Thursday, November 1, 2012
October 29 & November 5, 2012 Issue
There are two very different narrative methods on display in this week’s issue. Dexter Filkins’s brilliant “Atonement” uses first-person narration. George Packer’s equally brilliant “Washington Man” uses third-person narration. First-person narration strikes me as more reliable, and I generally prefer it. I am speaking here solely with respect to factual writing, not fiction. As Russell Baker observed in his essay on A. J. Liebling (“A Great Reporter at Large,” The New York Review of Books, November 18, 2004), “Liebling was almost always present in his reporting. It is a way of treating readers with respect. A glimpse of the party who is doing the reporting helps the reader judge how far he can be trusted.” Filkins’s remarkable piece is almost a form of memoir. It’s about an Iraq veteran named Lu Lobello and his quest for absolution from the Kachadoorian family, three of whom were killed by Lobello’s unit in a chaotic Baghdad firefight. Lobello contacted Nora Kachadoorian, whom he remembered from the battle, on Facebook. He also contacted Filkins who’d written about the Kachadoorians’ tragedy in the New York Times and asked him to arrange a meeting with the family. “Atonement” is Filkins’s firsthand account of that meeting. It’s a tremendously moving piece that cuts from the present (Lobello’s search for the Kachadoorians) to the past (Lobello and Filkins in Baghdad, 2003) and back to the present (Lobello and Filkins visiting Margaret and Nora Kachadoorian in La Jolla). One of its most interesting aspects is Filkins’s attempt to fathom what happened during “the firefight on Baladiyat Street.” He writes, “It is difficult to know exactly what happened on April 8, 2003. But, as I talked to the Kachadoorians and Lobello, and a half a dozen other members of Fox Company, it became clear that things were far worse than anyone had acknowledged at first.” “Atonement” contains and conveys not only Lobello’s story, but also Filkins’s pursuit of that story. As Richard Brody recently said of Jia Zhanghki’s 24 City, “it has its footnotes built into it” (“Ben Affleck’s Argo and Hollywood Nostalgia,” “The Front Row,” newyorker.com, October 12, 2012).
In contrast, George Packer’s “Washington Man” is a classic example of what Brody calls “external storytelling.” It’s written with superb authority, but the author doesn’t enter into it. Packer doesn’t use the first person pronoun even once. It’s a profile of Washington insider Jeff Connaughton. Except for the occasional “As Connaughton later wrote” and “As Connaughton recalled,” Packer rarely indicates his sources. Most of the story appears to have come directly from Connaughton. Packer’s identification with Connaughton’s point of view is extremely close. So close that Packer, at times, seems to be writing free indirect speech. For example, Packer writes,
One day in August, he was channel-flipping when Glenn Beck came on, telling an immense crowd on the Mall that change didn’t come from Washington; it came from real people in real places around the country. Beck was an asshole, but Arianna Huffington wrote the same thing in a column two days later. They were right.
Who owns these words – Packer or Connaughton? It’s Packer who’s writing them, but it sounds like Connaughton. The passage is an example of free indirect speech. It’s the first time I’ve seen it used in a New Yorker profile. I’m not sure its use should be encouraged. Packer’s words seem to have become inflected by his subject’s. Does he think Beck is an asshole? Does he think Beck and Huffington were right? Or is he simply reporting what Connaughton thinks? It’s unclear.
That said, I confess I found “Washington Man” irresistible. Even though it’s a long piece, I couldn’t stop reading until I finished it. It’s an exciting, vivid, inside story about how Washington has been captured by the “money power.” Packer’s/Connaughton’s view that “One fastball at Wall Street’s chin – a few top executives going to jail – could have had more effect than all the regulations combined” is my view. I silently cheered as I read it.