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.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

September 5, 2011 Issue

From the moment I saw the online table of contents of this week’s issue, I’ve been anticipating the magazine’s arrival in the mail. Now it’s finally here. Of course, I want to immediately turn to Ian Frazier’s “The March of the Strandbeests” and devour it. In preparation, I’ve already viewed and re-viewed the Photo Booth slideshow of Lena Herzog’s ravishing black-and-white Strandbeest photographs. But, I decide to delay the pleasure of my reading of Frazier’s piece, and go first to Rebecca Mead’s “Better, Faster, Stronger,” a profile of “Silicon Valley’s self-help guru," Timothy Ferriss. First sentence of the third paragraph, my interest in the piece catches fire. Mead writes:

I didn’t know anyone, so I went out of my comfort zone to talk to a young man named Courtney Reum, who told me that he had left a job at Goldman Sachs to start a company that makes and sells Veev – an organic, kosher, gluten-free, carbon-neutral açai liquor, bottled in recycled glass, with labels printed in soy ink.

Great sentence! The combination of all those interesting, piquant words - organic, kosher, gluten-free, carbon-neutral, açai liquor, recycled glass, soy ink – is exquisite. And I like the way Mead picks up on Ferriss’s use of the self-help jargon term “comfort zone” in the previous paragraph and weaves it into the above-quoted line. Ferriss is a colorful character in a New-Age-Silicon Valley-self-help sort of way (e.g., weighing his feces, sumo wrestling, tagging tiger sharks, inducing 15-minute orgasms in female bedmates). I laughed when I read his “clenched vagina” line. Mead writes some humorous lines of her own (e.g., her reaction to Ferriss’s speaking Japanese and Mandarin: “although to see him doing so brings irresistibly to mind Mike Myers speaking Cantonese in ‘Wayne’s World’”). And do I detect a glint of a good journalist’s healthy skepticism running through the piece? I think so, and I’m pleased to see it. For example, at the end of a sentence telling us about Ferriss’s plan to offer investment advice via Facebook and Twitter, she archly says, “assuming that sufficient numbers of people will opt for the appeal of digital connectivity over the allure of recreational shark-tagging, competitive tango dancing, or any of the other activities that one might pursue in the hundred and sixty-four hours of free time in a four-hour workweek.” I enjoyed “Better, Faster, Stronger” immensely. Its prose enacts the fizzy, kinetic world it describes.

And now I turn to a completely different world where giant beasts made of plastic tubing stalk the beach near Delft. Ian Frazier’s “The March of the Strandbeests” is brilliant - where brilliant means vivid, precise, rich, poetic. It contains a number of inspired passages, e.g.:

The northeast wind skimmed the waves along the beach like pinwheel blades, the giant wind turbine above the harbor rotated, the para-surfers’ chutes twisted this way and that, the ropes on the masts of the catamaran in drydock beside the dunes snaked back and forth and banged their metal parts on the hollow aluminum with a racket that could frighten off wicked spirits. In shoreline indentations, heaps of sea foam accumulated and shivered, and clumps of foam kept blowing free and spinning across the sand, assuming corkscrew shapes and in the next instant abrading themselves away.

A terrific aspect of Frazier’s approach to writing is his inclusion of incidentals, i.e., experiences that most journalists would consider too marginal to be included in their stories. But, for Frazier (and for me, as reader), the incidental experiences are often the ones that make the story. For example, in “The March of the Strandbeests,” he mentions that Theo Jansen, the ingenious creator of the Strandbeests, had trouble finding his car in the airport parking garage. Frazier says:

At first, he couldn’t find his white Volvo in the airport parking garage, and I set down my suitcase while he listened for the dog. Theo has a small, wool-colored dog of a French Madagascar breed who goes almost everywhere with him and is named Murphy. In a minute, he picked up Murphy’s bark and we homed in on it. The dog barked more encouragingly the closer we got to the car.

