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.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

May 20, 2013 Issue

When I saw, on, that Ian Frazier had written an article about “mycelium-based packing material,” I thought uh oh, this could be trouble - the first piece by my favorite writer I may not like. I should’ve known better. Frazier is incapable of writing anything – even a story about packing made of fungus – that isn’t vivid, absorbing, and artful. His “Form and Fungus,” in this week’s issue (“The Innovators Issue”), is excellent. It does contain a fair amount of chemistry [e.g., “A polymer is a compound or a combination of compounds consisting of structural units (molecules of styrene, for example) that repeat”]. But this is leavened by Frazier’s humor. At one point, he says, parenthetically, “high-school chemistry, don’t fail me now.” As the chemistry passages piled up, I thought, Wow, Frazier is really getting into this. And then I remembered from reading Frazier’s wonderful Family (1994) that his father was a chemical engineer. Not long after that link occurred to me, Frazier himself says, in “Form and Fungus,” “My father, who was a chemical engineer at a research lab, used to bring home samples of substances never before seen on the planet – strange milky plastics as brittle as ice or as slick and pulpy as squid.” “Form and Fungus” connects with other Frazier works, as well. For example, the reference to the “serious problem” with Styrofoam recalls Frazier’s memorable “Styrofoam” description in “The Toll” (The New Yorker, February 11 & 18, 2013): “Everywhere, like dirty snow, little clumps and crumbs of Styrofoam congregated on the rocks and covered the matted ground.” And, when he says, in “Form and Fungus,” that he told Burt Swersey about his invention of “a device to remove plastic bags from trees,” I smiled because it brought to mind his terrific “Bags In Trees” trilogy (included in his 2005 collection Gone To New York). 

Often in a Frazier piece, a so-called incidental moment generates an inspired description. Such is the case in “Form and Fungus.” On his way to Ecovative’s factory, in Green Island, New York, he stops to take a view of the Mohawk River from an old railway bridge:

Whenever I visit the company, I like to stop first at an abandoned railroad bridge at the north end of Green Island. The branch of the Mohawk that the bridge spans has carved low bluffs from the island’s four-hundred-million-year-old shale. The bluffs resemble stacks of very thin, reddish-black crêpes. All river confluences are glorious. Canoes full of Iroquois Indians travelled past here, and fur traders, and soldiers, and surveyors for the Erie Canal. The canal turned left near this point, followed the Mohawk’s shale valley westward, tapped into the Great Lakes, and made the fortune of New York City. Here, as at all confluences, wildlife congregates. In the early morning, it’s an amphitheatre of birdsong, while Canada geese add their usual commotion. So many crows show up in the evenings that they plague the town of Green Island, and the mayor has to scare them away with a blank pistol.

Frazier is writing a story about the invention of mycelium-based packing material. But he still has time to notice and appreciate an abandoned railway bridge, the Mohawk River, shale, bluffs, birdsong, Canada geese, crows, and a pistol-toting mayor. That’s why I cherish his work.

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