Introduction

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 Ben McGrath is not like a piece by Jill Lepore, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Goodyear, or Filkins for Khatchadourian, or Bilger for Paumgarten. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

October 13, 2014 Issue


A special shout-out to the editors of this week’s “Money Issue” for including two excellent pieces on what James Agee, in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, called “human actuality.” The “human actuality” in Lauren Hilgers’ “The Kitchen Network” is the hardscrabble existence of a twenty-nine-year-old Chinese immigrant named Rain, working twelve-hour shifts six days a week in a strip mall Chinese restaurant on Maryland’s Indian Head Highway. Hilgers conveys a deep interest in what is actual – the Fujianese village where Rain grew up, the way in which he was smuggled into the U.S., the Chinatown employment agencies, the restaurant where he works, the house he shares with five co-workers, even the way he thinks (“So, instead of conversation, Rain occupies himself with the math of a transient cook: the time it takes to clean the shrimp, the days before he can visit his girlfriend in New York, and the balance of his debts”).

The human actuality in Peter Hessler’s “Tales of the Trash” can be summed up in three words: women, money, and garbage. The way these three things are connected in Hessler’s piece is a revelation. Hessler’s subject is Sayyid Ahmid, a Cairo garbageman. Ahmid collects garbage from Hessler’s apartment. Occasionally, Hessler accompanies him on his rounds. Reading the first three sections, I thought the story was going to be about Cairo’s “informal economy.” As Hessler shows, “Cairo’s waste collection is shaped by tradition, not by laws and planning.” But in the following sections, after Hessler and his wife visit Sayyid in his home, the piece branches in a different direction, showing how Sayyid’s sexist views (e.g., he supports female circumcision) are a product of Islamic tradition that limits desire to males.

Considering these two pieces from a compositional perspective, I find myself slightly more partial to Hessler’s “Tales of the Trash.” Its mix of subjective and objective is richer. Both articles are absorbing. Both emphasize, in an Agee-like way, human particularity.

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