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.

Friday, January 13, 2012

January 9, 2012 Issue

Ian Frazier has an inspired way of noticing plaques and markers, often located in out-of-the-way places, and weaving quotations from them into the fabric of his pieces. For example:

(1) The historic marker at Chancellorsville: “Many would never cross another earthly stream” (Family, 1994)

(2) The metal plaque where Sitting Bull’s cabin once stood: “Sitting Bull, best known American Indian, leader of the ‘hostile groups’ for a generation, a powerful orator, a clever prophet …” (Great Plains, 1989)

(3) The plaque beneath the bust of Clifford Holland at the westbound entrance of the Holland Tunnel: “the underground highway which joins a continent to a city” (“Canal Street,” The New Yorker, April 30, 1990; included in Frazier’s brilliant 2005 collection Gone To New York)

(4) The fatality marker indicating the site on Interstate 90 where SuAnne Big Crow’s car accident occurred: “X MARKS THE SPOT,” “DRIVE SAFELY”, and “WHY DIE?” (On the Rez, 2000)

(5) On the Barabinsk Steppe, two steel markers at the base of a pillar topped by “the drastically crumpled remains of a car”: “ZYKOV, ALEKSANDER VASILVICH – 24 X 1953 – 12 III 1996” and “OLIFER, ALEKSANDER IVANOVICH – 20 XI 1959 – 12 III 1996” (Travels In Siberia, 2010)

The incorporation of these found texts into his stories is one of a multitude of artful touches that constitute Frazier’s incomparable factual style.

His great Talk piece, “Bunkers,” in this week’s issue of the magazine, provides a fresh example of his inspired use of such material. In “Bunkers,” he attends a lecture given by Leonard Ursachi, “an artist and a sculptor who makes bunkers.” The lecture takes place at the Hebrew Home, a long-term geriatric-care facility in Riverdale. Frazier describes the lecture (“He speaks softly and was heckled, almost, to talk louder”), the question-and-answer session afterwards (“Where’s the door to your bunker?” “My bunkers don’t have doors. You can only get in it with your spirit”), and an actual Ursachi bunker located on the Hebrew Home’s lawn, overlooking the Hudson River (“In its gun-slit window is a mirror”). But then the river view catches Frazier’s alert eye; he writes:

Across the broad river, the New Jersey bank rises steep and thickly wooded, with little sign of habitation. A wilderness sun sets behind it. Farther along the lawn, beyond the bunker, is a pleasant gazebo with chairs and a sofa. It offers a good view of the river, and the soothing rhythms of the trains clicking by on tracks just below the bluff, out of sight. A plaque in the gazebo says that it was built in memory of Ida Abramowitz, who came to America from Europe, raised a family, and lived from 1830 to 1938.

Now the memory of Ida Abramowitz lives, not just in a plaque, but forever, in the limpid particulars of Frazier’s glorious, everlasting, memorializing prose.

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