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.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

December 9, 2013 Issue

James Thurber, in his “Preface to a Life” (The Thurber Carnival, 1945), concludes his meditation on autobiography with this memorable reference to death’s inescapability:

It is unfortunate, however, that even a well-ordered life cannot lead anybody safely around the inevitable doom that waits in the skies. As F. Hopkinson-Smith long ago pointed out, the claw of the sea-puss gets us all in the end.

James Wood’s absorbing “Why?,” in this week’s New Yorker, conveys a similar message. In his piece, Wood observes, “Fictional form is a kind of death”; it gives us “that formal insight into the shape of someone’s life,” a secular version of the insight that death often affords – “the awful privilege of seeing a life whole.” He proposes what might be called the “instance and form” theory of the novel. He says,

To read the novel is to be constantly moving between the secular and religious modes, between what you could call instance and form. The novel’s secular impulse is toward expanding and extending life; the novel is the great trader in the shares of the ordinary. It expands the instances of our lives into scenes and details; it strives to run these instances at a rhythm close to real time.

On the other hand, he says, the novel’s form, what he calls its religious mode, “reminds us that life is bounded by death, that life is just death-in-waiting.” He observes,

The novel often gives us that formal insight into the shape of someone’s life: we can see the beginning and the end of many fictional lives; their developments and errors; stasis and drift.

That “life is just death-in-waiting” is a neat, hard epigram, almost as catchy as Hopkinson-Smith’s “the claw of the sea-puss gets us all in the end.” Wood’s theory is impressive, but his reference to the novel’s form as the “religious mode” is, for me (a nonbeliever), problematic. Wood says, “What makes the mode religious is that it shares the religious tendency to see life as the mere antechamber to the afterlife.” As far as I’m concerned, there’s no afterlife. To quote Philip Larkin’s great “Aubade,” there’s only “The sure extinction that we travel to / And shall be lost in always.”

Postscript: Zadie Smith’s “Man vs. Corpse” (The New York Review of Books, December 5, 2013) begins where Wood’s “Why?” ends. At the conclusion of his piece, Wood refers to Italo Calvino’s Mr. Palomar and says, “Mr. Palomar would like to learn how to be dead.” In “Man vs. Corpse” ’s first section, Smith invites us to “Imagine being a corpse.” The two pieces converge on another point, as well. Both value immersion. Wood calls it “secular forgetting” – “the novel is so full of its own life that human life seen under the eye of eternity has been carelessly banished.” Note that “carelessly.” Wood is preoccupied with death; anything that diverts us from death’s reality is “profane.” Smith mentions immersion explicitly. Adverting to the work of Karl Ove Knausgaard and Tao Lin, she says,

Both Lin and Knausgaard eschew the solutions of minimalism and abstraction in interesting ways, opting instead for full immersion. Come with me, they seem to say, come into this life. If you can’t beat us, join us, here in the real. It might not be pretty – but this is life.

Smith ends her piece by exhorting us to “switch off our smart phones” and get out there and live, because everybody is really going to die someday, “and be dead forever, and shouldn’t a person live – truly live, a real life – while they’re alive?”

Smith’s conclusion is a powerful memento mori. In response, I’m moved to quickly post this note, shut down my laptop, and get my ass outdoors. 

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