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.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

December 5, 2011 Issue

Pick of the Issue this week is Aleksandar Hemon’s "Mapping Home." At first, I thought it was going to be about Hemon’s return to Sarajevo after the war, and his account of the people and places he rediscovered, and the memories that came to mind – a sort of variation on A. J. Liebling’s great Normandy Revisited (1959), which I’m currently reading. The first part of Hemon’s piece is a form of nostalgia trip. At one point, he says:

I randomly entered building hallways and basements, just to smell them: in addition to the familiar scent of leather suitcases, old magazines, and damp coal dust, there was the odor of hard life and sewage – during the siege, people had often taken shelter from the shelling in their basements. I idled in coffee shops, drinking coffee that tasted like burned corn, instead of the foamy pungency I remembered from before the war. Everything around me was both familiar to the point of pain and entirely uncanny and distant.

The second section of “Mapping Home” is my favorite. It shows Hemon, in his mid-twenties, before he left Sarajevo for Chicago, when he worked as a film reviewer and columnist, walking Sarajevo’s streets, seeing, looking, reflecting. He says:

Fancying myself a street-savvy columnist, I raked the city for material, absorbing impressions and details and generating ideas for my writing. I don’t know if I would’ve used the word back then, but now I am prone to reimagining my younger self as one of Baudelaire’s flâneurs, as someone who wanted to be everywhere and nowhere in particular, for whom wandering was the main means of communication with the city.

That last phrase (“for whom wandering was the main means of communication with the city”) is inspired! It deepens Hemon’s theme. “Mapping Home” is not just a memory piece; it’s also about using our senses to create a definition of space. Reading Hemon’s piece, I was reminded of Sallie Tisdale’s brilliant “In The Northwest” (The New Yorker, August 26, 1991), in which she talks about the word “chorophiliac,” which means “place-lover.” Hemon is a chorophiliac. His choro is Sarajevo. He says:

I collected sensations and faces, smells and sights, fully internalizing Sarajevo’s architecture and its physiognomies. I gradually became aware that my interiority was inseparable from my exteriority, that the geography of of my city was the geography of my soul. Physically and metaphorically, I was placed.

“Mapping Home” deepens even further when Hemon shows how Chicago eventually became his choro, too. During his early days in Chicago, he was, he says, “a tormented flâneur.” He says:

In my ambulatory expeditions, I became acquainted with Chicago, but I did not yet know the city. The need to know it in my body, to locate myself in the world, had not been satisfied.”

It wasn’t until Hemon settled into the Chicago neighborhood of Edgewater that he started to feel “placed.” One of the highlight passages of “Mapping Home" is Hemon’s vivid description of how he gradually started feeling like an Edgewater “local.” Here’s a brief excerpt:

In the morning, drinking coffee, I would watch from my window the people waiting at the Granville El stop, recognizing the regulars. Sometimes I’d splurge on breakfast at a Shoney’s on Broadway (now long gone) that offered a $2.99 all-you-can-eat deal to the likes of me and the residents of a nursing home on Winthrop, who would arrive en masse, holding hands like schoolchildren. At Gino’s North, where there was only one beer on tap and where many an artist got shitfaced, I’d watch the victorious Bulls’ games, high-fiving only the select few who were not too drunk to lift their elbows off the bar.

Little by little, Hemon started to feel at home in Edgewater. He says, “I discovered that in order to transform an American city into a personal space you had to start in a particular neighborhood.”

I’m attracted to pieces about place. I’m doubly attracted when they’re written at street level by a writer addicted to walking. Aleksandar Hemon’s “Mapping Home” is such a piece. I enjoyed it immensely.

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