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.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

January 12, 2015 Issue

Pick of the Issue this week is Julia Ioffe’s "Remote Control," a profile of the exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. It isn’t as good as Ioffe’s "The Borscht Belt" (The New Yorker, April 16, 2012), in which she memorably describes, among other things, the use of a pech, a traditional Russian brick oven (“Still, the oven’s three little compartments provided enough room for frequent rotation of pans and traditional cast-iron pots – fat-bellied, with narrow bottoms – and its warm roof, about a foot below the kitchen’s ceiling, became a favorite for the three young chefs in the kitchen”), and the making of samogon (Russian moonshine). But it does contain some interesting observations by Khodorkovsky on life in a Siberian prison. For example:

“The penal colony isn’t scary,” he observed. “It’s full of average people, and your place in that world depends on you, and more on will than on strength. You can’t be scared. The result is a vile and filthy life that is worse than death. And death, well, what is death? The risk is low, just two or three per thousand inmates a year.

It’s going to take this kind of steeliness to overthrow Putin. Maybe Khodorkovsky is the man for the job. Would he be an improvement? His track record as a ruthless exploiter of Russian state capitalism isn’t encouraging. But maybe his prison experiences have humanized him.

Photo by Davide Monteleone
The Davide Monteleone photo of Khodorkovsky that accompanies Ioffe’s piece is transfixing. I can’t make up my mind about it. It crops off about a fifth of Khodorkovsky’s face, including part of his left eye. Why? What aesthetic is in play here? The photo draws attention to Khodorkovsky’s eyes. They are hard, determined-looking eyes. It’s not a blasé shot. It’s not a “no style” portrait, that’s for sure. It’s eye-catching. I guess that’s its point. But it’s incomplete. That’s what bugs me about it.  

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