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, May 24, 2014

May 19, 2014 Issue

I know I should be more interested in Michael Specter’s subjects. But science has never been my strong suit. And his style – mostly third-person with the occasional first-person-minor passage thrown in – didn’t grab me. But recently, his authorial “I” has begun to bloom. For example, in his excellent "Climate By Numbers" (The New Yorker, November 11, 2013), he visits the Climate Corporation in San Francisco:

I picked up a cranberry-flax-oatmeal cookie and a bottle of coconut water, and was led to the Ptolemy Room, one of many glass-walled conference areas, all named for famous scientists, many of whom had some theoretical connection to the work of the Climate Corporation.

And in his "The Gene Factory" (The New Yorker, January 6, 2014), his style has moved to about midway between first-person minor and first-person major (“While I was in Shenzhen, I saw a display that described B.G.I’s plans,” “I arrived in Shenzhen the day after Typhoon Usagi had shut down much of Southeast Asia,” “I saw no lava lamps, nobody wore headphones or Crocs or moved through the building on a skateboard, a pogo stick, or a unicycle,”  At lunch, Zhang pushed a small pot of yogurt toward me,”  While I was in Boston, I met with Flatley”).

Specter’s absorbing "Partial Recall," in this week’s issue, continues the trend. The piece is about Daniela Schiller’s research into emotional memory. Specter visits Schiller in her office:

We were sitting in her office, not far from the laboratory she runs at Mount Sinai, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It was an exceptionally bright winter morning, and the sun streaming through the windows made her hard to see even from a few feet away.

“Partial Recall” describes various forms of memory (“procedural memories,” “emotional memories,” “conscious, visual memories”); it talks about “consolidation” (the process by which new experiences become “imprinted onto the circuitry of the brain”) and “reconsolidation” (under certain circumstances, as a result of recall, old memory undergoes changes as it retraces the pathways in which it originated). But, for me, the most enjoyable parts are Specter’s journal-like entries, e.g., “On a particularly harsh winter morning in February, I joined Schiller and one of her postdocs, Dorothee Bentz, at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine’s Brain Imaging Core”; “Not long after my fear test, I took the train to Philadelphia to speak with Edna Foa, who is the director of the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety, at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School”; and most memorably, “I had come to his [Sigmund Schiller’s] house, in this sunny spot between Ben Gurion Airport and the Mediterranean coast, for an unlikely reason: not long ago, after decades of unwavering silence, Schiller spoke about his Holocaust experience.”

Specter’s journalistic “I” isn’t in the category of such first-person major stylists as John McPhee and Ian Frazier. But it appears to be moving in that direction. And that’s a positive development. For me, the presence of the authorial “I” brings the page alive. The observer becomes a participant; reporting becomes experience. 

Postscript: Two other pieces in this week’s issue that I enjoyed enormously are Alec Wilkinson’s "A Voice from the Past" and James Wood’s "The World As We Know It." Wood’s piece touches on the homelessness theme of his brilliant “On Not Going Home” (London Review of Books, February 20, 2014), which is the subject of a review I'm currently working on for this blog. I’ll post it in the next week or so.

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