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.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

August 27, 2012 Issue

Summertime and the living is easy, right? Not necessarily at The New Yorker. Mixed in with the magazine’s articles about mosquitoes, TED conferences, strength competitions, scavenger hunts, and modern violins, are gritty, gruesome war reports – four of them this summer, including this week’s “The War Within” by Jon Lee Anderson. The other three are William Finnegan’s “The Kingpins” (July 2, 2012), Dexter Filkins’s “After America” (July 9 & 16, 2012), and Jon Lee Anderson’s “A History of Violence" (July 23, 2012). Encountering them is like coming face to face with the mouth of hell. Assassination, decapitation, castration, torture, mass murder, maiming, starvation, atrocity – it’s all there, the real truth about human experience, expressed in crisp, clear, matter-of-fact prose. I force myself to read it, and even though it’s perverse to consider it the way I do other non-war New Yorker writings, i.e., formally, in terms of writing as pure writing, I find myself admiring certain turns of phrase, descriptions, details, etc. For example, Anderson’s “The War Within,” in this week’s issue, contains this vivid description of a rebel leader at his base in a commandeered school:

Abu Anas wore a black Polo shirt and holstered pistol when he received me in his office. With lilac-colored walls and salmon-pink curtains, the office was a difficult place in which to give the impression of ferocity, but Abu Anas had made a concerted effort. On a desk, he had laid a Koran and another holy book, and a sword with a battered golden scabbard, engraved with Koranic inscriptions. Behind him hung a black flag, like the one that flew on the mosque.

And I admire the bravery of these reporters. Their willingness to travel in dangerous places and meet volatile individuals is amazing. I worry that we’re going to lose one or more of them. Why do they do it? Like Goya, they appear to have a fascination with life’s extremes. John Updike said of Goya, “he relentlessly bared the nightmare beneath the world’s surface” (“An Obstinate Survivor,” The New Yorker, November 3, 2003). That’s what Anderson, Filkins, and Finnegan do – bare the nightmare beneath the world’s surface. If we ignore the truth of their brute reality, we do so at our peril. 

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