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.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

July 11 & 18, 2011 Issue

The articles in this week’s New Yorker that I most enjoyed are Nick Paumgarten’s Talk story, “Big Picture,” and Philip Gourevitch’s “Letter From Rwanda,” titled “Climbers.” The two pieces are totally different from each other in both style and content. “Big Picture” tells about a photographer’s campaign to bring back Polaroid’s old large-format, twenty-by-twenty-four-inch cameras, only five of which were ever built. It contains a funny scene in which Myrna Suárez uses one of these cameras, with its “Dr. Seussian scheme of rollers and pods,” to take Oliver Stone’s picture. Paumgarten has a gift for getting down on the page not only what people say but how they say it. My favorite sentence in “Big Picture” is “He signed the white border with a Sharpie, taking care not to smudge the goop.”

Gourevitch’s “Climbers” is about a Rwandan cycling team. Actually, it’s about a lot more than that. It explores the realities of a “hideously broken country” trying to pull itself together, a country in the grip of a paradox:

The paradox is that in the name of putting the genocide behind them Rwandans have had it held constantly in front of them, as a warning of the perils of divided identity. And for a young generation that is scarred by its historical inheritance, but free from any direct accountability, it is not enough simply to coexist and to bury the memory of the slaughter; there is a need to make the idea of being Rwandan have greater value.

“Climbers” makes this profound paradox visibly concrete – that’s its triumph. Gourevitch shows us the issues through the lens of Team Rwanda. In the course of his narrative, we are made acquainted with many fascinating details, e.g., landscape (“In northwest Rwanda, in the wet, chilly foothills of the Virunga volcanoes, the soil is black from lava, and ideal for growing potatoes”), cycling (“Gasore watched the helmeted racers whiz by, dazzling in their tight Team Rwanda jerseys and shorts – in the national colors of blue, yellow, and green – crouched over the curved handlebars of their slender road bikes, pedaling in close formation”), homes (“There was a tiny mud-floored anteroom, dark and bare except for a pair of shoes that hung, soles out, on a peg beside a bike helmet”). The images that Gourevitch presents are never static; the cycling motif keeps the narrative moving:

In the rough little villages along the road, the crowds were thick and loud, and time and again a look of ecstatic astonishment would ignite a face as someone recognized the Rwandan jersey in the lead. The air got colder as we rode past the volcanoes, and the sky got lower and darker. At midday, the light was black, and the ceiling seemed to hover almost within reach. When it began to drizzle, I thought we were passing through a cloud. Then, just as we began the long final descent to Gisenyi, a drop of three thousand feet in elevation over eighteen and a half miles, the rain crashed down.

“Climbers” is a great piece. And it’s enhanced by the title page, a ravishing Dominic Nahr photo of two Team Rwanda racers biking on a wet road past a line of smiling spectators.

Credit: The above photo is by Dominic Nahr; it appears in the July 11 & 18, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, as an illustration for Philip Gourevitch's "Climbers."

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