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.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

October 21, 2013 Issue

Louis Menand, in his “The Norman Invasion,” in this week’s issue, says of Norman Mailer, “His most interesting innovation as a journalist was the reporter as character, the practice of treating himself as a participant in the events he was covering.” Well, there were lots of journalists before Mailer who, writing in the first person, inserted themselves as participants in their stories (e.g., George Orwell, John Reed, James Agee, A. J. Liebling). The innovation that Menand must be referring to is Mailer’s odd habit of writing about himself in the third person. See, for example, “Miami and the Siege of Chicago” (“His first afternoon in Miami Beach was spent by the reporter in Convention Hall. He stepped up on the speaker’s podium to see how it might feel, nosed into the jerrybuilt back room back of the podium where speakers would wait, and Press be excluded, once the convention was begun”); The Armies of the Night (“Mailer looked him over covertly to see what he could try if the Marshall went to work on him. All reports: negative. He would not stand a chance with this Marshall – there seemed no place to hit him where he’d be vulnerable; stone larynx, leather testicles, ice cubes for eyes”). In “St. George and the Godfather,” he calls himself Aquarius (“Interviewing Eagleton on the afternoon of the morning of his resignation as Vice-Presidential candidate, Aquarius finds him changed from the diffident politician who perspired before the television cameras on the night of his nomination and looked too furtive, too nervous, too quick-tongued, too bright, too unsure of himself and finally too modest to be Vice-President”).

I confess that even though I love these works, I find Mailer’s objectification of himself artificial. I wish he’d used the “I” point of view, as he did in his great “Ten Thousand Words a Minute,” an account of the first Patterson-Liston fight (“Naturally I got into a debate with Cus D’Amato and a young gentleman named Jacobs, Jim Jacobs as I remember, who was built like a track man and had an expression which was very single-minded”).

Few writers have pondered the use of point of view more than Mailer. In his “The Last Draft of The Deer Park,” he says, “The most powerful leverage in fiction is point of view.” Mailer was partial to the third-person perspective. Why? Because, as he points out in the Preface to Some Honorable Men (1976), a collection of his political convention pieces, there’s advantage to observing the observer: “So our best chance of improving those private charts of our own most complicated lives, our unadmitted maps of reality, our very comprehension, if you will, of the way existence works – seems to profit most if we can have some little idea, at least, of the warp of the observer who passes on the experience.”

Mailer’s innovation was his insertion of himself, not as “I,” but as “He,” “Mailer,” “Aquarius” – a third-person observer-participant – in his reportage. It’s an approach that’s ultra-objective. Mailer splits himself – there’s Mailer, the narrator, and “Mailer,” the character. I keep wondering as I read his “third-person” pieces, why not just drop the objective pose and speak naturally in the “I”? I’m aware of Janet Malcolm’s contention that “the ‘I’ character in journalism is almost pure invention” (The Journalist and the Murderer, 1990). But I submit that it’s less an invention than Mailer’s “Mailer.”

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