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.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

October 1, 2012 Issue

In this week’s issue, three Talk story masters – Nick Paumgarten, Ian Frazier, and Alec Wilkinson - strut their stuff. Paumgarten’s intriguing “Hello, Bobby” is about record producer, Scott Litt, and his experience as recording engineer on Bob Dylan’s latest album “Tempest.” There’s a very funny line in it. It’s Litt quoting Dylan, and it goes, “He just went, ‘Heh heh heh. “Hello, Dolly.” ’ ” That’s a very improbable, surrealistic line, and I can hear Dylan saying it. It’s a tribute to Paumgarten’s ear (listening to Litt tell the story) that he’s able to capture it.

Frazier’s “Neighbors” is a rarity – a Talk story with a line break. That’s because, for a Talk story, it’s longer than usual; it’s actually two stories in one. The first part tells the story of Brooklyn folk artist Evelyn Talarico. The second section is about L. B. Brown, owner of Clinton Hill Simply Art and Framing Gallery, in Brooklyn. The two sections are linked by Talarico’s statement, “Six years ago, I went to the neighborhood gallery, and the owner, Mrs. L. B. Brown, she told me, ‘You are a folk artist, a self-taught outsider artist.’” Frazier visits Brown in her gallery. She turns out to be – like so many of Frazier’s city dwellers – an arresting, admirable individual, full of interesting talk about her “little business.” For example, she says:

“Everybody wants their cherishables framed. And to do this right I’ve got to be like a fortune-teller. I have to take time with you to get a sense of what works in your dining room or your man cave. Are you a wood person or a chrome person? Do you want to go all the way up to museum glass to conserve whatever it is you want in that frame? This is the type of question I ask.”

Mitchell, Liebling, and Singer would appreciate that quote. And so do I. I can almost see Frazier smiling inwardly as he copied it down.

Wilkinson’s “Indigenous” is a little different from Paumgarten’s and Frazier’s pieces. Except for its brilliant last line, it doesn’t contain much direct quotation. What it does have is fabulous descriptions of Mexican herbs and vegetables. “Indigenous” is a mini-profile of Gudelio García, “one of the only farmers in New York City raising crops that are native to central Mexico.” He farms an acre plot, called El Poblano Farm, on Staten Island. Paumgarten describes some of Garcia’s crops as follows:

García grows papalo; pepicha; flor de calabaza, or squash blossoms; quelites; jicama; chayote; epazote, a spicy herb that smells like gasoline; ejote; and three kinds of Mexican peppers – jalapeño, serano, and poblano. Papalo and pepicha are similar tasting herbs. They are used fresh, mainly in soups and tacos. Flor de calabaza is a yellow-orange flower used in quesadillas. Quelites are edible greens, and jicama is a root, something like turnip. Chayote is a pear-shaped squash, epazote is an herb often cooked with beans, and ejote is a string bean.

There’s poetry in that list! It reminds me of the amazing sequence of weeds and wildflowers set out in Joseph Mitchell’s classic “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” (The New Yorker, September 22, 1956). And I think Paumgarten’s, Frazier’s and Wilkinson’s pieces are destined to become classics, too. They’re certainly among this year’s most enjoyable Talk stories.

Postscript: I suppose I’m going to sound like a Puritan if I ask why there seems to be such reluctance to disapprove of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s slippery practice of mixing fact and fiction. I don’t think of myself as a Puritan. But I do rigidly hold to one fundamental journalistic principle: facts are not to be messed with. The “Briefly Noted” review of Artur Domoslawski’s biography Ryszard Kapuscinski, in this week’s New Yorker, coolly and neutrally observes that Domoslawski “praises Kapuscinski’s work as ‘non-fiction which does not hold fiction in contempt.'” Praises? The use of fiction in a piece that represents itself as fact hardly warrants praise. Quite the opposite – it should be deplored! I’m surprised the “Briefly Noted” reviewer withheld comment. I’m wondering if James Wood wrote it. He appears quite comfortable with essayists who mingle fact and fiction. In his review of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s great essay collection, Pulphead, he praises the contemporary essay for a “sly and knowing movement between reality and fictionality” (“Reality Effects," The New Yorker, December 19 & 26, 2011).

Another reviewer who suspends judgment in respect of Kapuscinski’s blurred line between fact and fiction is Neal Ascherson. In his review of Domoslawski’s book on Kapuscinski, Ascherson says that Kapuscinski “habitually exaggerated, often changing details for effect” (“How It Felt To Be There,” London Review of Books, August 2, 2012). This would seem to be about as damning a charge against a journalist as there could possibly be. Yet, Ascherson appears willing to give Kapuscinski the benefit of the doubt. He admits “there’s no doubt that Kapuscinski – writing for publications and readers who had no way to check what he told them – overstepped them in the sense of selling ‘faction’ as fact.” But after rereading Kapuscinski’s Another Day of Life, a chronicle of the war in Angola, Ascherson softens, concluding, “He probably did embroider and reposition details about the fighting in Angola. But, as a reporter on one of those wars, I can say that he caught ‘how it felt to be there’ as nobody else could.”

This whole business of journalists fiddling with facts came up a few months ago when John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s The Lifespan of a Fact appeared. Reviewing that book in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Jennifer B. McDonald, called D’Agata’s championing of belief over fact “hogwash” (“In the Details,” February 26, 2012). I totally agree. I’d say the same thing about "non-fiction which does not hold fiction in contempt.”

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