Thursday, December 27, 2012
December 24 & 31, 2012 Issue
I was already agonizing over the selection of my “Top Ten of 2012” pieces when this week’s “World Changers” issue, with its sleek, gleaming blue-black-cream Frank Viva cover, arrived containing three more candidates for consideration - Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Recall of the Wild,” Elif Batuman’s “Stage Mothers,” and Keith Gessen’s “Polar Express” – providing me with hours of readerly bliss and further complicating my “Top Ten” decision-making. All three are “participant observation” pieces – my favorite form of journalism. In “Recall of the Wild,” Kolbert visits the Oostvaardersplassen, a fifteen thousand acre park in the Netherlands that “mimics a Paleolithic ecosystem.” It brims with delicious lines such as “Vera picked me up one day at my hotel in Lelystad, and we drove over to the reserve’s administrative offices, where we had a cup of coffee in a room decorated with the mounted head of a very large Heck bull.” Kolbert is always up for an excursion, and so am I – vicariously through her, of course. When she hears about an auroch-breeding project in Nijmegan, she says, “So while I was in the Netherlands I decided to go for a visit.” I find her personal approach thrilling. Batuman writes in a similar mode, but with this difference: she has a marvelous gift for what I call surreal realism, which she generates organically from her material e.g., her description, in “Stage Mothers,” of the shooting of the movie “Wool Doll” (“Every night, the crew members slept in dead people’s blankets, and every morning they got up to confront a frozen auto transmission”). I notice that “Stage Mothers” is illustrated with a beautiful Carolyn Drake color photo. Batuman and Drake have teamed up at least a couple of times before to excellent effect: see “Natural Histories” (The New Yorker, October 28, 2011) and “The Memory Kitchen” (The New Yorker, April 19, 2010) – both “Top Ten” finishers in their respective years. Of the three writers under consideration this week, Keith Gessen is the minimalist. He’s not afraid to write short, plain lines, stripped to their essentials, e.g., “The next morning, we finally saw it: ice,” “Off we went into the ice,” “I put on a winter coat and hat and walked to the bow.” But his style isn’t starved – far from it. He’s an acute, subtle noticer:
A few times, the ice was so thick, and the icebreaker broke it so cleanly, that it came up again on its side, looking like a giant slice of cake, with green and blue layers separated by thin lines of white. Sometimes a smashed ice floe would be submerged beneath the surface and then come up, the water rolling off its back as off a slowly rising whale.
That “as off a slowly rising whale” is terrific. Gessen is an amazing imagist. Observing the unloading of coal trains in Murmansk, he writes, “It was as if Russia were coughing up her insides.” And this is followed by the evocative, “The cranes’ grabs could barely squeeze into the rail cars. The deep, rumbling sounds of steel on steel echoed in the quiet of the fjord.” I loved everything about “Polar Express” – Gessen’s writing, foremost, but also David Montelone’s photos, and the map by “AJ Frackattack.” There’s such a richesse of great writing in this “World Changers.” I enjoyed it immensely.