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 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.

Friday, October 14, 2011

October 10, 2011 Issue


It’s great to see David Long back in the magazine after a thirteen-year absence. His short story “Oubliette” is in this week’s issue. His “Attraction” (The New Yorker, December 9, 1991; included in his superb 1995 collection Blue Spruce) is one of my all-time favorite New Yorker short stories, right up there with Alice Munro’s “The Turkey Season” (The New Yorker, December 29, 1980), Maile Meloy’s “Travis, B.” (The New Yorker, October 28, 2002), and Louise Erdrich’s “The Painted Drum” (The New Yorker, March 3, 2003). Long excels at writing free indirect speech. Here, for example, is a snippet from “Attraction”:

He’d talked his cousin into digging the cellar hole and setting the forms for the concrete, but Cynthia had a vision of them living down there indefinitely. “In the crypt,” she called it. Tarpaper roof, splintery planks laid across the mud, the electrical service on the little pole. No way.

That “No way” isn’t Long’s voice, although he’s the one narrating the story; it’s Marly’s, the story’s main character. Long is telling the story from her point of view. The “No way” is her internal speech.

Parts of “Oubliette,” in this week’s New Yorker, are also written in free indirect style. The story is about a girl, Nathalie Chilcott, whose mother starts behaving more and more erratically. Long so identifies with Nathalie that his authorial voice often blends with her voice to the point that they’re indistinguishable. For example, here’s a passage from one of the story’s key scenes, in which Nathalie’s mother locked Nathalie in the attic:

She made a pallet of old coats and garment bags, and lay, arms behind her head, listening to air sieving in a the eaves, the wood-on-wood sound of the roof trusses. Before long, she was picturing this episode as a short film, “Girl in Attic” – except, of course, she wasn’t the pathetic teen-ager sucker-punched by her own mother; she was the camera-wielder, preserving events for the record. Still, make no mistake, she was freaked. There was no denying that this stunt of her mothers had led them into uncharted waters.

That “Still, make no mistake, she was freaked” belongs to both Long and Nathalie. Long is reporting Nathalie’s mental state, but he’s using a phrase (“she was freaked”) that Nathalie would use.

“Oubliette” is briskly told; it presents a lot of information in concentrated form. Long calls it “flash fiction” (see his interview with New Yorker fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, “The Book Bench,” newyorker.com, October 3, 2011). But it struck me as being more like an abstract of a short story, an abstract written in free indirect style. I liked it, but I didn’t get the sense of deep entry, of entry into real life, that I experienced when I read “Attraction.” I think the difference is that “Attraction” has more passion.

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