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 Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins 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, March 15, 2015

Jiayang Fan's "Searching for America with General Tso"

I relish “food quest” stories (the one that immediately comes to mind is Mimi Sheraton’s classic "Spit Cake," The New Yorker, November 23, 2009). And I enjoy autobiographical criticism. Both genres combine in Jiayang Fan’s superb "Searching for America with General Tso" (“Cultural Comment,”, March 12, 2015). It’s a review of Ian Cheney’s The Search for General Tso, which, Fan says, is “a jovial feature-length documentary that probes the origins of this iconic poultry dish.” She calls it “a detective story devoted to the art of un-blurring and disentangling: the ‘t’ from the ‘so,’ the meat from the myth.” On further consideration, she says it is “really a quest narrative in which the chicken is a Trojan horse for America’s history of complicated and choleric relationships with those deemed suspicious or disquietingly ‘exotic.’ ” But Fan's piece is more than a review. The film prompts her to consider an aspect of her cultural identity. She says that the name “General Tso” is “simultaneously so evidently Chinese and not-Chinese that its very pronunciation presents, at least to this neurotic immigrant, a paralyzing problem of cultural fidelity and perfidy.” She asks, “Is it a sense of belonging that I momentarily gain (even if it’s only in my head) when I say ‘Sichuan’ or ‘mapo’ in a way that signals my knack at convincingly feigning a non-Chinese?” In “Searching for America with General Tso,” Fan does more than describe Cheney’s film; she extracts personal meaning from it. The result is absorbing and memorable.

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