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, October 11, 2014

October 6, 2014 Issue

Quick comments on seven items in this week’s issue:

1. Emma Allen’s “Bar Tab: Blind Barber” – After dark, glowing barber pole, clandestine entrance, men draped with striped sheets, Mr. High Fade, Smoke & Dagger, Bellevue morgue, “the man under the clippers” – this noir capsule is like a surreal prose poem. I lapped it up and wished for more.

2. Jennifer Gonnerman’s “Before the Law” – This piece angered me. What a poor excuse for a defense lawyer! Gonnerman reports that in the three years Browder was in Rikers, his legal aid lawyer Brendan O’Meara never once made the trip out to the jail to see him. I find that appalling. Regarding Gonnerman’s piece on artistic grounds, I liked the way she steps into the narrative frame in the final section (“One afternoon this past spring, I sat with Browder in a quiet restaurant in lower Manhattan”). Her use of “I” turns cold facts into personal experience.

3. Masha Gessen’s “The Weight of Words” – This absorbing piece expresses exactly what I felt as I read Ulitskaya’s “The Fugitive” when it appeared in the May 12, 2014 New Yorker, that it is “storytelling reduced to plot.”

4. Gerald Stern’s “The World We Should Have Stayed In” – Stern’s run-on, associative style, when its really cooking, jiving, jumping, moving, as it is in this amazing poem, is inspired. His inclusion of a meal at Weinstein’s (“chopped liver first or herring or eggs and onions, then / matzo-ball soup or noodle or knaidel, followed by / roast veal or boiled beef and horseradish / or roast chicken and vegetables, coleslaw /and Jewish pickles on the side and plates / of cookies and poppy-seed cakes and strudel”) had me licking my lips.

5. Calvin Tomkins’s “Into the Unknown” is pure delight. It’s the best Tomkins I’ve read in a long time. What makes it so good is the way it gets inside Ofili’s creative process. “It was a morning in June, and we were looking at a dark nine-foot-tall vertical painting called ‘Lime Bar,’ which he had been working on since April.” I find such sentences thrilling. “Into the Unknown” contains several of them. I enjoyed this piece immensely.

6. Kevin Canty’s “Story, With Bird” – This is my first exposure to Canty’s work. It’s impressive. I like its brevity and its realism (“The world divided itself into the drinking and the hangover, day and night, and we lived for the nights, the ones that ended in a blank space, half a memory to wake up to”). It describes a world that I was once part of. Maybe that, for me, is its chief attraction.

7. Joan Acocella’s “Lonesome Road” – A great review, where greatness means subtle, penetrating, direct, fresh. Acocella’s analysis of Robinson’s use of “point-of-view narration” is excellent.     

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