Tuesday, March 19, 2013
March 18, 2013 Issue
David Owen is on a roll – three features in less than two months: “The Psychology of Space” (The New Yorker, January 21, 2013) about the Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta; “Hands Across America” (The New Yorker, March 4, 2013) on the rise of Purell hand sanitizer; and now, in this week’s issue, “Notes From Under Ground” about Florida sinkholes and dry-downs. All three are immensely informative and enjoyable. They consist of an amazing range of variegated materials and ideas: Oslo Opera House, collectivist approach, Alexandria Library, keyless structures, Norwegian Wild Reindeer Center Pavilion, World Trade Center, visitor flow model, Times Square, de-cluttering, Gojo’s headquarters, hand-hygiene lab, formulation lab, breakfast buffet table, treatment-resistant pathogens, compliance monitoring system, Lake Jackson, karst, Talahassee, Floridan Aquifier, Church Sink, deep-water cave divers, Wakulla Springs, Turner Sink, Weeki Wachee Springs, Sinkhole Alley, sinkhole investors.
Owen’s choice of material, guided by his acute perception, generates his vivid factual style, e.g., “He and Goldie mixed the first batches in the washing machine in the basement of Goldie’s parents’ house – they were living the attic – and packaged the finished product in pickle jars that Jerry salvaged from area restaurants” (“Hands Across America”); “As we waited for an express at Fourteenth Street, he said that in most stations you can anticipate where the doors of the next train will open by looking for concentrations of chewing-gum splats near the edges of the platforms” (“The Psychology of Space”); “The mermaids smiled a lot, breathed from what looked like gas-station hoses, and did a pretty good job of using awkward-seeming tails to propel themselves across the stage, a deep spring that is part of the Floridan Aquifier” (“Notes from Underground”).
I relish his use of “I” (“One afternoon, Dykers and I met at his office and then took the subway uptown to look at the site”; “When I met him, at Gojo’s headquaters, he told me that he began working there as a young boy, and that one of his firsr assignments was sitting on freshly glued shipping cartons, to keep the flaps from popping open”; “I was taken on a tour by Jim Arbogast, a scientist who came to work at Gojo in 2002”; “During a recent trip to Europe, I was mildly alarmed to find no serving tongs in the breadbasket on my hotel’s breakfast-buffet table: the only way to pick up a croissant was with my fingers”; “Early the next morning, I met the divers for breakfast at their favorite Tallahassee assembly point, the Village Inn on Apalachee Parkway”; “I couldn’t see into the backyard, but two children on the sidewalk hollered, ‘We walked in the sinkhole!’”).
Owen is a subjectivist par excellence. I enjoy his work enormously.