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 Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins 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, January 11, 2012

George Packer: The Breaking of Style

George Packer’s gone objective, and it’s affected his tone. It’s like he’s switched from tenor sax to clarinet. His colors aren’t as warm or rich. He’s shriller. In 2003, when he started out with the magazine, his style was literary, descriptive, and gloriously subjective. Remember his great “Gangsta War” (The New Yorker, November 3, 2003)? Its opening line is classic Packer: “From my balcony on the eighth floor of the Hotel Ivoire, I could see downtown Abidjan across the lagoon in the mist.” Remember his brilliant “The Playing Field” (The New Yorker, August 30, 2004)? Reading it was like being in the company of a lively, adventurous flâneur (e.g., “To watch the Costa Rica game, I rode the metro down to the stadium with a group of four young Iraqis”). Remember “The Moderate Martyr” (The New Yorker, September 11, 2006), which contained such inspired details as Hasan al-Turabi’s “flower-patterned polyester socks”? That was amazing! Remember his superb “The Ponzi Scheme” (The New Yorker, February 9, 2009)? It’s narrated in the first person (e.g., “Recently, I drove around some of the subdivisions on State Road 54, as well as in other parts of Tampa Bay and in southwest Florida”), as is his terrific profile of the Israeli novelist David Grossman, “The Unconsoled” (The New Yorker, September 27, 2010): “When I visited, in July, the phone was constantly ringing, a cockatiel was singing in its cage, and Ruthi was practicing 'Good Vibrations' on the piano, while Michael and Jonathan came in and out of the living room.” These pieces all have a voice as well as an effect. But last year, Packer changed his style. He banished his “I” to the margins and adopted a flat, third-person perspective. “A Dirty Business” (The New Yorker, June 27, 2011), “Coming Apart” (The New Yorker, September 12, 2011), “No Death, No Taxes” (The New Yorker, November 28, 2011), and “All the Angry People” (The New Yorker, December 5, 2011) are all essentially third-person reports. They’re less descriptive and more argumentative. I’m not the only one who's noticed this. Regarding “No Death, No Taxes,” a profile of Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, the blog “Reading the New Yorker” ( recently observed: “Unfortunately, writer George Packer didn’t do himself any favors by turning the last page into an anti-Thiel rant.” Of course, we can’t expect great writers to stand still stylistically. Look at how Norman Mailer deliberately roughened the prose of The Deer Park because he found the first draft “too self-consciously attractive and formal, false to the life of my characters, especially false to the life of my narrator who was the voice of my novel and so gave the story its air” (see Mailer’s extraordinary essay, “The Last Draft of The Deer Park,” included in his 1959 collection Advertisements for Myself). But it’s hoped that the new style will be more satisfactory than the old. It was in Mailer’s case; it’s not in Packer’s. In “The Last Draft of The Deer Park,” Mailer says, “The most powerful leverage in fiction comes from point of view.” The same is true of journalism. I hope Packer gets back to first-person narration, of which he’s a master. I hope he gets back to limning cool details. I hope he gets back to describing the pattern of people’s socks.

Credit: The above artwork is by Mark Ulriksen; it appears in The New Yorker (November 3, 2003) as an illustration for George Packer's "Gangsta War."

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