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.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

April 7, 2014 Issue

George Packer, in his absorbing "Home Fires," in this week’s issue, says, “Journalists and historians have to distort war: in order to find the plot – causation, sequence, meaning – they make war more intelligible than it really is.” He mentions several new works – two memoirs (Brian Turner’s My Life as a Foreign Country, Benjamin Busch’s Dust to Dust), three poetry collections (Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise, both by Busch, and Kevin Powers’s Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting), a novel (Powers’s The Yellow Birds), and a book of short stories (Phil Klay’s Redeployment) – and says, “Their work lacks context, but it gets closer to the lived experience of war than almost any journalism.” That “almost” is key; without it, Packer’s claim is too sweeping, disregarding, among other masterworks of war reportage, A. J. Liebling’s “Cross- Channel Trip” (The New Yorker, July 1 & 15, 1944), Jonathan Schell’s “The Village of Ben Suc” (The New Yorker, July 15, 1967), C. D. B. Bryan’s “Friendly Fire (The New Yorker, March 1, 8 & 15, 1976), Neil Sheehan’s “An American Soldier in Vietnam II – A Set Piece Battle” (The New Yorker, June 27, 1988), Jon Lee Anderson’s “Sons of the Revolution” (The New Yorker, May 9, 2011), Nicholas Schmidle’s “Getting Bin Laden (The New Yorker, August 8, 2011), Dexter Filkins’s “After America” (The New Yorker, July 9 & 16, 2012). These pieces put us squarely there – in the assault landings, tank battles, sniper fire, foxholes, night raids, and many other aspects of war reality. Contrary to Packer’s assertion, these powerful works of journalism aren’t “distortions.” The only “plots” they have follow the course of real events. Their factuality gives them an immense edge over fiction and poetry. Far from making war “more intelligible than it really is,” as Packer alleges, they show its chaos and horror. As Liebling says, in the final line of his great “Cross-Channel Trip,” “Anybody who thinks there was a theme song should have his head examined.”   

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