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.

Monday, May 20, 2013

May 13, 2013 Issue

Raffi Khatchadourian’s “The Chaos of the Dice,” in this week’s issue, features the kind of opening line I devour: “In order to meet Falafel, the highest ranked backgammon player in the world, I took a Greyhound bus to Atlantic City, and then hopped a jitney to the Borgata Hotel.” I read it and immediately think Hey, this sounds cool. I’m with you. Let’s go! What makes it even more delectable is that it’s a significant departure from Khatchadourian’s essentially “objective” style, in which “I” rarely appears. There’ve been exceptions, most notably the wonderful “The Plume Hunter” section of his great “The Gulf War” (The New Yorker, March 14, 2011), which begins, “A hundred and fifty miles southwest of the wellhead, the Pisces, a NOAA research vessel, was searching for under-sea plumes of oil. It was late on a September night, and in the darkness I climbed up to the bridge.” I find it thrilling when the writer steps into the narrative frame like that. It authenticates the experience being described.

“The Chaos of the Dice,” a profile of a backgammon hustler named Falafel, contains several sharp descriptions (e.g., He moved his checkers in abrupt jabs, then touched the pieces as if to confirm their solidity). But, as a whole, it isn’t as satisfying as Khatchadourian’s intricate, woven, tapestry-like “Reporter At Large” pieces - “The Gulf War,” “No Secrets” (June 7, 2010), and the masterly “Transfiguration” (February 13, 2012). I find characters with names like Falafel, The Bone, Genius, Sweet Pea, Elementary, The Terminator, Russian Paul, and Fat Nick a bit too Runyonesque to be totally credible. I’m sure they exist - I’m not questioning the piece’s accuracy. But, like Liebling’s Jollity Building gang (in his 1942 The Telephone Booth Indian), their raffishness seems a tad too cute. I prefer the intense factuality of Khatchadourian's incomparable Reporter-At-Large style, with a few pinches of first-person observation thrown in for added piquancy.

Postscript: Debra Nystrom’s poem “Pronghorn,” in this week’s issue, is a vivid piece of nature description (“bleached grass bending east in wind, lifting up / sometimes then bending again like the fur / of bigger animals a hand might’ve just passed over”). I enjoyed it immensely.    

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