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.

Friday, April 5, 2013

April 1, 2013 Issue

Steve Coll’s “The Spy Who Said Too Much,” in this week’s issue, is a marvel of concision, logic, and analysis. It’s an account of the chain of events that led to the imprisonment of C.I.A. officer John Kiriakou for disclosing classified information to the press. There’s not much enjoyment in reading about Kiriakou’s downfall. He’s not a clear-cut whistleblower hero. As Coll says, “one person’s whistle-blowing is another’s grandstanding gadfly.” It’s not clear which category Kiriakou falls in. The pleasure of Coll’s piece is in seeing how Coll neatly and clearly structures his narrative, using Kiriakou’s case to illustrate the challenges that the press faces in investigating the Bush Administration’s abusive interrogation methods. What I like most about Coll’s approach is his refusal to judge Kiriakou. After setting out the government’s rationale for prosecuting him, Coll says, in the piece’s most thrilling passage, “But one might ask a different question. Which matters more: Kiriakou’s motives and his reliability, or the fact that, however inelegantly, he helped to reveal that a sitting President ordered international crimes? Does the emphasis on the messenger obscure the message?” Right there, in the posing of those cogent questions, “The Spy Who Said Too Much” separates itself from conventionality (leaker brought to justice) and becomes significantly profounder – an argument for “torture accountability.” 

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