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.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Ian Frazier: The Art of Figuration


Mark Doty, in his The Art of Description (2010), says that figurative speech is “one of the poet’s primary tools for conveying the texture of experience, and for inquiring into experience in search of meaning.” It’s one of the journalist’s primary tools, too. The New Yorker’s Ian Frazier is a consummate writer of figurative speech. Here are a dozen examples of his art:

While I was watching, only the ten semi-professional dancers danced, and on the street’s breadth, under the harsh mercury light, their weaving, unweaving, crossing, recrossing, exchanging, promenading, short-petticoat rustling, and boot-heel clicking seemed like an inexplicable organic structure on a microscope slide. (“Authentic Accounts of Massacres,” The New Yorker, March 19, 1979; included in Frazier’s 1997 collection Nobody Better, Better Than Nobody)

If you stop at night on one of the roads that mark the edge of this wilderness and listen, the accumulated silence of all that empty space will break around your ears like surf. (“Bear News,” The New Yorker, September 9, 1985; included in Frazier’s 1997 collection Nobody Better, Better Than Nobody)

Away to the skies of sparrow hawks sitting on telephone wires, thinking of mice and flaring their tail feathers suddenly, like a card trick! (“I – Great Plains,” The New Yorker, February 20, 1989; included in Frazier’s 1989 Great Plains)

The Great Plains are like a sheet Americans screened their dreams on for a while and then largely forgot about. (“I – Great Plains,” The New Yorker, February 20, 1989; included in Frazier’s 1989 Great Plains)

Beyond the roads were foothills, clear-cut of timber in patches, like heads shaved for surgery. (“I – Great Plains,” The New Yorker, February 20, 1989; included in Frazier’s 1989 Great Plains)

The first snowstorm blew in from the north, and crows crossed the sky before it like thrown black socks. (“I – Great Plains,” The New Yorker, February 20, 1989; included in Frazier’s 1989 Great Plains)

As you approach, pigeons leap from the trash like flames. (“Canal Street,” The New Yorker, April 30, 1990; included in Frazier’s 2005 collection Gone To New York)

All around me, the summer landscape draped like a big hammock. (“Out Of Ohio,” The New Yorker, January 10, 2005; included in Frazier's 2005 collection Gone To New York)

Beneath the chinaberries their little purple blossoms lay on the mud like a pattern on an old dress, sometimes with hog tracks squished in between. (“Hogs Wild,” The New Yorker, December 12, 2005)

If you take I-95 North through the Bronx heading out of the city, Co-op City will be on your right. Its high-rise apartment buildings stand far enough from one another so that each appears distinct and impressive against the sky. In slow-motion seconds, they pass like the measureless underside of a starship in a science-fiction movie. (“Utopia, The Bronx,” The New Yorker, June 26, 2006)

A flock of sparrows burst from a cluster of bushes by the corner of a house with a noise like heavy rain. (“Travels in Siberia – II,” The New Yorker, August 10 & 17, 2010; included in Frazier’s 2010 Travels In Siberia)

The captain sped up to avoid a huge in-bound cargo ship, which went by in our wake with its containers piled high like a waiter balancing dishes. (“Back to the Harbor,” The New Yorker, March 21, 2011)

Credit: The above photo of Ian Frazier is by Sigrid Estrada.

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