Introduction

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.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

October 22, 2012 Issue


Pick of the Issue (POTI) this week is a contest between four pieces: Nick Paumgarten’s “Less Europe,” John Seabrook’s “Grand,” Evan Osnos’s “Boss Rail,” and Peter Schjeldahl’s “Challenging Work.” Paumgarten’s “Less Europe” is a Talk story about a “Euroskeptic” named Nigel Farage. It contains this inspired sentence: “He has a smoker’s marbly laugh and tawny skin, and, as he credibly claims, ‘relatively hollow legs,’ into which, at the reception, he poured a fair amount of gin.” Seabrook’s piece, also a Talk story, is a mini-profile of Iris Dement, “one of the brightest talents in the new alt-country genre.” It describes Dement’s recent visit to Steinway Hall (“Steinway Hall has the ponderous stillness of a funeral home, and the grand pianos are like polished caskets”). Osnos’s piece explores how a high-speed train wreck in Wenzhou, China “became what Hurricane Katrina was to Americans: the iconic failure of government performance.” It’s best part is the penultimate section, wonderfully narrated in the first-person, in which Osnos, accompanied by a tunnel builder named Li Xue, takes us inside a tunnel that Xue is constructing in “the rocky hills of Hebei Province.” Osnos writes,

Li spat into the mud and handed me a hard hat. Inside, the tunnel was cool and dark, about thirty feet high, with a smooth ceiling, faintly lit by work lights along the edges. Li had dug ten tunnels in his life, and this would be the longest – two miles end to end.

Schjeldahl’s “Challenging Work” is a review of a Ai Weiwei retrospective at the Hirshorn Museum, in Washington. Regarding photographs of Ai “dropping a millennia-old Han-dynasty urn, which smashes on the floor,” Schjeldahl says, “The act strikes me as mere vandalism.” I agree. Schjeldahl's bluntness is tonic. And the winner of this week’s POTI is Nick Paumgarten's "Less Europe" for its marvelous “He has a smoker’s marbly laugh and tawny skin, and, as he credibly claims, ‘relatively hollow legs,’ into which, at the reception, he poured a fair amount of gin.” 

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