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.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

James Wolcott's "Critical Mass"

I’m pleased to see that New York Times’ critic Dwight Garner has named James Wolcott’s Critical Mass as one of his ten favorite books of 2013. Garner says, “Mr. Wolcott’s cultural criticism is ecstatic and alive, and this big box of his best stuff is absurdly entertaining — a rolling series of intellectual lightning strikes” (“Dwight Garner’s 10 Favorite Books of 2013,”, December 19, 2013). I agree. Critical Mass is a tremendous source of reading pleasure. I’ve been gobbling it up like a chocolate truffle fiend who’s just been given a basket of Godiva’s finest. I started with one of the richest bonbons in the collection – “Caretaker/Pallbearer,” an incendiary, riotous review (part hand grenade, part hurrah, to borrow from Critical Mass’s subtitle) of John Updike’s The Widows of Eastwick, which I first read in the London Review of Books (January 1, 2009) and have never forgotten. How could you forget a piece that ends “America may have lost its looks and stature, but it was a beauty once, and worth every golden stab of sperm”? God, I love that line – surreal, startling, delightful, all at once. Here’s another inspired passage from the same review:

To stay on her toes, Sukie goes down on her knees. That’s how things are done in the fallen world of geriatric erotica. No Updike novel seems quite complete without a fancy cumshot, as they say in the porn trade, the artistic blowjob in Seek My Face earning a runner-up citation in the 2003 Bad Sex Awards (‘his pale semen inside her mouth, displayed on her arched tongue like a little Tachiste masterpiece’), and his larger body of work garnering him a Lifetime Achievement Award this year. The BJ performed here is a bit less refined than Seek My Face’s nimble juggling feat, but luminous as only an Updike emission can be: ‘Her face gleamed with his jism in the spotty light of the motel room, there on the far end of East Beach, within sound of the sea.’ A sloppy facial set to the ‘rhythmic relentless shushing’ of the sea – it may not be the stuff of Gershwin romance, but it’ll do until creaky infirmity takes even Sukie out of commission, round about the year 2016.

Luminous as only an Updike emission can be – how marvelously fine that is! Updike was still alive (for another twenty-six days) when “Caretaker/Pallbearer” appeared. I’ll bet he read it and lapped it up. Quoting and analyzing those BJ descriptions is exactly what he’d do if The Widows of Eastwick was written by someone else and he was reviewing it.

I’m still feasting on Critical Mass. It contains, among other choice items, eight New Yorker pieces. I’ll post a more extensive review of it later. For now, I just want to voice my agreement with Dwight Garner and say that Critical Mass is one of my favorite books of 2013, too. 

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