Thursday, December 22, 2011
December 19 & 26, 2011 Issue
Here’s a New Yorker that deserves not a review but a party. It’s the last issue of the year, and it’s terrific. It contains at least a half-dozen excellent pieces. The two that I’ll comment on here are Burkhard Bilger’s “The Great Oasis” and James Wood’s “Reality Effects.” Bilger consistently produces some of the magazine’s best writing. His “Towheads” (The New Yorker, April 19, 2010) was one of my “Best of 2010” picks (see my December 28, 2010, post). This year, his “The Possibilian” (The New Yorker, April 25, 2011) and his “True Grits” (The New Yorker, October 31, 2011) were both tremendously interesting and enjoyable. Now we have his brilliant “The Great Oasis.” It’s about reforestation in desert lands. Among its highlights are: (1) a visit to Oman where a Dutch inventor, named Pieter Hoff, is testing an experimental tree-planting device called the Waterboxx; (2) a description of the Great Green Wall, a massive project in which “eleven African nations have agreed to erect a wall of trees across the dusty shoulders of the continent” for the purpose of halting the spread of the Sahara; (3) a trip to Burkino Faso to meet Chris Reij, an agroforestry specialist, and learn about the African Re-Greening Initiative, in which farmers are reforesting vast stretches of the Sahel; and (4) a search for “one of the last baobabs in northern Oman.” The piece is beautifully structured, beginning and ending with the search for the baobab tree. And it is artfully written. Bilger gives us interesting facts in words we can picture. Here is rainfall in the Al Hajar Mountains of northern Oman: “When the clouds burst, as they do a few times a year, the rain skitters from the slopes like oil from a griddle, gathers into rivulets and swiftly moving sheets, and tumbles into wadies that wind between the peaks.” Here is the baobab tree that Pieter Hoff was searching for: “In the deepening dusk, it looked like an apparition out of ‘The Arabian Nights’ – a fat caliph surrounded by his fan-fluttering harem.” And here’s the sound of two men praying: “Their voices came to us as a steady murmur mixed with the rustling of the leaves.” The Sahara (“the only traces of green are a few umbrella-thorn trees, Acacia tortilis, anchored to the bare rock”) and the Sahel (“the grasses were parched brittle and sere, the red soil baked hard beneath them”) are evoked with a specificity that puts us squarely there. Bilger’s details are wonderful (e.g., “The only signs of life were a few Senegalese fire finches, darting like sparks among the shea trees”). “The Great Oasis” is a marvelous piece. I enjoyed it immensely.
I kept thinking of Bilger’s writing as I read James Wood’s “Reality Effects.” What does Wood think of Bilger’s work? Does he even read it? To be frank, until I read “Reality Effects,” in this week’s issue, I suspected that Wood was blind to the merits of literary journalism. For example, in “Keeping It Real” (The New Yorker, March 15, 2010), Wood calls David Shields’ promotion of “reality” over fiction “highly problematic.” In reply to Shields’ preference for essays and memoirs rather than fiction, Wood advanced the example of Tolstoy, who, he says, “so often reproduced reality directly from life.” Wood calls Tolstoy “the great ‘reality-artist.’” I share Shields’ skepticism regarding fiction, even fiction as consummate as Tolstoy’s, as a representation of reality. Fiction is, not to put too fine a point on it, a lie. I much prefer factual writing. Now, in “Reality Effects,” an admiring review of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essay collection Pulphead, it appears Wood is starting to see the light. He says of Sullivan’s pieces:
It is obvious enough that they are by a talented storyteller, who has learned from fiction (as well as from the essayistic tradition) on how to structure and ration his narratives. He seems to have in abundance the storyteller’s gifts: he is a fierce noticer, is undauntedly curious, is porous to gossip, and has a memory of childlike tenacity. Anecdotes fly off the wheels of his larger narratives.
The verve of that last sentence is thrilling. It would appear that what Sullivan writes falls more into the category of “personal history” than it does “fact piece.” (Last night, I dipped into Pulphead for the first time; its “Mr. Lytle: An Essay” is excellent.) This is why Wood says Sullivan’s talent “is beautifully for the real” and why he immediately qualifies this observation with “or, rather, for the real fictions that people make of the real, and which they live by.” Bilger’s art is “beautifully for the real,” too. But it doesn’t move between reality and fictionality the way Wood says the contemporary essay often does. Bilger’s writing is factual. That’s what I like about it. “Factual” is a word Wood seldom, if ever, uses. Maybe someday he’ll see its value. I find it promising that, in “Reality Effects,” he’s at least showing appreciation for something other than fiction.