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.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

February 25, 2013 Issue

Three pieces are in the running for this week’s Pick of the Issue (POTI): Nick Paumgarten’s "The Hangover," Dexter Filkins’s "After Syria," and Lauren Collins’s "L’Étranger." I’ll use my old touchstone “thisness” to determine the winner. “Thisness,” you’ll recall, is  “any detail that draws abstraction toward itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability, any detail that centers our attention with its concretion” (James Wood’s brilliant definition). In a way, all three articles are about complex crises – Spain’s economy (“The Hangover”), France’s economy (“L’Étranger”), Lebanon’s politics (“After Syria”) – that the writers attempt to make vivid using specific images and circumstances. In “The Hangover,” the image is a doomed giant construction project called Residencial Francisco Hernando (“For blocks at a time, the ground-floor spaces – would-be storefronts – were cinder-blocked shut, and spray-painted with the phone numbers of leasing brokers”); in “L’Étranger,” the symbol is l’affaire Depardieu - Gerard Depardieu’s decision to relocate to Belgium to escape France’s seventy-five-per-cent “supertax” (“the country’s anxieties about money had coalesced in the person of Depardieu”); in “After Syria,” it’s the memorial service for two young Hezbollah fighters killed “under murky circumstances,” which Filkins investigates (“Back in Beirut, a Hezbollah officer conceded that the explanation for the young martyrs’ death – the explosion at the ammunition depot – had been contrived. They had been killed in Syria, he said: ‘There were lots of bodies coming back’”). All three pieces are impressive in their detail and specificity. All three thrillingly incorporate the writers’ personal experiences as they track down their stories. Sentences such as “I had a beer at an outside table with a high-ranking city official who previously worked in finance” (Paumgarten), “One night, I wound up at a party in the Castellana apartment of a business-woman (half Spanish, half American, reared in Madrid) with fierce Madrileña opinions about what ails Spain” (Paumgarten), “I sneaked into one [a Residencial Francisco Hernando swimming pool]” (Paumgarten), “To better understand the link between Hezbollah and Syria, I paid a dinner visit to the Beirut home of Walid Joumblatt, the leader of a tiny religious group, the Druze, and perhaps Lebanon’s most nimble and sophisticated politician” (Filkins), “A few days later, I drove to the town of Arsal, on the Syrian border” (Filkins), “One day, I went to the U.M.P. headquarters to meet Nadine Morano, who served as Sarkozy’s Minister for Apprenticeship and Professional Formation" (Collins), "A few days before I visited Néchin, his [Depardieu’s] lawyer, Hervé Temime, had received me in a grand office on the Rue de Tivoli” (Collins) clinchingly authenticate the pieces. One such passage in Filkins’s article – the one in which he describes climbing down into a “vast Hezbollah bunker” – has decided me on my POTI award. Filkins writes:

Under a foot of dirt and rubble is a trap door, and a ladder leading down to the main tunnel. Inside, the only sign of life was a colony of black bats, dangling silently from the ceiling. Startled by my entry, they dropped down, then glided up the shaft toward the light.

Filkins’s prose puts me squarely there, inside a Hezbollah bunker. Those bats dropping down, then gliding “up the shaft toward the light” are amazing! Accordingly, on the basis of this inspired detail, POTI goes to Dexter Filkins’s superb “After Syria.” 

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