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.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

January 16, 2012 Issue

“No ideas but in things,” William Carlos Williams said. Patricia Marx intently follows the dictum, but the “things” she writes about (e.g., “a Moschino ‘Great Hits Spring/Summer 2007’ evening bag that looks like two 45-r.p.m. records stitched together with yarn,” “leather spats trimmed with polka-dot grosgrain ribbon,” “an I. Magnin black velvet hat with a marine-blue feather, circa 1945,” “a bristle brush shaped like a cross,” “Urban Decay eyeshadow,” “Murray’s lemony-garlic rotisserie chicken,” “a scoop-necked wool bouclé jacket trimmed with turquoise-like stones,” “sunglasses with taxicab yellow visors over the lenses,” “a flock of ghoulish Tweety Birds with x’d out eyes,” "chunky Marni necklaces made from colorful shapes of melted and stretched bovine horn”) make Williams’s “things” (e.g., wheelbarrow, rainwater) seem pretty tame. This week, in a piece titled “A Bushel and a Peck,” Marx describes, in detail after marvelous detail, the wondrous items she finds at Fairway, Whole Foods, Zabar’s, and other food megastores. Marx’s writing constantly enables us to see and feel the texture of things. Here, for example, is her description of some of the “quality grub” available at Eli’s:

At Eli’s the produce glistens: champagne grapes $4, seasonal), exquisite endive $5.99/lb.). (“My friend can always taste if my endive is from there. She’ll say, ‘Did you get this from the burglars? It’s sooo good.’”) The cheeses are evidently so valuable that some like the drunken goat cheese soaked in wine ($20/lb.) and the Tête de Moine, a Swiss cheese eaten by scraping it with a knife ($20/lb.), must be kept under surveillance in vitrines.

I’m not sure who’s being quoted in the parenthesis, but the sensuous “It’s sooo good” could stand as a tagline for the whole piece. And that detail about how Tête de Moine is eaten (“by scraping it with a knife”) is delectable.

A hallmark of Marx’s style is her habit of asking lots of questions, many of which are amazing – so loaded with specificity, so layered with detail, that they’re almost surreal. Her “A Bushel and a Peck" contains a beauty that went straight into my “Patricia Marx Great Questions” collection:

Oh, the bagels, the thirty-seven varieties of olive (in oil), the fat wedges of Parmigiano Reggiano, organic popcorn, French milled soap that lasts forever, frozen Barney’s Franks ’n Blankets, locally made Ben’s cream cheese, and how about Murray’s lemony-garlic rotisserie chicken (you could eat it till you die), plus six hundred artisanal cheeses from around the world, and, would you believe it, Velveeta and Spam, too?

This is classic Patricia Marx. She’s not really eliciting information; she’s expressing astonishment that Fairway carries all these exotic items and, in addition, has Velveeta and Spam.

When Marx starts a question with “Oh,” as she does in the above quote, look out - a wondrous string of words is about to unfurl. She did it a few years ago in her brilliant “On And Off The Avenue: Marni” (The New Yorker, January 5, 2009):

Oh, and could I also have that strand of fabric-covered beads anchoring a large plastron of midnight-blue resin? And the pendant that looks like a conference pass except that, instead of a name tag inside the clear plastic pouch, there’s a grid of acrylic gems?

These are questions, but they’re also akin to the inventory of the contents of a Joseph Cornell box.

Here are six more examples of Marx’s delightful questions, gathered from various New Yorker pieces she’s written over the last few years:

Are you certain that you have what it takes to shop discount? Do you have the patience to excavate heaps of finery that is frayed, smudged, stretched, faded, pulled, ripped, mis-sized, unstylish, out of season, or never was in season? The grit to see yourself in the glare of fluorescent lighting – if you can even find a mirror? The confidence to have an opinion without being told what it is by an encouraging salesperson? Do you thrill to the ambience of the Department of Motor Vehicles? (“The Price Is Right,” December 8, 2008)

Is the sign in the rest room that warns “No napping” directed at the employees? Or is it for the toddlers who shop here, knowing that Daffy’s is tops for European children’s attire? Wouldn’t that cunning white knit jacket with subtle embroidery be just the thing for a little one to spit up on ($59, reduced from $200)? (“The Price Is Right,” December 8, 2008)

Do you know what several dozen bottles breaking in the back seat sounds like? (“To Shop and Drive in L.A,” March 20, 2006)

Really, now, should a piece of plastic and a couple of breakable hinges cost more than the laptop I’m typing on? (“Four Eyes,” March 29, 2010)

Are toys passé? Would a child give the time of day to a model-train set or to finger paints when, not far from the playroom, the sirens of Penguin Whacker on the iPhone, and Fruit Ninja on the iPad, beckon? (“Toy Stories,” December 6, 2010)

Did you know that Minnesota enacted a law last year requiring all American flags sold there to originate in the land of the free and the home of the sewing machine? (“Made In U.S.A.,” March 16, 2009)

Marx is a terrific writer – where “terrific” means specific, artful, avid, humorous, sensual, quasi-surreal. I enjoy her work immensely.

Postscript: Another pleasure in this week’s issue is John Kinsella’s poem “The Fable of the Great Sow.” I like its kinetic pig energy (“A leap across the gate, a pivot on the wall / Opposite, and over into a neighboring pen”), its pig descriptions (“She was total pig,/Pure sow who’d farrowed litter on litter/To watch them raised to slaughter”), its pig reality (“flies and heat of the shed”). Kinsella is becoming one of my favorite poets. His “Goat” (The New Yorker, May 3, 2010) is brilliant.

1 comment:

  1. I sometimes fine Marx's breeziness and interrogation too cute and just plain distracting, but the piece on food stores really worked for me. I love grocery stores, so that might be part of it.

    But more, I think that the narrative thread she wove through most of the piece just helped me hang on for the ride a little more securely.