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.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

March 20, 2017, Issue

Gary Shteyngart’s “Time Out,” in this week’s issue, is pure bliss. It’s classified as “Personal History,” but it’s also a terrific reporting piece on the world of Watch Idiot Savants (W.I.S.). Shteyngart attends a secret meeting of a W.I.S. group called Redbar (“I missed out on the culmination of the evening, when all the watches were piled up for an Instagram photo with the hashtag #sexpile, but as I wandered into the autumn night my Nomos beat warmly against my wrist”), visits the Nomos workshop in Glashütt, Germany (“I observed with special delight as a watchmaker inserted a balance wheel into a new watch, and it came to life for the first time”), shops for a waterproof watch at Wempe’s on Fifth Avenue [“I was served an espresso and a Lindt chocolate by a young man who also presented me with a Tudor Heritage Black Bay 36, a glowing black-dial water-resistant watch bearing the famous ‘snowflake’ hour hand of Tudor (a sister company of Rolex)”], and talks with numerous watch geeks, including Ben Clymer, founder of the website Hodinkee (“Clymer is preternaturally calm and sumptuously bearded, a self-described ‘old soul,’ who ticks as reliably as a chronometer granted the all-important Geneva Seal”).

“Time Out” brims with inspired lines:

If you want a watch that looks like a Russian oligarch just curled up around your wrist and died, you might be interested in the latest model of Rolex’s Sky-Dweller.

I lay in bed practicing what I might say about “perlage,” “three-quarter plates,” and the rare lapis-lazuli dials on some seventies Rolex Datejusts.

Glashütte does not have so much as a proper restaurant, although every Tuesday a chicken man comes with a truck full of roasting birds, and pensioners dutifully line up as if the Berlin Wall had never fallen.

Reviewing Shteyngart’s brilliant “O.K., Glass” (The New Yorker, August 5, 2013), I said it was “close to perfection” (see here). His marvelous “Time Out” is perfection – perfect as that Nomos Minimatik Champagner beating warmly against his wrist. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

At the Archive: Laurie Rosenwald's Delightful "On the Horizon" Illustrations

Laurie Rosenwald, "The Bacon Takedown" (2010)

The New Yorker used to have a “Goings On About Town” section called “On the Horizon,” highlighting notable upcoming events. It was discontinued in 2013. One of the best “On the Horizon” illustrators was Laurie Rosenwald. Here are three examples of her work:

Laurie Rosenwald, "Picasso at the Met" (April 12, 2010)

Laurie Rosenwald, "The Egg Rolls & Egg Creams Festival" (May 17, 2010)

Laurie Rosenwald, "Abraham Lincoln's Big, Gay Dance Party" (July 12 & 19, 2010)

Saturday, March 18, 2017

John Kinsella's Great "Milking the Tiger Snake"

John Kinsella (Photo by Michael Wilson)

John Kinsella’s brilliant “Milking the Tiger Snake” (The New Yorker, January 9, 2017) evokes a transfixing image – a bushman extracting venom from a deadly snake:

Fangs through a balloon, an orange balloon
stretched over a jam-jar mouth scrubbed-up
bush standard—fangs dripping what looks
like semen, which is venom, one of the most
deadly, down grooves and splish splash
onto the lens of the distorting glass-bottom
boat we look up into, head of tiger
snake pressed flat with the bushman’s
thumb—his scungy hat that did Vietnam,
a bandolier across his matted chest
chocked with cartridges—pistoleer
who takes out ferals with secretive
patriotic agendas. And we kids watch
him draw the head of the fierce snake,
its black body striped yellow. “It will rear
up like a cobra if cornered, and attack,
attack!” he stresses as another couple
of droplets form and plummet. And when
we say, “Mum joked leave them alone
and they’ll go home,” he retorts, “Typical
bloody woman, first to moan if she’s bit,
first to want a taste of the anti-venom
that comes of my rooting these black
bastards out, milking them dry, down
to the last drop.” Tiger snake’s eyes
peer out crazily targeting the neck
of the old coot with his dirty mouth,
its nicotine garland. He from whom
we learn, who shows us porno
and tells us what’s what. Or tiger snake
out of the wetlands, whip-cracked
by the whip of itself until its back is broke.

“Milking the Tiger Snake” is absolutely alive. What makes it so? How does Kinsella achieve his effects? One way is his use of zero articles – not “the fangs,” but “fangs”; not “the head of a tiger snake,” but “head of tiger snake”; not “the tiger snake’s eyes,” but “tiger snake’s eyes”; not “the tiger snake out of the wetlands,” but “tiger snake out of the wetlands.” Cutting the articles intensifies the image.

Another Kinsella move is his use of the present tense (“look,” “watch,” “stress,” “say,” “retorts,” “peer,” “learn,” “shows,” “tells”). Use of the present tense makes the image more immediate, direct, and impactful.

