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, August 23, 2014

August 25, 2014 Issue

Inspiration – that “shimmer of exact details” (in Nabokov’s memorable phrase) – is one of the essential ingredients of great writing. What passages in this week’s issue bear the mark of inspiration? I find at least three:

A tiny park mouse frantically circled the flower-box perimeters. To the west, the night sky was lit up with L.E.D. slingshot helicopters, set aloft by hawkers on the Square. – Hannah Goldfield, “Tables For Two: The Pavilion Market Café”

Unlike the work of Beckett, who has obviously had a large influence on him, Kelman’s writing has almost no metaphysical dimension, as though metaphysics were offensively luxurious—brocade for the bourgeois. There is an atmosphere of gnarling paranoia, imprisoned minimalism, the boredom of survival. – James Wood, “Away Thinking About Things”

One great pleasure of the Bowl is the sense of a spell being cast, and it happened here: in the third movement of the Mahler, when a ghostly klezmer band files by, seven thousand leaned in, their red wine and grilled chicken neglected, their motionless heads etched by the light pouring off the stage. – Alex Ross, “Under the Stars”

Postscript: My admiration for Michael Specter’s work continues to grow. His “Seeds of Doubt,” in this week’s issue, is a masterly dissection of Vandana Shiva’s emotional arguments against genetically modified crops. Specter not only quotes scientific studies (e.g., “According to a recent study by the Flemish Institutue for Biotechnology, there has been a sevenfold reduction in the use of pesticide since the introduction of Bt cotton; the number of cases of pesticide poisoning has fallen by nearly ninety percent”); he also talks to farmers (“The first thing the cotton farmers I visited wanted to discuss, though, was their improved health and that of their families. Before Bt genes were inserted into cotton, they would typically spray their crops with powerful chemicals dozens of times each season”). Specter’s use of evidence to lance Shiva’s arguments is impressive. His conclusion that Shiva’s statements “are rarely supported by data, and her positions often seem more like those of an end-of-days mystic than those of a scientist” appears irrefutable. 

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