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.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

March 10, 2014 Issue

There are two excellent political pieces in this week’s issue – Peter Hessler’s “Revolution On Trial” and Jon Lee Anderson’s “The Comandante’s Canal.” What makes them excellent is their high quotient of personal experience.

Hessler’s piece, a report on the current Egyptian situation, is drenched in experienced reality: his visit to the tense Police Academy courtroom, where members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including former President Mohamed Morsi, are on trial (“I was sitting next to the cage, and after a while Mohamed el-Beltagy, one of the accused, began gesturing to me through the bars”); his escape from gunfire at a protest rally in Mohandiseen (“I was running on a bad foot – I had injured a ligament a few weeks before – and I slowed to a walk once I though we were out of range. But then I heard bird shot ripping through the leaves of a tree overhead, so I started running again”).

Anderson’s “The Comandante’s Canal,” about Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s plan to build a transoceanic canal, also features vivid experiential moments. Though not as existentially edgy as Hessler’s brush with gunfire, they make their point. For example, in a passage that serves to illustrate the vast economic gap between many impoverished Nicaraguans and the wily canal planners, Anderson writes,

In December, driving with a Nicaraguan companion along a dirt road in the backcountry, I stopped to offer a lift to an elderly woman, whose burnished skin suggested indigenous blood. She was wearing a long traditional dress, and she was moving slowly, with the help of a walking stick. When I asked if she wanted a ride, she thanked me, and said, “Some alms would be better, son.” I dug into my pocket for a hundred-cordoba note, worth about four American dollars. She looked at it bemusedly, and asked, “What is it?” Shocked, my companion tried to explain what paper money was. She looked quizzical, and kept on walking.

Passages like these, the basic stuff of reality, are what kept me reading Anderson’s and Hessler’s pieces. They stick to specifics and avoid abstractions. In this they're exceptional because, as Orwell pointed out, the whole tendency of political writing is away from concreteness (Politics and the English Language).

Postscript: A special shout-out to Richard Brody, editor of “Goings On About Town” ’s “Movies” department, for his inclusion of Pauline Kael’s Grand Hotel capsule review in this week’s issue. Kael is one of the all-time New Yorker greats. It’s a pleasure to see her work still appearing in the magazine.

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