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.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Notes on James Wolcott's "Critical Mass"

James Wolcott, in his delectable essay collection Critical Mass, describes John Updike’s Hugging the Shore as being “crammed with goodies.” The same can be said of Critical Mass. One of its most enjoyable aspects is Wolcott’s Kaelesque ability to pin his subjects with arresting, sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued appraisals. For example, he says Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s “conveys the champagne fizz and sparkle of fashion magazines in the fifties, the infusion of frisky new energy into old money. It’s all surface, but the surface dances.” He calls Capote’s “La Côte Basque, 1965” “a cutthroat string quartet.” He says of William Shawn, “His desk was an altar where the ideals of accuracy, clarity, and understated elegance were held sacrosanct. Every article, no matter how ephemeral, was groomed like a French poodle.” Of Norman Mailer: “The crippler is that in his writing Mailer was psychologically, creatively, empathetically tone-deaf when it came to women, his female characters a creamy mélange of angel-whores whose lipstick was ripe for smearing – a Playboy Bunny mansion of haughty bitches and breathy ditzes whose dialogue bore no resemblance to indoor speech.” On William Styron: “My own problem with Styron’s ennobled potboilers was not his subject matter, point of view, historical accuracy, pale-male effrontery, or any other heavy carbs, but the sheer awful self-conscious succulence of the prose, a fruit-orchard in every scene-painting description.”

Wolcott doesn’t analyze at the level of language the way James Wood does. His hands aren’t as inky with text (to steal a phrase from Wood) as Wood’s are. Both critics are incredible metaphoricists. Wolcott mixes his metaphors more than Wood does. His writing is fizzier, more audacious. In his piece on Marvin Mudrick, Wolcott says that Mudrick “turned litcrit into a spinoff of stand-up comedy.” The same can be said of Wolcott. Like Kael, he’s a master of the parenthetical wisecrack. His inspired “Ved, have a melon ball,” in “The Love Bug,” makes me laugh every time I read it.

Reading Wolcott, I’m sometimes reminded of Wilfrid Sheed, except he doesn’t treat criticism as a game the way Sheed did. Sheed’s reviews were all about how witty he could be. Wolcott is more attentive to his subject, more descriptive. When he’s really digging his material, he can strike some wonderfully surprising, surreal word combos. Consider this beauty from Wolcott’s superb “Manny Farber’s Termite Art” (included in Critical Mass):  

His McCabe and Mrs. Miller features a broken bar of Hershey’s chocolate, and The Films of R. W. Fassbinder so trims the fat from Fassbinder’s blobby corpus that what’s left is a pair of toilets, a telephone cord and receiver stretched across an empty bed, a giant beer bottle, and a magazine spread on Hanna Schygulla.

When was the last time you saw “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “Hershey’s chocolate,” “R. W. Fassbinder,” “blobby corpus,” “toilets,” “telephone cord,” “empty bed,” “giant beer bottle,” “magazine spread,” and “Hanna Schygulla” conjoined in the same sentence? I’ll bet, never. It’s the prose equivalent of a ravishing Rauschenberg combine. I love it.

Wolcott doesn’t treat Capote and Cheever as failed saints the way (say) Daniel Mendelsohn and Colm Tóibín do. “Liar,” “failure,” “snob,” “drunk” occur so often in Mendelsohn’s “The Truman Show” (included in his How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken, 2008) and Tóibín’s “My God, the Suburbs” (London Review of Books, November 5, 2009), I found myself thinking, these guys enjoy using these words. It’s tonic to read Wolcott’s Capote and Cheever pieces because he avoids Mendelsohn’s and Tóibín’s moralizing, prosecutorial approach. Wolcott relishes Capote’s and Cheevers’s complex, tormented personalities. He says of Capote:

For many, the fizzle of Answered Prayers and his personal tailspin offer a spectacle more engrossing than the arc of a distinguished life. A dignified exit may be desirable in principle, but if you can have your subject bumming around in his bathrobe in public, then you’ve got yourself a Cautionary Tale. There but for the grace of God and an empty liquor cabinet go I.

On Cheever, he writes:

Our literary life would be poorer without its theatrical touch-ups, and Cheever’s are no more to be begrudged and censured than the pile of buttermilk batter that James Dickey became or Isak Dinesen’s eye shadow.

I agree. The essence of being human is that we screw up. I applaud Wolcott’s humanism (and humor). Dan and Colm, have a melon ball. 

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