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, June 8, 2013

June 3, 2013 Issue

It’s interesting to compare two pieces in this week’s issue – Nicholas Schmidle’s “In the Crosshairs” and Nick Paumgarten’s “The Manic Mountain.” Both are about men, action, and violence. Both are absorbing, gripping, bravura pieces of writing. “In the Crosshairs” tells the story of Chris Kyle, “one of the deadliest snipers in American history,” murdered on a Texas rifle range. “The Manic Mountain” is about Ueli Steck, “one of the world’s premier alpinists,” and his involvement in a nasty brawl with Sherpas on Mount Everest. Both are empathetic and sensitive, withholding judgement, refusing to take sides, probing the violent incidents they describe (the murder, the brawl) for meaning beyond mere sensationalism. If there’s a villain in “In the Crosshairs,” it’s the Dallas Veterans Affairs Medical Center for failing to properly treat Kyle’s killer’s post-traumatic stress disorder (P.T.S.D.) (“The V.A. is a sclerotic and overwhelmed bureaucracy”). And “The Manic Mountain” seems to suggest that the underlying cause of the Sherpas’ attack on Steck stems from their frustration with the guiding companies (“Everst has evolved into a seasonal society dominated by the interests of the commercial guiding companies, which for the most part are owned and operated by foreigners”).

However, in terms of style, the two pieces differ from each other in at least two ways. First, “In the Crosshairss writing is plainer. The sentences are shorter, simpler. Schmidle’s style is quintessentially factual. A Schmidle sentence is sturdy, Shaker-like. Here are three typical samples from “In the Crosshairs”: “The point man, a twenty-eight-year-old named Marc Lee, began climbing the stairs”; “For all his bravado, Kyle had a compassionate side”; “They loaded up Kyle’s truck and went to pick up Routh.” Paumgarten’s style is richer. He writes a longer line; he uses figuration. Here, for example, is his description of Steck at a climbing gym:

He followed a progression of blue handholds, then orange, then pink, hopping down to the mat each time, brushing the talc from his hands on his shorts and peering up at the wall, his head tilted as though the wall were a language he was trying to remember.

That “as though the wall were a language he was trying to remember” is very fine.

Secondly, Schmidle’s “I” is less prominent than Paumgarten’s is. Schmidle keeps himself in the background. His pieces are sprinkled with “told me,” but other than that, he’s not much in evidence. An exception is the last section of “In the Crosshairs,” which begins, “In early May, I flew to northern Texas to see Raymond and Jodi Ruth.” I found that sentence thrilling. Finally, I thought, we glimpse the guy who’s telling this story. On the other hand, Paumgarten is gloriously subjective. His voice on the page is more distinctive than Schmidle’s. He injects more of his own personality into his writing. For example, there’s a humorous passage in “The Manic Mountain” where Paumgarten “growls” at the Eiger’s North Face:

I drove up from Interlaken one afternoon to have a look, and seeing it for the first time from the road leading up to Grindelwald, I found myself growling back at it. It was the bigger bear: a nasty shaded rampart of limestone and ice, nearly six thousand vertical feet from bottom to top, bedevilled by avalanches, falling rocks, sketchy verglas (thin ice), and sudden storms that can pin a climber for days.

I’m not pitting these two styles against each other. I like them both. Schmidle’s efficiency and specificity occasionally yield strikingly beautiful lines, such as “During the next four minutes, the interior of the Black Hawks rustled alive with the metallic cough of rounds being chambered” (“Getting Bin Laden,” The New Yorker, August 8, 2011). But when Paumgarten does something like growling at a mountain, he makes me smile. That’s a little bonus of his writing that I appreciate.

Second Thoughts: I want to clarify what I said above. Schmidle is a plain-style writer, but his “In the Crosshairs” is anything but plain. It’s an intricate, elaborate canvas, with a wealth of memorable detail worked into it (e.g., the “red crusader’s cross” tattooed on Kyle’s arm, the crawfish - some live, some cooked - that Rury stuffed down Kyle's shorts, New Mexico's tumbleweed expanses, the “knobby” tires on Kyles F-350, the “grooves in the sand around Littlelfield’s fingers”). It connects the Iraq war with Chris Kyle with P.T.S.D. with Eddie Ray Routh with Texas gun culture with murder on a rifle range. It makes the killer’s life as much a tragedy as the victim's. It’s an astonishing piece of work. It would make one hell of a great movie.

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