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, February 3, 2014

January 27, 2014 Issue

The balance between description and analysis that I look for in a political piece was never struck better than it is in David Remnick’s “Going the Distance,” a remarkable profile of Barack Obama, in this week’s issue. Remnick assesses Obama’s strengths (“This is the archetypal Obama habit of mind and politics, the calm, professorial immersion in complexity …”) and weaknesses (“unwilling to jolly his allies along the fairway and take a 9-iron to his enemies”), as he accompanies the President on a three-day fund-raising trip to Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, “rattling the cup in one preposterous mansion after another.” Of the piece’s many pleasures – the travelogue structure, the engaging first-person perspective – the most piquant is Remnick’s superb eye for detail: Obama’s fat lip (he caught an elbow in the mouth while playing basket ball at Fort McNair); Obama’s furtive chewing on a piece of Nicorette; the supply of blood matching Obama’s type kept in the trunk of his limo; the Claes Oldenburg safety pin looming in the dark at Jon Shirley’s house; “Renegade” – Obama’s Secret Service handle; Obama’s aides, ever focused on their iPhones (“The aides were, as ever, staring down at their iPhones, scrolling, tapping, mentally occupying a psychic space somewhere  between where they were and the unspooling news cycle back in Washington”); Obama mouthing the announcer’s words, “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States,” as he walks toward the stage; the breakfast menu on Air Force One (“pumpkin spiced French toast drizzled with caramel syrup and a dollop of fresh whipped cream”); Obama’s trip director, Marvin Nicholson (“He and the President toss a football around, they shoot baskets, they shoot the shit”); the anecdote about Obama and his body guard Reggie Love taking a break during the Osama bin Laden mission to play spades; the Oval Office’s grandfather clock (“In the preternaturally quiet office, you could hear, between every long pause that Obama took, the ticking of a grandfather clock just to his left”). “Going the Distance” is an epic piece of reporting. I enjoyed it immensely. 

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