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.

Friday, April 25, 2014

April 21, 2014 Issue

“The Journeys Issue” is here and it contains pieces by two of my favorite writers – Burkhard Bilger and Geoff Dyer. Bilger’s “In Deep” is about an attempt to map a passage in the Chevé system, potentially the world’s deepest cave, located in Oaxaca, Mexico. The project is, in Bilger’s words, “a kind of Everest expedition turned upside down.” The expedition’s leader, Bill Stone, a sixty-year-old veteran deep caver, with a Ph.D. in structural engineering, “has an engineer’s methodical mind and an explorer’s heroic self-image. He’s pragmatic about details and romantic about goals.” Bilger made me smile when he says of Stone, “He had the whiskered weather-beaten look of an old lobsterman.” Two other key figures in the expedition are master cave divers Marcin Gala and Phil Short. They feature in “In Deep” ’s most dramatic sections – the exploration of the J2 system beyond Camp Four.

Of the pieces many pleasures – the fascinating cave diver details (“Underwear is worn for weeks on end, the bacteria kept back by antibiotic silver and copper threads”), its astute assessment of cave diver character (“But, looking at all the gleaming eyes around the fire, I was mostly reminded of the Island of Lost Boys. Beneath all the mud and gloom and dire admonitions, there burned an ember of self-satisfaction – of pride in their wretched circumstances and willingness to endure it”) – the most piquant, for me, are the cave descriptions (“endless mud-dimmed labyrinth,” “terminal sumps,” “a musty fungal scent drifts up from the cave’s throat,” “a small dark pool under a dome of sulfurous flowstone,” “glistening caverns and plummeting boreholes, stalagmites tall as organ pipes and great galleries draped in flowstone,” “a great chamber filled with mist and spray, its floor split by a yawning chasm,” a huge borehole stretched into the darkness,” “As for the river, it had found a long crack in the floor less than an inch wide, and spooled through it like an endless bolt of turquoise cloth”).

“In Deep” puts you squarely there, in the dark tunnels and frigid pools with Gala and Short. When I finished reading it and looked up from the page, my eyes felt as “owl-wide and dilated” as Gala’s and Short’s when they finally emerged from J2’s “rocky clutch.”

Burkhard Bilger has written many great New Yorker pieces. “In Deep” is one of his best. I enjoyed it immensely.

Another excellent piece in this week’s “The Journeys Issue” is Geoff Dyer’s “Shipmates,” an account of Dyer’s two-week stay aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. George H. W. Bush. Dyer is known for what James Wood calls his “loitering investigation, somehow intense and slackerish, the author not quite pursuing his subject but hanging around it, like a clever aimless boy on a street corner” (“From Venice to Varanasi,” The New Yorker, April 20, 2009). Well, there aren’t any street corners on the George H. W. Bush. Its flight deck isn’t a good place to hang around, not unless you want to get sucked into the intake of a jet engine. Regarding the flight deck, Dyer says, “There was no room for anything even slightly ambiguous.” The idea of a slackerish guy like Dyer placing himself in such a rigidly organized, ultra-efficient, high-risk environment is amusing. He even has to keep his head up (actually down) when he’s below deck. He writes, “I walked the walkways and stoop-ducked through hatches, always focused on a single ambition: not to smash my head, even though there was an opportunity to do so every couple of seconds.”

As Wood has noted, Dyer has “deep descriptive talents.” In “Shipmates,” they’re applied to depict a highly specialized, dangerous world of arresting wires, catapults, F-18 jets, jet blast deflectors, etc. Here, for example, is Dyer’s description of the catapult in action:

The plane is flung forward by a catapult and quickly curves away from the end of the carrier, over the sea. In its wake, there is a wash of steam from the catapult tracks, which are built into the flight deck. After a few moments, the catapult shuttle – a large piston attached through the tracks to the landing gear – comes back like a singed hare at a greyhound race. A minute later, another plane, from a neighboring catapult, blasts into the sky.

“Shipmates” is closer to being straight factual reporting than anything else Dyer has written. But it still has Dyer’s inimitable “I” perspective, which I relish. My favorite scene in “Shipmates” is Dyer’s evening talk with the aircraft’s captain and two other officers:

One night, I met Captain Luther and two fellow-officers as they sat in fold-up chairs on a starboard-side catwalk, smoking cigars in the dark. The sea was nothing but shadow. I couldn’t see the faces, just the red orbs of the cigars’ tips. Then a crew member rigged up a line of blue fairy lights. It was still hard to see, but in a soft romantic way.

I laughed when I read that. Who else but Dyer, in that macho setting, sitting with the commanding officers of perhaps the world’s most powerful warship, would be struck by the lights’ “soft, romantic” effect. He’s subjective to the bone, and that’s what I love about his writing.

A third piece in this week’s issue that must be given its due is Laura Miller’s wonderful “Romancing the Stones.” It’s about her winter solstice visit to Stonehenge in the company of a flock of modern-day Druids. Miller’s description of the Druids gives the piece a surreal specificity. For example:

As I drifted through the crowd, I spotted a plump woman in a tiger-striped catsuit dancing to the beat of a drum circle, a tall man in white robes with a mask made of leaves, and a hobbity fellow in a brown woolly sweater telling an interviewer, “I’m a pagan and I’ve come here to exercise my religious rights.” Someone had made a sign that began with the line “Hello, I am an Earthian,” and surely nobody read past that point. A man in a green Inverness coat and a wide-brimmed felt hat was blowing mightily on a three-foot trumpet made from ox horn. He told me he was the Summoner of the Hearth of the Turning Wheel and urged me to have a go at the instrument. I couldn’t even get it to squeak. Behind a trilithon, people rubbed the padded heads of mallets over gongs, producing a groaning and swelling tone that seemed just right.

That last sentence is very fine! Miller’s previous New Yorker writings didn’t resonate with me. But her lovely “Romancing the Stones” is a revelation. I look forward to seeing more of her work in the magazine.

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