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.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Compositional Value of Ephemera

It’s interesting to read Nathan Heller’s “Hello Laptop, My Old Friend” (“Page-Turner,”, January 18, 2013) and learn how he composed the beautiful opening section of his “Semi-Charmed Life” (The New Yorker, January 14, 2013). Heller refers to “the evocative power of cast-off material.” He says,

In a recent issue of the magazine, I wrote about people in their twenties and some books that focus on their plight. The piece begins with an account of some weeks I spent in Iceland, in my own early twenties, and in working on that passage I relied on both memory and record. I’m a pack rat when it comes to correspondence and ephemera: I still have every substantive note or e-mail I’ve sent or received since the start of college—perhaps even earlier—plus pamphlets, birthday cards, maps, Playbills, boarding passes, brochures, brittle magazines, and fancy hardbound notebooks that I’ve started in the hope of reinventing myself as someone who writes in fancy hardbound notebooks. Who’d have thought that a map of businesses in pre-crash Reykjavík would one day help me write a book review? Not my twenty-two-year-old self, certainly. And yet that map, like many notes and e-mails from those weeks, was crucial in reëntering a particular experience years later—not just to tell the story to readers but to reclaim it as a memory of my own.

Reading Heller’s post, I recalled Ian Frazier’s description of his approach to composing his great Family (1994): “My method in writing this memoir was to look for artifacts that suggested narrative” (“Looking for My Family,” included in Inventing the Truth, edited by William Zinsser, 1998).

Frazier’s and Heller’s approach shows the compositional value of ephemera – “the evocative power of cast-off material.”

Credit: The above illustration is from Nathan Heller’s “Semi-Charmed Life” (The New Yorker, January 14, 2013). 

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