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.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

May 21, 20012 Issue

Of The New Yorker’s many wonderful departments (e.g., Our Local Correspondents, Onward and Upward with The Arts, Profiles, Annals of Science, A Critic at Large), my favorite is Personal History. I like it because it shows excellent writers trying to make sense of some aspect of their past. Reading Personal History pieces, I sometimes make associations with my own past. Examples of recent Personal History articles that I’ve enjoyed immensely are: John McPhee’s “The Patch” (February 8, 2010), James Wood’s “The Fun Stuff” (November 19, 2010), Gabrielle Hamilton’s “The Lamb Roast” (January 17, 2011), Calvin Trillin’s “My Repertoire” (November 21, 2011), Aleksandar Hemon’s “Mapping Home” (December 5, 2011), Donald Hall’s “Out the Window” (January 23, 2012), and Jeremy Denk’s “Flight of the Concord” (February 6, 2012). This week’s issue of the magazine contains a beauty – Peter Hessler’s “Identity Parade.” It’s a strange piece - part autobiography, part police procedural (it even has a hint of suspense). It describes Hessler’s participation in police lineups during his student days at Oxford. I don’t recall ever before reading about this particular aspect of the legal system. Hessler recalls his involvement right down to the feel of sweat running down his back as he “tried to look as guilty as possible.” His description of the process is fascinating. But what most intrigued me about it is Hessler’s self-examination, his candid, introspective portrait of himself as a mixture of good and bad impulses.  He talks about deliberately breaking some of Oxford’s many rules (e.g., wearing shorts under his long gown, drinking at an off-limit pub, refusing to attend a practice examination). He says:

I never fit in at Oxford. I was there on a Rhodes Scholarship, and I allowed this identity to become a burden, for reasons that now seem childish. At the time, I knew that I had been a weak candidate for the scholarship, which was why I had been placed in such an obscure college.

I mirrored off this passage. I didn’t fit in at the university I attended. As in Hessler’s case, I was a loner. Hessler says, “I never met any other students or Americans at the St. Aldates station [where the lineups took place], which was one reason I liked going.” His description of his “last parade” is amazing. Here’s an excerpt:

And then there was a slight movement on the left edge of the glass. The one-way mirror wasn’t perfect; you couldn’t see clearly through the glass, but it was possible to tell if there was a presence behind it. A dark spot appeared and then it shifted to the right, crossing the row of reflected faces, as subtle as a shadow in an aquarium. Next to me the suspect breathed harder. A couple of times, his wind caught in his throat, almost like a sob, and now I felt him trembling. My right leg was pressed against his chair, and tiny thrills of vibration ran up through the metal. What did that feel like, to be a suspect in a parade, to be the only one shaking, the only one with a real mustache? I resisted the urge to turn and look; I kept my eyes straight ahead.

That “subtle as a shadow in an aquarium” is very fine. The whole passage is inspired! Hessler has written three previous New Yorker pieces I admire enormously: “Oracle Bones” (February 16 & 23, 2004); “Hutong Karma” (February 13, 2006); “Walking the Wall” (May 21, 2007). His superb “Identity Parade” now joins the list.  

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