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.

Friday, January 24, 2014

January 20, 2014 Issue

Dana Goodyear, writer of some of The New Yorker’s most ravishingly descriptive sentences, including this beauty, “Meanwhile, the streets and courthouses were quiet, as people waited to see if the marriages would be allowed to resume, and bruised purple jacaranda blossoms, rather than wedding confetti, clogged the gutters of Boys Town” (“Down the Aisle,” April 16 & 23, 2010), has broken her style. Her “Death Dust,” in this week’s issue, is written in a plain, point-and-shoot fashion that is almost totally bereft of sensuous detail. “The houses were big and beige, stark blocks against a bright-blue sky” is about as evocative as the piece gets. Nevertheless, its facticity is impressive. It’s about “valley fever,” a disease caused by inhaling the microscopic spores of a soil-dwelling fungus found in the desert South-west – California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Texas. When the wind blows through the San Joaquin Valley it lofts huge clouds of dust into the sky. Breathe in this dust and, to borrow a memorable phrase of Goodyear’s, whoosh, millions of spores go up your nose. How bad is the dust? So bad, Goodyear tells us, that in Antelope Valley, on the southern edge of San Joaquin Valley, people in at least one home started wearing masks. “Sometimes they can’t see each other across the living room.” “Death Dust” may not be as richly descriptive as some of Goodyear’s previous pieces, but it’s thick with dust. By the time I was finished reading it, I could practically taste the dry, deadly stuff. In other words, “Death Dust” is a very effective piece. For this reason, it’s this week’s Pick of the Issue. 

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