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, July 15, 2014

July 7 & 14, 2014 Issue

Héctor Tobar’s “Sixty-Nine Days,” in this week’s issue, impressively applies a spare aesthetic to describe a complex event – the sixty-nine day ordeal of thirty-three miners trapped deep inside the collapsed San José Mine. Tobar’s style is rich in simplicity. Using short, plain, point-and-shoot sentences, he delivers us directly into the miners’ hot, black, blasted, seemingly doomed reality – the sound of rock splitting (“When he lowered the window, he was assaulted by a deafening noise: the rumble of many simultaneous explosions, the sound of rock splitting”), the miners’ oily water supply (“When they shone their weakening lamps on the water, they could see a black-orange film and drops of motor oil”), their hunger (“They could not defecate, and the emptiness in their stomachs felt like a fist pushing downward”). Tobar’s art is in his details, e.g., the miners make a fire “the size of two cupped hands”; one miner watches another miner “pick up a discarded can of tuna and wipe the inside with his finger and lick it again and again”; one miner’s legs and feet are swollen, “and to keep him off the muddy floor, other miners built a bed from wooden pallets, and he lay there for hours, staring at the ceiling.” One of my favorite passages in “Sixty-Nine Days” is the description of the “picnic” at Level 135:

Sometimes Acuña turned the camera and captured the light from one of the vehicles, but mostly the image was of a black space filled with Sepúlveda’s voice: “We’re going to show that we are Chileans of the heart. And we’re going to have a delicious soup today.” Sepúlveda served each man with a metal cup that clanked against the bottom of the air-filter cover, pouring the hot, murky liquid into plastic cups.

That clank of the metal cup “against the bottom of the air-filter cover” is inspired! Tobar is a master plain-stylist.

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