“The March of the Strandbeests” abounds with such succulent details. Here’s another one:

In a vitrine, a leather-bound sketchbook of Gerard ter Borch the younger lay open to a black-chalk drawing of a tangled patch of a brush on a hillside. Such a no-count, lovely piece of ground!

That “Such a no-count, lovely piece of ground!” is great! It’s so typical of Frazier to notice and appreciate such a “no-count, lovely” detail.

My favorite passage of “The March of the Strandbeests” comes at the end. Frazier is describing one of the smaller Strandbeests, Animus Longer. He says, “From a distance, it looked like one of those folding pole-and-clothesline contraptions you hang laundry on.” Then he concludes the piece as follows:

This Strandbeest stood there for awhile, unnoticed. The shiny, wet sand held its reflection. Some new customers arrived and sat at one of the restaurant’s outdoor tables. A minute later, a stronger gust came up, and the apparent clothes drying rack suddenly went tiptoeing across the sand. The people at the table did a triple take and began pointing and laughing, and talking in Dutch. “Dat ding is aan het lopen!” (“That thing is walking!”) they cried.

What a delightful ending! I laughed when I read it.

Before concluding, I want to briefly comment on one more piece in this week’s issue, namely, James Wood’s “Cabin Fever,” a review of Denis Johnson’s novella Train Dreams. It’s one of the best pieces Wood has written for the magazine. I’m a fan of Wood’s writing. But I confess I’ve harbored a suspicion that he doesn’t really get (or like) American fiction. “Cabin Fever” dispels that suspicion forever. Wood says of Johnson’s writing in Train Dreams, “The hard, declarative sentences keep their powder dry for pages at a time, and then suddenly flare into lyricism.” “Cabin Fever” shows a deep appreciation for “the exactitude of Johnson’s language.” It’s filled with inspired quotations from Johnson’s work. The second-to-last paragraph, which begins, “The protagonist of ‘Train Dreams’ is not privy to stoned visions, but he is a steady noticer of the natural world, and the novella’s prose follows his eye with frequent exhalations of beauty,” is gorgeous.

Thank you New Yorker for these three excellent pieces. They’re a tremendous source of reading pleasure.

Postscript: Is Louis Menand changing his tune regarding the old New Yorker’s anticommercialism? He says, in “Browbeaten,” in this week’s issue, that Dwight Macdonald “believed completely in the official dogma of Ross and Shawn’s New Yorker, which was the absolute separation of the magazine’s business side (the side concerned with advertising and circulation) from the editorial side.” He says, “The New Yorker did not cater to any class of reader, in its self-accounting; it simply published what its writers and editors wanted to publish. It was blind to the marketplace.” That “official dogma” and “self-accounting” are interesting. Is Menand implying the reality was otherwise? There was a time – 1990, to be exact – when Menand believed in The New Yorker’s anticommercial nature. In “A Friend Writes: The Old New Yorker (The New Republic, February 26, 1990; included in his 2002 essay collection American Studies), he says:

In 1985, soon after the New Yorker was sold, Shawn wrote a “Notes and Comment” piece designed to defend the magazine’s editorial position against possible encroachments by the new ownership, and to reassure the magazine’s readers. “We, the editorial people,” he explained, “knew by instinct that to be able to make the New Yorker the magazine we wanted it to be we had to separate ourselves from the business side of the venture…. In this atmosphere of freedom, we have never published anything in order to sell magazines, to cause a sensation, to be controversial, to be popular or fashionable, to be ‘successful.’" The analysis is entirely correct, and it explains the true commercial genius of the New Yorker.

Now, it would appear, according to Menand’s latest take, that Shawn’s view, far from being “entirely correct,” was just “official dogma,” a “self-accounting.” This is unfair to Shawn and to the magazine. I believe Menand had it right the first time around. Shawn was true to his principles. The New Yorker's separation of art from commerce was real, and not mere window dressing, as Menand now seems to suggest.

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