemed to be a version of it”). He tells about the local pilots who steer the ships through the passage under the bridge. He describes the passage of the Theodore Roosevelt, “the biggest cargo ship ever to enter New York Harbor,” as it sailed under the bridge, September 7, 2017:

As the ship went by, its vast blue hull and stacked-up containers blotted out a good part of Staten Island. People exclaimed, and the cameras made their insistent cicada noises. The ship moved closer to the bridge, and closer. It appeared to have plenty of clearance. Still, many in the crowd held their breath and leaned one way or another, like football fans trying to help a field goal through the uprights using body English.

Most memorably, he describes the view that fills his windshield as he crosses the bridge:

In the arch itself, the road now goes through so high up that it’s as if you were in the bridge’s rafters. As you begin the descent, a grand scene suddenly appears before you: on the left, the vast expanse of the ports of Elizabeth and Newark, the cranes lined up like giant red-white-and-blue kitchen appliances—hand-crank juicers, maybe—with container ships docked alongside or waiting in Newark Bay, and the Passaic River joining the bay on the left, and the Hackensack River entering it up ahead, and the long I-78 bridge over the bay; and, farther off on the left, the runways of Newark Airport, the planes coming and going above it; and, beyond that, the vague gray-blue hills of New Jersey curving westward around the earth toward the rest of America.

“Clear Passage” is classic Frazier reportage – perceptive, lyrical, absorbing. I enjoyed it immensely.


Postscript: In “Clear Passage,” Frazier uses the word “whatnot” (“Orange plastic-mesh fencing bordered the road; construction vehicles and Port-O-Sans and air compressors and whatnot sat alongside”). I smiled when I read it. It reminded me of Frazier’s great Wuthering Heights parody “Linton’s Whatnots” (The New Yorker, May 11, 1992), in which Cathy reveals to Heathcliff that her husband Edgar Linton has a collection of novelty nutcrackers.  

Friday, November 10, 2017

November 6, 2017 Issue


What was it like to be in Raqqa this summer during the fight to expel ISIS? Luke Mogelson’s extraordinary “Dark Victory,” in this week’s issue, tells us in detail after gritty detail. It puts us on the ground, near the front lines, with the Syrian Democratic Forces, amid the city’s bombed-out ruins:

Inside the city, the devastation was apocalyptic. Block after block of tall apartment towers had been obliterated. Every building seemed to have been struck by ordnance: either destroyed entirely, scorched black by fire, or in a state of mid-collapse, with slabs of concrete hanging precariously from exposed rebar and twisted I-beams. Bulldozers had plowed a path through heaps of cinder blocks, felled power poles, and other detritus. Up ahead, missiles hit: a whistle, then a crash, then a dark plume. Smoke and dust roiled over rooftops.

“Dark Victory” is riveting, and what makes it riveting (for me, at least) is Mogelson’s masterful use of “I,” which gives his reports the immediacy and authenticity of personal experience. Examples:

In August, in the living room of an abandoned house on the western outskirts of Raqqa, Syria, I met with Rojda Felat, one of four Kurdish commanders overseeing the campaign to wrest the city from the Islamic State, or ISIS.

One afternoon this summer, near a front line in West Raqqa, I sat in a requisitioned residence with Ali Sher, a thirty-three-year-old Kurdish commander with a handlebar mustache and the traditional Y.P.G. uniform: camouflage, Hammer pants and a colorful head scarf tied back pirate-style.

A few days after speaking with Ali Sher in West Raqqa, my translator and I followed two pickup trucks, crowded with about twenty Arab fighters, through the southern fringes of the city.

Another afternoon, on a street in East Raqqa, where the S.D.F. had pushed into the city’s old quarter, breaching a huge mud-mortar wall from the eighth century, I watched an armored bulldozer return from clearing some rubble nearby.

In another bedroom of the house, I found the ranking commander for the area, a Kurd, sitting on a box spring beneath a shattered window that overlooked the hospital.

These wonderful first-person sentences report war as lived experience. I devour them.  

The Mauricio Lima photos illustrating “Dark Victory” (especially the newyorker.com version) are transfixing, among the best to appear in the magazine in recent memory.

Photo by Mauricio Lima














“Dark Victory” is Mogelson’s third piece on the war against ISIS. The others are “The Front Lines” (The New Yorker, January 18, 2016) and “The Avengers of Mosul” (The New Yorker, February 6, 2017). Together they make one of the most brilliant series of war reports The New Yorker has ever published. I hope Mogelson collects them in a book. It would be an instant classic.

Postscript: Five inspired lines from this week’s New Yorker:

1. “Over here—put in potato—close—strong,” a centenarian named Anastasia instructed, pinching dumplings shut with practiced rhythm. – David Kortava, “Tables For Two: Streecha”

2. Three drinks in, a teetering twentysomething left most of his Up and Cumming—a frothy high-proof pineapple margarita—spilled on the bar. – H. C. Wilentz, “Bar Tab: Club Cumming”

3. The muralist packed up, leaving a half-painted Liza Minnelli to gaze out, smirking, on the besotted crowd. – H. C. Wilentz, “Bar Tab: Club Cumming”

4. The penumbral horse that Georges Seurat let loose with his black Conté crayon in 1882, on view here, might be up for a wild ride with Black Hawk’s “Buffalo Dreamers.” – Andrea K. Scott, “Paper Weight”

5. The cinematographer William Lubtchansky’s grainy black-and-white images have the feel of cold stone, and, when the pragmatic Lilie challenges François to get on with his life, the chill of hard reality is all the more brutal. – Richard Brody, “Movies: Regular Lovers”