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, August 23, 2012

August 13 & 20, 2012 Issue

James Wood is a sucker for flatness – flat prose, flat characters. In his admiring review of Teju Cole’s Open City, he says, “Cole prepares his effects so patiently and cumulatively, over many pages of relatively ‘flat’ description” (“The Arrival of Enigmas,” The New Yorker, February 28, 2011). In How Fiction Works (2008), he says of certain “flat” characters (e.g., Michael Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge, Gould in Nostromo), “Yet they are no less vivid, interesting or true as creations, for being flat.” And in the current issue of The New Yorker, reviewing Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, he quotes a seemingly prosaic passage detailing detergent brands and says, “Yet Knausgaard pauses to think aloud at this moment, and wrings a distinctively flat, rigorous poetry out of the Klorin and the Ajax.”

Wood can have his flatness. I’m not a fan of it. Flat prose is like flat beer – it’s dead. I seek vitality – “the strangeness of the vital,” as John Updike expressed it in the concluding sentence of his great “An Introduction to Three Novels by Henry Green,” Hugging the Shore, 1983). There’s an excellent example of “the strangeness of the vital” in this week’s issue of the magazine. I’m referring to Ben McGrath’s sparkling “Medals and Marketing,” a vitally swift, fluid, humorous, colorful account of life at the London Olympics with particular emphasis on the Games’ commercialization. Here’s one of my favorite passages: 

Good luck to anyone who brought a MasterCard or a Discover card with him to the Olympic Park, in Stratford, hoping to stock up on T-shirts featuring Wenlock, the one-eyed mascot. Visa only, please – and that goes for the A.T.M.s, too. So great was Visa’s investment in Phelps going into London that a couple of months ago the company’s head of global sponsorship marketing, Ricardo Fort, personally ironed a pink shirt for him in a midtown Manhattan hotel basement while Phelps conducted phone interviews to promote Visa’s Go World campaign, pausing occasionally to reload on calories with yogurt and granola.

What a surprising, delightful mix of facts and images! Look at the variety of ingredients – Olympic Park, credit cards, T-shirts, one-eyed mascot, A.T.Ms, Phelps, iron, pink shirt, Manhattan hotel basement, phone interviews, yogurt, and granola. This is an original word combo; it’s typical of almost every passage in the piece.

Here’s another example:

Doubles canoeing presented a real dilemma: do you go flat water, and catch the Belarussian Bahdanovich brothers, or white water, and see the Slovakian Hochschorner twins? In the end, I took Mayor Boris Johnson’s advice, and went to Horse Guards parade, near Buckingham Palace, in search of ‘wet otters’ – Johnson’s euphemism, in an op-ed for the Daily Telegraph, for the women of beach volleyball.

The piece is endlessly quotable. McGrath’s collection and arrangement of variegated materials – dialogue, quotation, tweets, songs, descriptions (“Her pirouette to the left looked slow and mannered, and her pirouette to the right began with a bit of a lurch and an over-large first step”), names, characters, terms, and aphorisms (“The Olympics are nothing if not a convention of salesmen”) – is amazing. Like the event it describes, “Medals and Marketing” is full of zing, juice and luster. I enjoyed it immensely.

Second Thoughts: The above post is unsatisfactory. It quotes from James Wood’s “Total Recall,” but it omits something important. It fails to say that “Total Recall” is one of the most stimulating reviews I’ve read this year. I devoured it. The passage that begins, “He notices everything – too much, no doubt – but often lingers beautifully,” is superb. And the ending (“Mourning, for Knausgaard, involves an acceptance that we are all things, even the people we have known and loved and hated will slowly leak away their meaning. Death and life finally unite, married in their ordinariness”) is inspired. Wood’s writing is one of this blog’s lodestars. If I sometimes quote it negatively, as I do above, I do so with the greatest respect.

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