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.

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.  

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