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, April 26, 2012

April 23, 2012 Issue

I crave subjectivity, an element that, until recently, Jill Lepore’s New Yorker writing has lacked. In most of her previous pieces, she’s kept herself in the background. But recently her “I” has begun to emerge and, as a result, her work has gained in interest. Her “Battleground America,” in this week’s issue, is excellent. It’s about the gun debate – the barriers that impede gun control, the fight over the meaning of the Second Amendment, the conservative use of gun-control as a vote-getter, and so on. I support gun regulation. In Canada, where I live, gun control recently suffered a grievous setback when the Harper government abolished the long-gun registry. So, when I read Lepore’s piece, I was hoping it would expose the irrationality of the conservative argument for less, rather than more, gun regulation. And I was also hoping it would be more than just a third-person narrative of American firearms history. I’m pleased to say that “Battleground America” does not disappoint. The piece is grounded in the here-and-now. Its opening section grabbed me with an account of the shootings at Ohio’s Chardon High School on February 27, 2012. Its second section, more typical of Lepore’s usual historical approach, is a statistical overview of the rates of gun ownership in the United States. But the third section is an eye-opener; it’s where, for me, this piece really takes off. I read its opening line (“The day after the shooting in Ohio, I went to a firing range”), and then immediately and pleasurably reread it, savoring the appearance of the “I,” and the impending description of her experience. In we go, Lepore leading the way, inside the American Firearms School. I devour description such as this:

Inside, there’s a shop, a pistol range, a rifle range, a couple of classrooms, a locker room, and a place to clean your gun. The walls are painted police blue up to the wainscoting, and then white to the ceiling, which is painted black. It feels like a clubhouse, except, if you’ve never been to a gun shop before, that part feels not quite licit, like a porn shop. On the floor, there are gun racks, gun cases, holsters, and gun safes. Rifles hang on a wall behind the counter; handguns are under glass. More items, including the rifles, come in black or pink: there are pink handcuffs, a pink pistol grip, a pink gun case, and pink paper targets. Above the pink bull’s-eye, which looks unnervingly like a breast, a line of text reads, “Cancer sucks.”

In “Battleground America,” Lepore remembers her journalistic duty to make us see and feel the reality of things. What’s it like to be inside a shooting range? Lepore’s prose tells us, and a slice of present-day, real-life, gun-obsessed America springs into being. The piece is beautifully structured; passages on the Chardon High School shootings, the Second Amendment, the National Rifle Association, the Trayvon Martin shooting, and the shootings at Oakland’s Oikos University are interleaved with Lepore’s accounts of her shooting lesson at the American Fire Arms School and her attendance at a gun show in West Springfield, Massachusetts. And, in passages such as the following one, it powerfully argues the need for gun control:

Gun-control advocates say the answer to gun violence is fewer guns. Gun-rights advocates say that the answer is more guns: things would habe been better, they suggest, if the faculty of Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Chardon High School had been armed. That is the logic of the concealed-carry movement; that is how armed citizens have come to be patrolling the streets. That is not how civilians live. When carrying a concealed weapon for self-defense is understood not as a failure of civil society, to be mourned, but as an act of citizenship, to be vaunted, there is little civilian life left.

This point seems to me to be irrefutable.

Postscript: I relate to weeds and other humble plants. And I enjoy reading writers who relate to them (e.g., John Updike, Joseph Mitchell, William Carlos Williams, Oliver Sacks). Stephen Burt’s “Flooded Meadow,” in this week’s issue, went straight into my personal anthology of great “weed” writings. It’s a delightful poem, in which weeds connote urban development (“Low dandelion leaves are zoned commercial, / with their promise of puffballs to come”; “Round oniongrass stalks are monuments / to persistence in hard times”). My favorite line in it is “Tall sprigs of goldenrod patrol / the blown-down city line.” I’m a fan of Burt’s critical writing. This is my first encounter with his poetry. In his essay on William Carlos Williams, Burt says that Williams’s “social conscience and his desire to depict new births merged in brilliant, emblematic poems about small, scrappy, flowery things …” ("William Carlos Williams: They Grow Everywhere,” Close Calls with Nonsense, 2009). This helps me understand why I’m drawn to weeds. It’s their scrappy nature I admire. As Burt’s lovely “Flooded Meadow” makes clear, he’s obviously struck by their scrappiness, too.

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