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.

Friday, October 3, 2014

September 29, 2014 Issue

One of the most impressive aspects of Dexter Filkins’s “The Fight of Their Lives,” in this week’s issue, is that it’s written from the field. The piece reports on the Kurds’ war against the barbaric Islamic State, also called ISIS. In the piece’s riveting opening section, Filkins interviews Kurdish army commander Najat Ali Saleh as the battle with ISIS rages nearby: “When I saw Saleh, on a recent visit, his men had just recaptured a village called Baqert. With mortars still thudding nearby, he exuded a heavy calm, cut by anger. I asked him if he’d taken any prisoners. “Only dead,” he said.”

ISIS is exceptional for its cult of sadism – the beheadings, crucifixions, tortures, rapes and slaughter of captives, children, women, Christians, and Shiites. The U.S. and its allies have publicly committed to degrading and ultimately destroying ISIS. But none of the Western powers are willing to commit ground troops to the battle. Apparently the only people willing to fight ISIS on the ground are the Kurds. They do so because, as Filkins explains, they’re defending a territory, Iraqi Kurdistan, that they’ve been fighting for decades to establish an independent state.

We want the Kurds to keep fighting ISIS. Our security depends on it. Yet, as Filkins points out, the U.S. is frustrating the Kurds, wanting them “to do two potentially incompatible things. The first is to serve as a crucial ally in the campaign to destroy ISIS, with all the military funding and equipment that such a role entails. The second is to resist seceding from the Iraqi state.”

“The Fight of Their Lives” ’s underlying message is clear: the U.S. should drop its “One Iraq” policy and throw its support solidly behind the Kurdish drive for independence. Filkins makes this point in his concluding section:

Peter Galbraith, the longtime diplomat and advocate of the Kurds, also served in East Timor and Croatia, regions that surmounted enormous difficulties to become separate states. He believes that once a people decide on independence almost nothing will dissuade them. “The desire to become independent is part of the consciousness of every Kurd,” Galbraith said. “They really feel like they are fighting and dying for something.”

“The Fight of Their Lives” says what needs to be said. The Kurds are entitled to their independence. It’s time for the U.S. and its allies to recognize the separate state of Kurdistan.

Postscript: Two of the best literary critics in the business are in this week’s issue – James Wood and Joyce Carol Oates. Wood reviews Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing; Oates reviews Martin Amis’s The Zone of Interest. Both pieces are terrific. Both critics analyze at the level of language. For example, in his piece, Wood says of McBride,

But McBride’s language also justifies its strangeness on every page. Her prose is a visceral throb, and the sentences run meanings together to produce a kind of compression in which words, freed from the tedious march of sequence, seem to want to merge with one another, as paint and musical notes can.

Oates, in her review, pounces on this Amis sentence, “The Sonders have suffered Seelenmord – death of the soul,” and says, “The author of the novel, not the narrator of the chapter, wants to highlight certain phrases for the benefit of the reader, but the mannerism is as distracting as a nudge in the ribs.” I enjoyed these two reviews immensely.  

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