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, November 20, 2013

November 18, 2013 Issue

The tagline for Ariel Levy’s "Thanksgiving In Mongolia," in this week’s issue, is “Adventure and heartbreak at the edge of the earth.” It’s open to question whether Ariel’s Mongolian experience constitutes adventure. She calls it “black magic,” and that’s probably more accurate. But as for “heartbreak” – that’s the perfect word for it. “Thanksgiving In Mongolia” is utterly, absolutely heartbreaking. It’s about a miscarriage that Levy had while she was in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, reporting a story. The baby was still alive after he left her womb:

He was translucent and pink and very, very small, but he was flawless. His lovely lips were opening and closing, opening and closing, swallowing the new world. For a length of time I cannot delineate, I sat there, awestruck, transfixed. Every finger, every toenail, the golden shadow of his eyebrows coming in, the elegance of his shoulders—all of it was miraculous, astonishing. I held him up to my face, his head and shoulders filling my hand, his legs dangling almost to my elbow. I tried to think of something maternal I could do to convey to him that I was, in fact, his mother, and that I had the situation completely under control. I kissed his forehead and his skin felt like a silky frog’s on my mouth.

Levy experienced motherhood for the precious “ten or twenty minutes” of life that her baby was allotted here on earth. “Thanksgiving In Mongolia” is a blood-filled memoir of trauma. I found myself deflecting its tragedy by referring back to an early passage in the piece, containing this delightful description of a herdsman and conservationist named Tsetsegee Munkhbayar: “Munkhbayar was dressed in a long, traditional deel robe and a fur hat with a small metal falcon perched on top. It felt like having a latte with Genghis Khan.” That small metal falcon is superbly noticed. Levy may, in her anguish, feel like “a wounded witch, wailing in the forest, undone” (as she says near the end of her piece). But she writes like an angel. In “Thanksgiving In Mongolia,” shes cast a lasting memorial to her son’s brief life.

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