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, March 7, 2014

March 3, 2014 Issue

Notes on two pieces in this week’s excellent issue:

1. Deborah Treisman’s absorbing obituary of Mavis Gallant led me back to Gallant’s wonderful Paris Notebooks (1986). Treisman’s mention of Gallant’s “lacerating observations of the 1968 student uprisings in Paris, in which no one gets away unexamined” refers to Gallant’s brilliant two-part “The Events in May: A Paris Notebook,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker (September 14 & 21, 1968), and was later collected in her Paris Notebooks. What an exhilarating piece of writing! It’s Gallant’s record of her firsthand impressions of the 1968 student revolts in Paris. It’s written in a style I relish – first-person, present-tense, collage-like, written-on-the-wing, using sentence fragments, bits of dialogue, quotation, comment, observation, description, hearsay, anything at hand to convey reality at the moment it’s being experienced. Here’s a quick taste of Gallants fluid, deeply immersive, totally addictive notation:

The ripped streets around the Luxembourg Station. People who live around here seem dazed. Stand there looking dazed. Paving torn up. The Rue Royer-Collard, where I used to live, looks bombed. Burned cars – ugly, gray-black. These are small cars, the kind you can lift and push around easily. Not the cars of the rich. It’s said that even the car owners haven’t complained, because they had watched the police charge from their windows. Armed men, and unarmed children. I used to think that that the young in France were all little aged men. Oh! We all feel sick. Rumor of two deaths, one a student, one a C.R.S. Rumor that a student had his throat cut “against a window at 24 Rue Gay-Lussac” – so a tract (already!) informs. They say it was the police incendiary grenades, and not the students, that set the cars on fire, but it was probably both. A friend of H.’s who lost his car found tracts still stuffed in it, half charred, used as kindling. Rumor that police beat the wounded with clubs, that people hid them (the students) and looked after them, and that police went into private homes. When the police threw the first tear-gas bombs, everyone in the houses nearby threw out basins of water to keep the gas close to the ground.

2. Raffi Khatchadourian’s “A Star in a Bottle” is a masterpiece – in the same league as his extraordinary “Transfiguration” (The New Yorker, February 13 & 20, 2012). How do you describe “the largest scientific collaboration in history”? Khatchadourian shows us, in detail after fascinating detail. The piece is about ITER – an audacious plan to build a new type of reactor, “a self-sustaining synthetic star,” based on nuclear fusion. It brims with amazing facts – ITER’s concrete foundation “must support three hundred and sixty thousand tons of equipment and infrastructure”; by the time it’s finished, ITER “will contain ten million individual parts”; “the sun is, essentially, a four-hundred-quintillion-megawatt thermonuclear power plant, fuelled by billions of years’ worth of hydrogen”; the Airfloat pallet on which an airplane fuselage or a locomotive slides “like a shopping cart”; ITER’s magnetic fields will create forces that can reach “sixty meganewtons, or twice the thrust that a NASA Space Shuttle requires for liftoff”; on and on. The sheer facticity of this piece is breathtaking!  

Two especially pleasing aspects of “A Star in a Bottle”: (1) the way it includes details of Khatchadourian’s itinerary, making the piece a kind of journey, e.g., he visits the ITER construction site in Aix-en-Provence (“When I arrived, on a late-summer morning, the air was dry and warm – filled with the aroma of pine, lavender, and wild thyme”) and General Atomic’s sixty-thousand-square-foot workspace overlooking Sycamore Canyon (“The floor looked like a shelf of polished glass; as we crossed it, I asked the chief engineer if he was ever tempted to put on skates and race across it”); and (2) its authenticating first-person perspective (“In a bare lobby, I wandered over to a model of the reactor core: a cylinder, dense with mechanical parts, rendered in brightly colored bits of machined plastic”; “I was supposed to meet Chiocchio on the fifth floor of the main building, but when I arrived there was no receptionist, no security to speak of, no one I could find to ask where he was. I heard my footsteps echo down the long, sunlit corridors as I looked for him”; “Before I left France, I joined Janeschitz and Chiocchio, along with several other members of the Praetorian Guard, for a tour of the ITER construction site”). “A Star in a Bottle” is a great piece. I enjoyed it immensely.

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