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 25, 2015

January 19, 2015 Issue

This week’s issue contains an extraordinary piece of reporting called "When the Fever Breaks" by Luke Mogelson. It’s a firsthand, front-lines account of how communities in Liberia and Sierra Leone are fighting the spread of Ebola. Mogelson visits slums, hospitals, holding centers, jungle villages. He talks to “survivors” (people who catch Ebola and don’t die), local organizers, health officers, social workers, ambulance drivers. At one point, he accompanies a county burial team to the Liberian village of Jene-Wonde. “Ebola victims are most contagious when they are no longer alive,” Mogelson says, “and in West Africa—where burial rituals, for both Christians and Muslims, entail anointing the deceased—many people have contracted the virus from a corpse.” The wife of Jene-Wonde’s chief has died of Ebola. Her body is inside the village general store. The chief gives permission to retrieve her body. Mogelson describes the procedure:

The sprayers went first—a pair of minesweepers clearing a path. Then the others entered with the bag and the stretcher. They emerged several minutes later and loaded the corpse into the back of the truck. As the truck made its way across the square, women and children spilled out of their houses, sat down in the dirt, and keened. I followed on foot, along with a few locals, all of whom turned back when the truck stopped at a wall of trees. The team filed down a narrow trail, carrying the stretcher through dark jungle. After about a hundred yards, unmarked mounds of rich orange soil rose here and there from the grass. Beside a shallow, rectangular hole, an elderly man in flip-flops, cargo shorts, and a white skullcap leaned on the handle of an old spade. He had dug all the graves. No one else from the village, he told me, was willing to tread in that place.

The team lowered the imam’s wife into the grave. On top of her, they dropped a heap of freshly hacked branches and leaves. Then they stripped off their suits, gloves, and masks and deposited them in the grave as well.

Mogelson’s writing style is factual, unostentatious – well suited to the hard reality he describes. But it has its artful aspects. At one point, describing a trip in Tonkolili District, Sierra Leone, he says, “To get there, we followed barely discernible tire tracks, for miles, through grass so tall and close you feel as if you were in a car wash.”

“When the Fever Breaks” can be read as a companion to Richard Preston’s brilliant "The Ebola Wars" (The New Yorker, October 27, 2014), which describes the work of scientists at the Broad Institute to sequence Ebola’s genome and track its mutations. But the two pieces differ from each other. “The Ebola Wars” is written in the third person; “When the Fever Breaks” is a first-person narrative. It abounds with sentences like “One day in early November, I followed several young men down a warren of sand alleyways, veined by rivulets of sullage, that wound through West Point, the slum to which Fahnbulleh and her husband had been taken,” and “When I visited the quarantine center, in Monrovia, a group of children sat in plastic chairs inside the gate, near a metal seesaw.” I relish such sentences: the observer becomes a participant; reporting becomes experience.

Postscript: I delight in thisness, i.e., “any detail that draws abstraction toward itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability, any detail that centers our attention with its concretion” (James Wood, How Fiction Works, 2008). Thisness is palpability, specificity, concreteness. New Yorker writing brims with it. For example, in this week’s issue, it’s there in the description of the Goldschmied & Chiari mirrors on show at Lorello Gallery: “Composite photographs of billowing smoke transferred to reflective glass, have been tinted petal pink or storm-cloud gray” (“Goings On About Town: Art”). It’s there in Amelia Lester’s representation of the Via Carota’s pumpkin-and-sage ravioli: “fluffy, beautiful, and fleeting, an exercise in virtuosity equivalent to a concert pianist running up and down a scale very fast” ("Tables For Two"). It’s there in Jiayang Fan’s description of Nitecap’s Key Lime Fizz “with a lit candle suspended in its froth” ("Bar Tab"). It’s brilliantly there in Sarah Larson’s capture of Bill Murray’s line to the waitress at Tao when she brought him two rum-and-waters: “He took one and said of the other, ‘You give that to the kids at the orphanage’ ” ("Cinephiles"). Sometimes thisness can be in the form of a piquant fact, e.g., “KidZania has its own currency, kidzos, which can be used in branches around the world, or deposited in the central bank and accessed with a realistic-looking credit card” (Rebecca Mead, "When I Grow Up"); “Recently, researchers at the University of Southern California built a prototype 'virtual human' named Ellie, a digital therapist that integrates an algorithm similar to Affdex with others that track gestures and vocal tonalities” (Raffi Khatchadourian, "We Know How You Feel"). It’s hard to say how useful all this is. But in terms of writing as pure writing, I devour it. My favorite example of thisness, in this week’s issue, is Sasha Frere-Jones’s description of the Sleater-Kinney band’s guitar tones: “fuzzed, doubled into octaves, thin, then soaked, overloading” ("Sister Saviors"). “Sleater-Kinney” is itself an inspired bit of thisness. It comes, Frere-Jones says, from the name on a highway exit ramp in Olympia, Washington.

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