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 Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins 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.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Top Ten New Yorker Book Reviews, 1976 - 2011, #3: James Wood's "Red Planet"

James Wood has emerged as one of this blog’s major guiding lights. His marvelous definition of “thisness,” as set out in his How Fiction Works (2008), is, for me, a touchstone. “By thisness,” he says, “I mean any detail that draws abstraction toward itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability, any detail that centers our attention with its concretion.” Wood has a jeweler’s eye for thisness. My favorite parts of his reviews are where he picks out descriptive details from the work under consideration and holds them up to the light for a closer look. For example, in his “Asylum” (The New Yorker, June 28, 2010), a review of Adam Foulds’s novel The Quickening Maze, he begins with this magnificent collage of details:

It is a remarkable work, remarkable for the precision and vitality of its perceptions and for the successful intricacy of its prose. Here is a man caught in a coughing fit, whose “eyes thickened in their sockets.” And here is a young woman brushing her hair “until it was glossy and fluent.” And another young woman, also brushing her hair, her face “vacant with concentration.” Here are some patients in a mental asylum, “shuffling, drowsy as smoked bees.” And an old attendant at the asylum: “His face was so detailed, so full of character, that John always found encountering him to be a small event, like eating something.” Mademoiselle Leclair, a French tutor: “She was a dumpy spinster from somewhere in Picardy with a pale extensive face that ran mostly downhill from a long, white nose.” The study of a doctor who runs the asylum: “a private red gloom of papers and piled books.” And the natural world, noticed exactly and reimagined exactly: “The forest made its little sounds.” (Yes, that could very well be how a forest sounds, and I hadn’t known until I read it.) Icicles: “They were smooth at the top and tapered and tapered down with bulges, like a pea pod, to a stopped drop round as a glass bead.” Birds in a tree: “Small birds, titmice, swapped their places, switching back and forth, then flew off together in a pretty wave of panic.” Winter: “She liked the pinch of absence, the hollow air, reminiscent of the real absence.” To be truly alive to winter, as is one of the novel’s characters, is “to feel the sharp winterness of the day.”

Wood is a connoisseur of literary details. But it’s not every detail that satisfies him. He says, in How Fiction Works, “But I choke on too much detail.” [If you want to see him choking (it’s not a pretty sight), check out his “John Updike’s Complacent God” (included in his 1999 collection The Broken Estate).] That’s why “Asylum” and his great “Red Planet” (The New Yorker, July 25, 2005) are key; they show us details that Wood considers satisfying.

In “Red Planet,” a review of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, Wood artfully assembles and presents a collection of choice details similar to the one set out in “Asylum,” except that in “Red Planet” his commentary is itself more detailed. Consider the following passage:

He is also a wonderfully delicate noticer of nature. His first novel, “The Orchard Keeper” (1965), has this picture of lightning: “Far back beyond the mountain a thin wire of lightning glowed briefly.” The protagonist of “Child of God” (1973), a psychotic necrophiliac named Lester Ballard, lights a fire in an old grate, and as it races up the disused chimney sees a spider that “descended by a thread and came to rest clutching itself on the ashy floor of the hearth.” How strange and original that “clutching itself” is, and how appropriate that the loveless Lester Ballard might think this way about a spider’s shriveling. “Blood Meridian” is a vast and complex sensorium, at times magnificent and at times melodramatic, but nature is almost always precisely caught and weighed: in the desert, the stars “fall all night in bitter arcs,” and the wolves trot “neat of foot” alongside the horsemen, and the lizards, “their leather chins flat to the cooling rocks,” fend off the world “with thin smiles and eyes lack cracked stone plates,” and the grains of sand creep past all night “like armies of lice on the move,” and “the blue cordilleras stood footed in their paler image on the sand like reflections in a lake.” McCarthy like this last phrase so much that he repeated it, seven years later, in “All the Pretty Horses” (1992): “Where a pair of herons stood footed to their long shadows.”

In McCarthy, such repetition is a sign not of haste but of a style that has achieved consistency. That curious word “footed” is characteristic of his willingness to stretch the sinew of language with Shakespearean liberality, “Footed to their long shadows” perfectly conveys the sense of a bird that is all foot and leg, and that, moreover, seems fastened by its feet to the ground. (“Footed to” surely suggests “fitted to” or “fastened to,” and for this reason “legged to” wouldn’t work.)

In the above passage, it’s not only the quotations from McCarthy’s work that I enjoy; I also appreciate having the benefit of Wood’s comments. For instance, that wonderful “How strange and original that ‘clutching itself’ is, and how appropriate that the loveless Lester Ballard might think this way about a spider’s shrivelling,” is one of my favorite lines in all of Wood’s writings.

Just as “Literature teaches us to notice,” to quote a memorable line from Wood’s How Fiction Works, so, too, do reviews such as “Asylum” and “Red Planet.” In fact, I’d submit that “Asylum” and “Red Planet” are literature. “Red Planet” is slightly richer in commentary. Therefore, I’ve chosen it for my “Top Ten.”

Credit: The above artwork is by Fido Nesti; it appears in The New Yorker, January 7, 2008, as an “On The Horizon” illustration for the event “Eat, Drink & Be Literary,” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

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