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, August 10, 2013

August 5, 2013 Issue

Unquestionably, this week’s Pick of the Issue is Gary Shteyngart’s sublime “O.K., Glass.” It’s about Shteyngart’s experience as a Google Glass Explorer. Google Glass is a futuristic computer – a sort of wearable smart phone (Shteyngart describes his Glass as “a pair of shale-colored architect’s glasses with parts of the frame missing”). It interacts with the Internet via voice commands initiated with the magic words, “O.K., Glass.” Shteyngart won a Twitter contest run by Google to be among “the first batch of Google Explorers” (“@Shteyngart You’re invited to join our #glassexplorers program. Woohoo!”). “O.K., Glass” brims with delightful surreal reality:

A pink light comes on above the right lens. He slides his index finger against the right temple of the glasses as if flicking away a fly. The man’s right eyebrow rises and his right eye squints. He appears to be mouthing some words. A lip-reader would come away with the following message: “Forever 21 world traveler denim shorts, $22.80. Horoscope: Cooler heads prevail today, helping you strike a compromise in a matter you refused to budge on last week.”

“O.K., Glass. Google translate ‘hamburger’ into Korean.”

“Haembeogeo,” a gentle, vowel-rich voice announced after a few seconds of searching, as both English and Hangul script appeared on the display above my right eye. Since there are no earbuds to plug into Glass, audio is conveyed through a “bone conduction transducer.” In effect, this means that a tiny speaker vibrates against the bone behind my right ear, replicating sound. The result is eerie, as if someone is whispering directly into a hole bored into your cranium, but also deeply futuristic. You can imagine a time when different parts of our bodies are adapted for different needs. If a bone can hear sound, why can’t my fingertips smell the bacon strips they’re about to grab?

A few days later, I Glass out. I film a line of tourists waiting for Shake Shack burgers in Madison Square Park. I record an inane Fox Sports reporter on a nearby bench trying to guess the favorite sports team of an office worker: “You’re a vegetarian with yellow toenails and no tattoos and you drink whiskey and you like Jay-Z. Are you a Yankees fan?” As she ends the interview and gets up to leave, the Fox reporter’s mic wire gets caught in the bench and I record her toppling over. At Chelsea Market, I snap a photo of a man shorter than me. Then a gent carrying an oversized steamed lobster. I duck into the Biergarten at the Standard Hotel and take a picture of a plate of currywurst for a German-food-loving friend. “Mmm, currywurst,” I say, adding those words as a caption to the photo I’m about to send. “Mmm, curry vs.” is how Glass interprets my caption.

“O.K., Glass” is endlessly quotable. It’s close to perfection. I enjoyed it immensely. 

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