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.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

November 7, 2011 Issue

Of the many pleasures in this week’s issue – Ian Frazier’s wonderful “History Lesson” (“One of the young men from O.W.S. – the one who said they would never leave – was wearing a dark suit jacket, a white shirt, a burgundy tie, a bolo string tie, a beaded Indian necklace, and a silver pendant. On his head he had a wildly multicolored baseball cap, set sideways. His hair was a braided ponytail. His trousers were skin-tight leggings, also multicolored, and he had beige flip-flops on his feet”), John Lahr’s superb “The Natural” (“Her excitement made her luminous”), James Wood’s “Shelf Life,” with its short, rhythmic, three-beat sentences (“I found him hard to love, easier to admire, and I rather feared him”; “I knew he would say it, hated him for it, agreed with him”) and breathtaking, long, loaded-up lines (“His Algerian childhood, his intellectual ambition, the diversion of that ambition into run-of-the-mill moneymaking, his isolation and estrangement in America, his confidence and shyness, pugilism and anxiety, the drinking and the anger and the passion and the pressurized conformity of his businesslike existence: of course, in some general way, these thousands of volumes – neatly systematic, proudly comprehensive – incarnated the shape of this life, but not the facets of his character”); the enticing, exquisite opening sentence of Peter Schjeldahl’s “Old and New” (“Fourteen lamps hanging, aglow, beckon you to an entrance to the Metropolitan Museum’s Islamic wing, which is open again after eight years of expansion and renovation”) – the most piquant is the glorious descriptive power of D. T. Max’s “Her Way,” a profile of the pianist Hélène Grimaud. Here, for example, is Max’s description of Grimaud’s hair: “On album covers, her hair telegraphs a mood. It is pinned up in a Clara Schumann-like bun for a Brahms recording, and on the cover of “Credo” – a CD of Beethoven and a pair of mystic-minded modern composers – it is tucked behind her ears, in wan, heroin-chic strands. Ordinarily, her hair is shaggy, with too-busy-to-blow-dry bangs.” And here is his image of her at the keyboard: “Grimaud opened with Mozart’s Sonata in A Minor, playing it as if she were lashing a carriage down the streets of Salzburg.” And here is his rendition of the sound of wolves howling: “Two Mexican wolves, in a nearby enclosure, joined in, several tones higher, glissando-ing down while the red wolves added a frenzied pizzicato.” Grimaud is an outstandingly great subject, and Max’s profile of her is commensurately outstandingly great. It’s incredible color, nuance, and texture reminds me of Kenneth Tynan’s piece on Johnny Carson (“Fifteen Years of the Salto Mortale,” The New Yorker, February 20, 1978), perhaps the finest profile ever to appear in the magazine. That’s just about the highest compliment I can pay a piece of writing.

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