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 Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins 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, December 13, 2012

December 10, 2012 Issue

What does James Wood mean by “curling”? One thing for sure, he’s not talking about brooms and rocks. In his splendid “Saul Bellow’s Comic Style” (The Irresponsible Self, 2004), he writes, “We delight in the curling process of invention whereby seemingly incompatible elements – eyebrows and caterpillars and Eden; or women’s knees and carjacks – are combined.” And in his “Late and Soon,” a wonderful review of Per Petterson’s novels, in this week’s New Yorker, he refers to Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time as “that mysterious book with its curling form and drifting sentences.” Curling process, curling form - I picture a tangle of Virginia creeper. Wood admires “serpentine” sentences (“‘Reality Examined to the Point of Madness’: Laszlo Krasznahorkai”), “bending” chapters (“W. G. Sebald’s Uncertainty”), and “writhing” music (“The Fun Stuff: Homage to Keith Moon”). In his Krasznahorkai piece, he adverts to the way that the mind of the protagonist of War and War “stretches and then turns back on itself, like a lunatic scorpion trying to sting itself.” In “Late and Soon,” he provides at least two more aspects of his “curling” aesthetic: (1) consciousness’s free-associative motion (“Note, too, that, in a spirit of free association, the narrator’s thoughts about the book are bound up with taste: golden Calvados to begin with, and then the bitter taste of the novel, which leads to the ‘bitter gift of pain’ mentioned in the old hymn, and on to the ‘bitter gift’ of the funeral”; (2) what he calls “the staggered distances of memory” (“Yet everything is jumbled in the recollection, because the most proximate memory may be the least important, the portentous detail relatively trivial”). “Late and Soon” is a fascinating elaboration of Wood’s concept of “curling form.” It’s also one of this year's best “Critic At Large” pieces. 

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