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 Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear 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 2, 2013

September 30, 2013 Issue

Notes from my reading of this week’s New Yorker:

1. Is Richard Brody’s capsule review of Bringing Up Baby an improvement on Pauline Kael’s? Kael’s note, written for the magazine’s “Goings On About Town” (collected in her great 5001 Nights at the Movies) contains her memorable quip, in reference to Katherine Hepburn, “no paleontologist ever got hold of a more beautiful set of bones.” Brody’s piece (in this week’s issue) has its charm, too. It’s more solemn than Kael’s. It talks about “archetypes of theme and character” and Hawks’s “universe of symbols.” It’s almost a case of what Kael called “being false to what we enjoy” (“Trash, Art, and the Movies”) - but not quite. Its last line – a gorgeous, rhythmic, abstract-specific, Rauschenberg-like combination – totally redeems it: “And Hawks brought to fruition his own universe of symbols that conjure the force that rules the world: she tears his coat, he tears her dress, she steals his clothes, she names him ‘Bone,’ and the mating cries of wild animals disturb the decorum of the dinner table, even as a Freudian psychiatrist in a swanky bar gives viewers an answer key in advance.” Descriptive analysis doesn’t come more succulent than that. Brody’s review may not be as humorous as Kael’s, but in terms of writing as pure writing, it’s just as enjoyable.

2. Of the four features in this week’s issue, the only one providing a participant-observer perspective is Xan Rice’s “Now Serving.” That, more than anything else, is what drew me to it. It’s an excellent plain-style piece about a Somali chef who defies terrorists. I relished Rice’s use of “I” (e.g., “I flew to Mogadishu in early May, six months after the second restaurant attack”). And he has a sharp eye for details (e.g., Jama driving his Suzuki jeep with a salad-dressing cruet wedged between his legs; the member of the hotel security who dropped banana slices into his pasta). For these reasons, “Now Serving” is this week’s Pick of the Issue.

3. Anthony Lane, in his terrific review of Rush, asks, “Is it now completely beyond the pale to tell a story in chronological order?” I silently cheered when I read that. Straightforward, chronological narrative appears to be a lost art. A few years ago, David Denby wrote an excellent piece on this subject. Titled “The New Disorder” (The New Yorker, March 5, 2007), it took aim at the “topsy-turvy narratives” of, among other movies, Alejandro González Iñáritu’s Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel. Denby said, “All three send characters from separate stories smacking into one another in tragic accidents; all three jump backward and forward in a scrambling of time frames that can leave the viewer experiencing reactions before actions, dénouements before climaxes, disillusion before ecstasy, and many other upsetting reversals and discombobulations.” Denby’s piece expresses my view completely. I wish he’d included it in his Do the Movies Have a Future?.

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