Monday, May 19, 2014
May 5, 2014 Issue
This week’s issue contains three excellent pieces: Yudhijit Bhattacharjee’s “A New Kind of Spy”; Patrick Radden Keefe’s “The Hunt for El Chapo”; and Rachel Aviv’s “Prescription for Disaster.” What I like about them is the way the authors, writing for the most part in the first-person minor, occasionally enlarge their “I” ’s role to take the measure of their main characters. For example, in “A New Kind of Spy,” Bhattacharjee tells the story of how a Chinese-American engineer, Greg Chung, became the first American to be convicted of economic espionage. Most of the piece is a reconstruction of events of which Bhattacharjee has no personal knowledge. It’s based on interviews with, among others, F.B.I. agent Kevin Moberly, who investigated the Chung case. But in the piece’s brilliant last section, Bhattacharjee’s narrative “I” is more present. He writes,
Chung did not respond to my requests to visit him in prison, but Ling [Chung’s wife], who was never accused of a crime, reluctantly took my phone calls. One afternoon, I parked at the end of Grovewood Lane and walked to the iron gate in the Chungs’ driveway. There were cobwebs on the buzzer. The front yard was full of weeds, and an overturned wheelbarrow near the garage apparently hadn’t been used for years.
Thus begins the part of “A New Kind of Spy” that, for me, gives the piece the lived character of experience.
Similarly, in “Prescription for Disaster” ’s final section, Rachel Aviv deftly moves from first-person minor to first-person major in order to gauge firsthand Stephen Schneider’s innocence or lack thereof. She writes,
Schneider’s friends say that he was too trusting, a justification that I viewed with skepticism until Schneider began talking about the prison culture. “It’s surprising how nice these inmates are,” he told me. “It’s almost unbelievable, the camaraderie. People act like they’re in gangs, but I can’t say I ever felt I was in jeopardy. The blacks associate with whites, the whites with Mexicans.
And in his riveting “The Hunt for El Chapo,” Keefe’s low-key, reportorial first person becomes slightly more visible when he stops to comment on a curious facet of his narrative – Guzmán’s betrayal by two of his closest aides. Keefe writes,
I was impressed, initially, by the speed with which the marines had elicited leads from these subordinates, both of them ex-members of Mexico’s special forces who had been hardened by years in the cartel. One U.S. law-enforcement official told me that it is not unusual for cartel members to start coöperating as soon as they are captured. “There’s very little allegiance once they’re taken into custody,” he said.
But when I raised the subject with a former D.E.A. agent who has spoken to Mexican counterparts involved in the operation, he had a different explanation. “The marines tortured these guys,” he told me, matter-of-factly. “They would never have given it up, if not for that.”
Bhattacharjee, Aviv, and Keefe could’ve written wholly in the first-person minor, but their stories wouldn’t have been as effective. By artfully expanding their “I” ’s role, at crucial junctures, they personalize their reports, converting fact into experience.