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.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Best of 2013

Okay, New Yorkerphiles, here we go. The year is over; the crop is in. What a fabulous, cornucopian, prismatic harvest it is! Now the fun begins – skimming off the crème de la crème. Among 2013’s highlights are: (1) pieces by New Yorker greats Joseph Mitchell (“Street Life,” February 11 & 18), John McPhee (“The Orange Trapper,” July 1), Janet Malcolm (“Nobody’s Looking At You,” September 23), and Calvin Trillin (“Mozzarella Story,” December 2); (2) powerful “Personal History” by Meghan O’Rourke (“What’s Wrong with Me?,” August 26) and Ariel Levy (“Thanksgiving In Mongolia,” November 18); (3) three features (“The Toll,” February 11 & 18; “Form and Fungus,” May 20; and “Hidden City,” October 28) and at least four Talk stories (“Tree Person,” March 4, 2013; “School’s Out,” July 8 & 15, 2013; “By the Numbers,” August 26, 2013; “The Mountain,” December 23 & 30) – all terrific – by my favorite New Yorker writer, Ian Frazier; (4) wonderful pieces by two Nabokovian wizards -  Gary Shteyngart (“O.K., Glass,” August 5) and Nicholson Baker (“A Fourth State of Matter,” July 8 & 15); (5) two extraordinary critical pieces – Anthony Lane’s “Names and Faces” (September 2), a review of the Met’s Julia Margaret Cameron exhibition, and Dan Chiasson’s “All About My Mother” (November 11), a review of a new Marianne Moore biography. I could go on and on.

Compressing these riches into a “Ten Best” list is excruciating. There’s no doubt in my mind as to which piece is my favorite - Ben McGrath’s “The White Wall” (April 22, 2013). This article has it all – action (competitive mushing), vivid description (The mushers ate like sled dogs, scarfing double and triple helpings of roast moose and potatoes, which they washed down with coffee and Tang - the Gatorade of the Iditarod), inspired detail (black-bear Stroganoff, dogsled constructed from sawed-off Easton hockey sticks, a finish line marked by Kool-Aid poured over snow, a house insulated with clothes from the Salvation Army, etc.). It’s my #1 pick.

For #2, I’m going with Ian Frazier’s “The Toll.” It contains one of the year’s most haunting lines: “Standing in a soggy no man’s forest near a beach, with invasive Japanese honeysuckle and bittersweet and greenbrier vines dragging down the trees, and shreds of plastic bags in the branches, and a dirty snow of Styrofoam crumbs on the ground, and heaps of hurricane detritus strewn promiscuously, and fierce phragmites reeds springing up all over, I saw the landscape of the new hot world to come.”

My #3 pick is Gary Shteyngart’s superb “O.K., Glass.” This piece has so many great lines – surprising, surrealistic, specific, all at once. Here’s one example: “As the man walks into the frigid subway car, he unexpectedly jerks his head up and down. 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.’ 

Time to insert a critical piece. I devour critical writing. This year, Dan Chiasson, James Wood, Peter Schjeldahl, Anthony Lane, and David Denby were all at the top of their game. For my #4 pick, I choose Anthony Lane’s absorbing “Names and Faces” (“Though the backdrop may by sepia and moody, the subject is alert in her modernity and ravenous for experience. You could post her on Instagram right now”).

Rounding out my top five is the piece that, for me, contains the year’s most memorable image. No, I’m not referring to Ariel Levy’s heart-breaking depiction of her miscarriage in “Thanksgiving In Mongolia.” Actually, if I could, I’d delete that horrific scene from my memory. The image I have in mind is this one, from Lizzie Widdicombe’s marvelous “The Bad-Boy Brand” (April 8, 2013): “We took a water taxi through the canals, past crumbling buildings and water-stained walls, and arrived at San Marco just as the floodwaters were rising. The area was swarming with tourists, and a narrow pathway of raised wooden planks was threaded precariously through the square. As the waters rose, the tourists crossed the square on the planks, shuffling in a long, two-person-wide line, like animals boarding Noah’s Ark.”