A third Kinsella technique is his use of words I can see (“fangs through a balloon, an orange balloon,” “stretched over a jam-jar mouth,” “fangs dripping what looks / like semen, which is venom,” “down grooves and splish splash / onto the lens of the distorting glass-bottom / boat,” “head of tiger / snake pressed flat with the bushman’s / thumb,” “scungy hat that did Vietnam,” “a bandolier across his matted chest / chocked with cartridges,” “the fierce snake, / its black body striped yellow,” “droplets form and plummet,” “the old coot with his dirty mouth, / its nicotine garland,” “tiger snake / out of the wetlands, whip-cracked / by the whip of itself until its back is broke”). These words jump to life as I read them.

Two more aspects of “Milking the Tiger Snake” that contribute to its vitality: (1) The rhythmic way it moves down the page, its six sentences acoustically arranged in thirty-two lines; (2) Its spontaneity; it has the feel of actual encounter, naked experience, quickly sketched as it’s happening, or immediately afterwards, while the details are still vivid. 

“Milking the Tiger Snake” is a great poem – where greatness means original, evocative, vigorous, specific, and striking. I enjoyed it immensely.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

March 13, 2017, Issue

Pick of the Issue this week is Jake Halpern’s absorbing “A New Underground Railway,” in which he visits a refugee safe house known as Vive on the east side of Buffalo, talks with some of the migrants staying there, talks with some of the staff, attends a “house meeting” in Vive’s basement cafeteria, meets a young Columbian man named Fernando who is preparing to sneak across the U.S.-Canada border, and drives him to the location (“a corridor of fields surrounded on both sides by thick forest”) where he wants to attempt his crossing. Halpern writes the kind of specific, direct, unadorned prose I relish. For example, here’s his account of driving Fernando to his drop-off point:

We drove on in silence. It was near midnight, and there were no other cars on the road. We approached the point where he wanted to be dropped off. On Google Earth, the fields had looked trimmed, but the ones in front of us were wildly overgrown. There was no moon, so it was impossible to distinguish the fields from the forests on either side.

I stopped in the middle of the road. On the right side, the route north, there was a steep embankment leading down to the fields. Fernando grabbed his backpack and opened his door; in the blackness, the car’s overhead light seemed glaringly bright. I told him to call me when he made it, or if he felt that he was in serious danger. He nodded goodbye, scurried down the embankment, and disappeared into the brambles.

“A New Underground Railway” puts us squarely there with Fernando, Tita, and other asylum-seekers, showing us their desperation. It’s a powerful argument for a more humane, empathetic approach to immigration.    

Saturday, March 11, 2017

March 6, 2017, Issue

Do we need to know about Elizabeth Bishop’s private life in order to appreciate her poetry? Claudia Roth Pierpont, in her absorbing “The Island Within,” a review of Megan Marshall’s new biography, Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, in this week’s issue, appears to answer no. Discussing the lines “The name of seashore towns run out to sea, / the names of cities cross the neighboring / mountains / – the printer here experiencing the same / excitement / as when emotion too far exceeds its cause,” in Bishop’s “The Map,” she mentions that Bishop’s previous biographer, Brett C. Millier, linked them to thoughts that Bishop confided to her notebook (“Name it friendship if you want – like names of cities printed on maps, the word is much too big, it spreads all over the place, and tells nothing of the actual place it means to name”). But then Pierpont says, “Of course, any such biographical explanation is a cheat: the reader cannot be expected to supply these facts; the poem means what it means, on its own.” I agree. My sense of who Bishop was arises from her meticulous poetic details. Take, for example, her exquisite description of fog in “The Moose”:

The bus starts. The light
is deepening; the fog
shifting, salty, thin,
comes closing in.

Its cold, round crystals
form and slide and settle
in the white hens’ feathers,
in gray glazed cabbages,
on the cabbage roses
and lupins like apostles;

the sweet peas cling
to wet white string
on the whitewashed fences;
bumblebees creep
inside the foxgloves,
and evening commences.

Pierpont discusses “The Moose” in terms of its meaning. She says, “Despite the passengers’ lack of anything remotely resembling expressive language (“Sure are big creatures.” / “It’s awful plain”), they are overcome with joy, lifted from their narrow selves for a luminous moment, before the bus rolls on.” But, for me, the beauty of “The Moose” is in those “cold, round crystals” of fog, forming, sliding, and settling “in in the white hens’ feathers, / in gray glazed cabbages, / on the cabbage roses / and lupins like apostles.” Such ravishing description indicates who Bishop was more revealingly than any letter or notebook could possibly show.

