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.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

June 18, 2012 Issue

Reading The New Yorker, I navigate by the star of thisness. By thisness, I mean “any detail that draws abstraction toward itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability, any detail that centers our attention with its concretion” (James Wood, How Fiction Works). I regret to report that there’s precious little thisness in this week’s issue, which is mostly concerned with politics, a subject that rarely generates textured writing. There are exceptions, e.g., A. J. Liebling’s The Earl of Louisiana (1961) and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Prophet of Love (2004), but not the pieces in this week's issue. Peter Hessler’s “Arab Summer,” which describes the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in Egypt, has a “puff of palpability” near the beginning (“Rifaat stashes his cans of shoe polish behind the statue of Horus”). But more typical of the piece’s wording is this line: “The Brotherhood is extremely hierarchical, and each member belongs to a five-person usra, or “family,” which meets regularly.” However, Hessler’s piece is positively inspired compared to Ryan Lizza’s “The Second Term.” The closest it gets to thisness is this insipid description of the Bachelor Farmer’s menu: “A hundred people who each gave five thousand dollars to the President’s campaign dined on a salad of house-smoked pork and a choice of roasted chicken or Copper River sockeye salmon (a vegetarian menu was also available).” As for Jane Mayer’s “Bully Pulpit,” I skimmed it and quickly moved on. Evangelist talk-show hosts  are far too easy targets for The New Yorker. They’re irrational; we know they’re irrational. Forget them. There are bigger and better fish to fry. The fourth political piece in this week’s issue is Jill Lepore’s “Benched.” It’s sort of a companion to Jeffrey Toobin’s recent “Money Unlimited” (The New Yorker, May 21, 2012), except that its focus is more historical. Both pieces lack thisness. But they’re frustrating for another reason, too. Their analysis is driven by the same tired old Left-Right, Conservative-Liberal dichotomy that political writers have been applying for decades. Is there not some other lens we can use to try to understand our politics? See, for example, David Runciman’s use of risk assessment in some of the pieces collected in his excellent The Politics of Good Intentions (2006).

Postscript: Amid the abrasive, obnoxious politicians, revolutionaries, evangelists, and rappers crowding the pages of this week's issue, Eamon Grennon's swooping sand martins stand out - delightful, vital presences, "fill[ing] salt air with their shrill chatter" ("Sand Martins").

1 comment:

  1. And Ryan Lizza's piece *before* the 2008 election was stunning.

    Of course, so was what was happening, then. Came across my old Obama wristband the other day. It said "Hope."