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.

Monday, February 10, 2014

February 3, 2014 Issue

A hallmark of Peter Schjeldahl’s ravishing style is his use of zero-marking, i.e., the construction of noun phrases containing no articles. It’s the prose equivalent of hard-edged painting. Schjeldahl is a master of it. Here are five examples:

Scored, alternately continuous and broken horizontal scorings cut to white gessoed canvas through a white-bordered square mass of tar-black paint. [“Abstract Meridian: Agnes Martin,” Let’s See, 2008]

Poignantly inferior paintings surprise in “Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night,” an instructive little show in new, cozy galleries at MOMA. [“The Night Stuff,” The New Yorker, September 29, 2008]

Growing intellectual frustration overlaps dawning aesthetic pleasure in subtle beauties of extraordinary touch and color. [“On Tuymans,” The New Yorker, November 14, 2005]

Visually advancing color counterbalances illusions of deep space. [“Fra Angelico,” Let’s See, 2008]

Wet resin turned clayey oils pellucid. Colors—greenish-brown chiaroscuro background, pale peachy flesh with bluish insinuations—sang. [“Meet John Currin,” Let’s See, 2008]

What are the sources of Schjeldahl’s gorgeous, concentrated, zero-article style? His brilliant “The Outlaw,” in this week’s issue, offers a clue. It’s a review of Barry Miles’s Call Me Burroughs, a biography of William S. Burroughs. Burroughs is a zero-article stylist par excellence: “Windowless cubicle with blue walls”; “Sharp protein odor of semen fills the air”; “Rococo bar backed by pink shell”; “Great whistles through his teeth”; “Warm spring wind blows faded pink curtains in through open window”; “Naked lifeguards carry in iron-lungs full of paralyzed youths”; on and on. These examples are from Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, a work that Schjeldahl calls a “ragged masterpiece.” In his piece, Schjeldahl evinces extensive knowledge of Burroughs’s oeuvre. He says that Burroughs “always wrote in tones of spooky authority,” that Burroughs’s Exterminator is a “delectable memoir”; that Exterminator’s title story “employs a tone, typical of him, that begs to be called bleak nostalgia,” that Burroughs could be “startlingly moralistic,” that the prose of Burroughs’s second trilogy (The Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads, and The Western Lands) is “nimble and often ravishing, but marred by the author’s monotonous obsessions and gross tics,” that “much of Burroughs’s best writing originated in letters to the poet [Allen Ginsberg].” Regarding Burroughs’s writing, he concludes, “there’s no gainsaying a splendor as berserk as that of a Hieronymus Bosch painting.” Schjeldahl’s “The Outlaw” whets my appetite for Burroughs’s work and provides insight into the sources of Schjeldahl’s own extraordinarily beautiful style. It’s a remarkable piece. I enjoyed it immensely.

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