In the #6 slot is John McPhee’s dandy “The Orange Trapper.” This piece shows the Master in excellent form. It brims with bright, original, delightful description (e.g., “This is not on one of my biking routes, but on solo rides I have been there, and returned there, inspired by curiosity and a longing for variety and, not least, the observation that in the thickets and copses and wild thorny bushes on the inside of Jasna Polana’s chain-link fence are golf balls – Big Bank golf balls, Big Pharma golf balls, C-level golf balls (C.E.O., C.O.O., C.F.O. golf balls), lying there abandoned forever by people who are snorkeling in Caneel Bay”). I enjoyed “The Orange Trapper” immensely.

For #7, I think I’ll pick another critical piece - Dan Chiasson’s wonderful “All About My Mother” (November 11, 2013). Sample passage: “These unlikely applications of empathy – to a mussel shell, a fan, a fish condemned to wading through stone – all enter through the unmarked portal of description; only later do we realize that what has been described is not what Moore saw but what Moore felt on seeing what she saw.”

Room on the list is getting tight; we’re down to my final three choices. There are at least a dozen more pieces deserving inclusion. For my #8, I pick Nicholson Baker’s brilliant “A Fourth State of Matter” (July 8 & 15). Baker’s writing appears so effortless and natural. This piece is a beauty. Sample: “Each glass sheet shuddered slightly as it was turned this way and that, in the impossibly fragile manner of airborne soap bubbles, and my own arms kept going out toward it, as if to save the sheet from crashing to the floor – but, of course, no glass crashed.”

Okay, two to go. #9 has to be Alec Wilkinson’s “Cape Fear” (September 9), doesn’t it? Hard not to include it, containing as it does one of the year’s most interesting characters, Ocearch co-captain Brett McBride, who, at the climax of this exciting piece,

barefoot and in his jeans and a T-shirt, jumped into the water and climbed onto the submerged platform. Pulling hard on the cable, he steered the shark into the cradle. As she arrived, he leaped over a railing like a rodeo clown. When she passed him, he jumped back in and grabbed her tail and turned her on her side so that her glistening white belly appeared again. It was milky white, the color of the moon, with the water rippling off it.

That last line is marvelously fine.

And now here we are at #10, the toughest pick of all because it means excluding all the remaining candidates. After close consideration, I choose Calvin Trillin’s great “Mozzarella Story” (December 2). I’m fond of elegy. This piece rues the closing of Joe’s Dairy, a thirty-five year old cheese shop in Lower Manhattan. The place was a regular stop on what Trillin calls his “noshing strolls.” Of the many pungent details in this great piece, I think my favorite is Ro’s short-order version of Trillin’s request for a smoked mozzarella: “ ‘One smokie,’ Ro, the woman who took care of the counter in recent years, would say, as she went over to a tray to pick one out.”  

And now that I’m finished, I notice there’s only one female on my list. I apologize for that. There could’ve been at least three more, I suppose, in addition to Widdicombe: Meghan O’Rourke (“What’s Wrong with Me?,” August 26), Lauren Collins (“Fire-Eaters,” November 4), and Ariel Levy (“Thanksgiving In Mongolia,” November 18). But when it comes right down to it, I let pleasure be my guide. Accordingly, these are the ten that stick in my mind:

  1. Ben McGrath’s “The White Wall” (April 22, 2013) 
  2. Ian Frazier’s “The Toll” (February 11 & 18, 2013) 
  3. Gary Shteyngart’s “O.K., Glass” (August 5, 2013) 
  4. Anthony Lane’s “Names and Faces” (September 2, 2013) 
  5. Lizzie Widdicombe’s “The Bad-Boy Brand” (April 8, 2013) 
  6. John McPhee’s “The Orange Trapper” (July 1, 2013) 
  7. Dan Chiasson’s “All About My Mother” (November 11, 2013) 
  8. Nicholson Baker’s “A Fourth State of Matter” (July 8 & 15, 2013)
  9. Alec Wilkinson’s “Cape Fear” (September 9, 2013) 
  10. Calvin Trillin’s “Mozarrella Story” (December 2, 2013)

What a pleasure it is to look back and savor all these great pieces. Thank you New Yorker for another wonderful year of reading bliss. 

Credit: The above artwork is by Simone Massoni; it appears in The New Yorker (August 26, 2013), as an “On The Horizon” illustration for “Jean Renoir’s French Cancan at MOMA.”

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