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.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

October 28, 2013 Issue

Ian Frazier has a great egalitarian eye for what James Agee, in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, called “human actuality.” In his brilliant “Hidden City,” in this week’s issue, Frazier notices, among other specific details, “two young men, one in a hoodie despite the heat and the other in a clean, tight white T-shirt and a black do-rag, with the tie ends dangling;” “a single key, unattached to any chain, key ring or other keys;” floors “like the insides of old suitcases”; “bent window blinds”; “tragic, drooping, bright-green shower curtain”; “ivory polish on her fingernails and toenails”; strollers (“Plastic bags of possessions drape the stroller handles, sippy cups of juice fill the cup-holders, Burger King paper crowns ride in the carrying racks beneath”); smell (“Breakfast had just ended and a smell of syrup lingered in the air); Saratoga Family Inn homeless shelter (“Fencing topped with barbed wire surrounds the building on several sides, and large banners advertising a slip-and-fall attorney and an auto-leasing place hang from its windowless six-story front”); sound (“constantly you hear the tires bumping on an approach ramp to the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge above it”); clothing (“He was wearing a pair of trousers that appeared to be riding very low, as the style now has it, but actually they were an optical illusion. The boxer shorts at the top of the trousers were a part of the garment itself”); an East Harlem street (“Cardboard lay scattered here and there and some ring-billed gulls were picking up French fries”); more sound (“In the warm Saturday-night air the city was hivelike, humming, fabulously lit, and rocking with low, thrilling, Daisy Buchanan-like laughter”); the homeless (“In this restlessness, the homeless remind me of the ghostly streaks on photos of the city from long ago, where the camera’s slow shutter speed could capture only a person’s blurry passing”).

These are particulars that not everyone sees, perhaps because they have no interest in seeing them. “We notice what we notice in accordance with who we are,” Robert Coles says in Doing Documentary Work (1997). Frazier is an egalitarian; he looks neither up nor down at his subjects. “Nobody Better, Better Than Nobody,” the title of his wonderful profile of the household hint columnist Poncé Cruse Evans (The New Yorker, February 21, 1983), could stand as his motto – a democratic way of seeing (and writing) that “Hidden City” magnificently embodies from beginning to end.  

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