In her piece, Pierpont calls Marshall’s biography “lively and engaging, charged with vindicating energy.” This sharply contrasts with Dwight Garner’s verdict in The New York Times: “Marshall’s biography is dull and dispiriting” ( 'Elizabeth Bishop' Details a Poet’s Life. An Author’s, Too,” January 31, 2017). Pierpont says,

Marshall, an aspiring poet in her youth, writes from a deep sense of identity with her subject: she studied with Bishop at Harvard, in 1976, and her biographical chapters are interspersed with pages of her own memoir, also centered on family, poetry, and loss. It’s an odd but compelling structure, as the reader watches the two women’s lives converge, and it allows for some closeup glimpses of Bishop as a teacher.

Garner differs:

Marshall’s attempts at memoir are painfully earnest. “I’d taken him a loaf of banana bread I baked one week, in lieu of a poem,” she reports about her interactions with one Harvard professor. Each of these reveries, some of which include samples of the biographer’s own verse (“Take flight, larks with a freedom earthbound creatures/Can’t know”), is about three slices short of a loaf and has no place here.

Who’s right – Pierpont (“odd but compelling structure”) or Garner (“thee slices short of a loaf”)? The only way to decide, I guess, is to read Marshall’s book.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Ian Frazier's "A Vast and Terrifying Saga"

Iqaluit Beach, 2007 (Photo by Lorna MacDougall)

Ian Frazier, in his wonderful “A Vast and Terrifying Saga” (The New York Review of Books, February 23, 2017), a review of Annie Proulx’s new novel, Barkskins, writes,

“Brokeback Mountain” and Proulx’s other Wyoming stories, many of them found in her collection Close Range, get their power from the [western] myth’s dependable high-lonesome twang, but they stay in the mind because of the details. Nobody, old-timer or otherwise, has a better eye for the physical, geographic, geologic, flotsam-strewn American West.

This is a considerable compliment from a writer whose own eye for “physical, geographic, geologic, flotsam-strewn” places is extraordinary: “spavined barns, bladeless windmills, crumpled stock tanks, tree-sheltered homeplaces with home missing, fallen-down corrals, splintered stock chutes, rusting farm machinery” (Great Plains); “an armchair, a pink plastic bottle in the shape of a baby’s shoe, a pile of shingles, an old-fashioned TV antenna, beer cans, a rusting John Deere swather” (On the Rez); “crumpled-up Caterpillar treads, school bus hulks, twisted scaffolding in rats’-nest heaps, rusted gold dredges, busted paddle wheels, crunched pallets, hyperextended recliner chairs, skewed all-terrain vehicle frames, mashed wooden dogsleds, multicolored nylon exploded to pompoms, door-sprung ambulance vans, dinged fuel tanks, shot clutch plates, run-over corrugated pipe, bent I beams, bent rebars, bent vents” (Travels in Siberia). 

I relish these junky lists. I, too, am drawn to such stuff. When I lived in Iqaluit, Nunavut, I used to walk the beach, marveling at the mishmash of plywood shacks, torn tents, broken-up boats, twisted tarps, frayed ropes, cannibalized snowmobiles, decaying caribou skins, scattered tools and engine parts, on and on. What accounts for their attraction? For me, it’s the sheer chaotic randomness of it all, what Leo Steinberg, in his description of Robert Rauschenberg’s great Washington’s Golden Egg, called “disjunction by juxtaposition” (Encounters with Rauschenberg, 2000).

But for Frazier, I think the attraction is deeper. I think it’s an aspect of his elegiac impulse – his intense awareness of and lament for life’s ephemerality. There’s a tinge of this in “A Vast and Terrifying Saga” when he notes that the western myth is

always looking back to what’s been lost: to the days of the buffalo before white men came, to the fur-trapper rendezvous blowouts of the 1820s, to the open cattle range of the 1870s, to the unplundered plains of recent memory before strip-mining for coal and fracking for natural gas and oil – all of it lost and gone forever and mourned, as Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar spend the rest of their lives mourning the summer when they were young and in love in their sheep camp on Brokeback Mountain.

In “A Vast and Terrifying Saga,” Frazier salutes a fellow western elegist.

Friday, March 3, 2017

February 27, 2017, Issue

McKenna Stayner’s “Bar Tab” sentences are amazing mashups of unexpected words and images. Her “The crawlers, finishing a hot whiskey cider that tasted like the dregs of an overly honeyed tea, passed through a teensy smokers’ patio and into the booze-soaked main bar, attracted by a glowing yellow counter, its surface like the cracked crust of a crème brûlée,” in “Bar Tab: Sycamore,” was one of last year’s highlights (see “Best of 2016: GOAT”). Her “Bar Tab: Super Power,” in this week’s issue, contains another dandy: “Visiting Super Power, with the gentle glow of a blowfish lamp, the fogged windows dripping hypnotically with condensation, and the humid, coconut-scented air, was exactly like being on a cruise, but everyone was wearing wool.” That sensuous conjunction of light (“gentle glow of a blowfish lamp”), steam (“fogged windows dripping hypnotically with condensation”), smell (“humid, coconut-scented air”), and texture (“everyone was wearing wool”) is ravishing!