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, September 20, 2014

September 15, 2014 Issue

I’m a latecomer to Jerome Groopman’s writing. Earlier this summer, I read my first Groopman – “How Memory Works” (The New York Review of Books, May 22, 2014). I was surprised to find myself enjoying it – “surprised” because I’m not used to seeing science written about from the “I” perspective. Science is generally a third-person discourse. But Groopman writes gloriously in the “I.” His “The Transformation,” in this week’s issue, exemplifies his personal approach. It’s about an experimental new drug that causes leukemic cells to mature into healthier ones. In it, he visits the laboratory where the new drug, AG-221, was developed. He writes,

That afternoon, I examined microscope images of the bone marrow of a patient who had not been treated with the drug. As a hematologist, I often dread taking in this view. Up close, healthy marrow looks like an Impressionist painting—a variegated landscape of cell types and colors. Leukemic marrow is a monotonous canvas of cancer cells; the images I was looking at showed hardly any normal blood cells being made. Then I examined images from a patient who had received the Agios drug. Typically, when a patient with A.M.L. is treated with high doses of chemotherapy, the marrow is emptied of all living cells; what’s left is a moonscape of fat globules and fibrous tissue. The images at Agios showed robust marrow: the leukemic cells had been forced to mature and had reverted to functioning white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. They were transformed.

That “moonscape of fat globules and fibrous tissue” is very fine. Groopman’s words call up pictures. He makes medical science vivid.

Postscript: William Finnegan’s “Dignity,” in this week’s issue, is one of the most moving, brilliant, effective pieces on economic inequality that I’ve read in a long time. I say “effective” because it not only describes the workers’ predicament (miserable pay); it suggests a powerful remedy – labor activism. The piece reports on the growing campaign to unionize fast-food workers. Finnegan immerses himself in the life of Arisleyda Tapia, a worker at a New York City McDonald’s. He describes her workplace (“the deep fryer and the meat freezer, the clamshell grill and the egg station, the order screens and the endless hospital-like beeping of timers”); he accompanies her on a bus to a national conference of the fast-food workers’ movement in Chicago (“Shantel Walker, who works at a Papa John’s in Brooklyn, jumped up as the bus approached Chicago. She wore a gold-billed cap and a big crucifix. She had a microphone. ‘I work too hard,’ she chanted, ‘for a little income.’ The bus erupted, workers chanting the lyrics after her. ‘Your story is an inspiration / People are with you / New York is proud of you, HEY’ ’’); he talks to the conference-goers (“Jorel Ware worked at a McDonald’s in midtown. He was thirty-one. He still made minimum wage, after two years. ‘They say the franchisee is just a small man in the middle,’ he said. ‘If that’s true, then who am I? I’m just a dot on the wall. I just want to be able to get an unlimited MetroCard. I can’t afford nothing’ ”); he observes a sit-in outside a McDonald’s (Some of the marchers wore their McDonald’s uniforms. Tapia was in civilian clothes. It was midday, hot. She and the rest of the protesters were steered by police into a containment pen, built of interlocking metal barricades, on the east side of Eighth”); he describes the arrest of some of the demonstrators (“The police used disposable restraints—white plastic ‘flexicuffs.’ They led their captives toward two large white vans, herded them inside, and shut the doors”). Anyone frustrated (as I am) by the lack of political response to the recent surge in inequality will find “Dignity” inspiring. It shows workers bravely taking matters into their own hands, using collective action as a means of reform.

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