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, February 17, 2012

February 13 & 20, 2012 Issue

Raffi Khatchadourian’s “Transfiguration,” in this week’s issue, is extraordinary. In detail after often unimaginable detail, it describes a groundbreaking operation: “a full face transplant, something that had never been done before.” What do I mean by unimaginable? Consider this passage:

Pomahac walked back to the Tupperware container and gently took the transplant out. His movements were clinical and measured, as if he were handling a delicate piece of art. The face was the same color as his surgical gloves: latex beige, pale, glistening with ice water. It was slightly unshaven, as if the beard had grown in transit. The rubbery-looking skin supported an inch or so of cartilage, vessels, fat, and nerves – a red mash of tissue – beneath it. Spread out in Pomahac’s hands, the face was massive, about the circumference of a hubcab.

I confess I read and reread that passage. I find Khatchadourian’s imaging of the face’s color (“latex beige, pale, glistening with ice water”) transfixing. The detail about it being “slightly unshaven” is amazing! Khatchadourian’s description of the whole complex, intense operation, actually consisting of two operations – the removal of the donor’s face is one procedure, and the replacement of the recipient’s face with the donor’s face is a second procedure – which occupies all of Part III, is utterly fascinating. Over the years, I’ve read some great New Yorker action descriptions (e.g., Liebling on boxing, McPhee on canoeing and fishing, Angell on baseball, Buford on cooking, etc.), but this piece on surgery is – I’ll say it again – absolutely extraordinary.

Khatchadourian is a wonderful noticer of details. “Transfiguration” has this picture of Pomahac transferring the face:

Pomahac carefully swiveled from the trolley to the operating table, placing the donor’s face where Wien’s own face had been. “It’s going to go twice around his,” he observed dispassionately. During the dissection, Pomahac had cut the skin far beyond the hairline, to transplant part of the scalp as well. The donor’s hair was slightly lighter than Wiens’s – it had some gray in it – and some of Wiens’s hair poked out from underneath, as if he were wearing an ill-fitting mask.

That detail about “some of Wiens’s hair poked out from underneath, as if he were wearing an ill-fitting mask” is excellent.

It’s not clear whether Khatchadourian actually witnessed the face transplant first hand, or whether his descriptions are reconstructions based on videos, transcripts, interviews, etc., and it doesn’t matter. His account of the operation(s) appears totally authentic, completely accurate, and positively riveting.

Not only is Khatchadourian a great describer; he’s also a brilliant assembler of quotation, as is well known by anyone who’s read his previous pieces about WikiLeaks (“No Secrets,” The New Yorker, June 7, 2010) and the BP oil spill (“The Gulf War,” The New Yorker, March 14, 2011). “Transfiguration” is a rich, beautifully interwoven assemblage of quotation from multiple first and secondary sources. Khatchadourian appears to have sought out and directly talked to most of the people principally involved, including Dallas Wiens, the incredibly brave, resilient, tolerant recipient of the face transplant; Jeffrey Janis, the reconstructive surgeon who oversaw Wiens’s miraculous recovery at Parkland Hospital; Bernard Devauchelle, chief of maxillofacial surgery at Centre Hospitalier Universitaire d’Amiens, who conducted the first face transplant; Bohdan Pomahac, America’s “leading specialist in face transplants,” and leader of the surgical team that performed Wiens’s operation; Elof Eriksson, chief of plastic surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, who was a key member of Pomahac’s team; and various members of Wiens’s family.

Khatchadourian’s “No Secrets” and “The Gulf War” are brilliant, but “Transfiguration” is his masterpiece (so far). It’s an unforgettable piece of writing. It moves Khatchadourian to the front rank of New Yorker writers.

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