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, April 19, 2015

April 13, 2015 Issue

Pick of the Issue this week is a toss-up between Rivka Galchen’s "Weather Underground" and Dan Chiasson’s "Out of This World." Last year, Galchen’s short piece "Medical Meals" (The New Yorker, November 3, 2014) impressed me immensely. And her review-essay "What kind of funny is he?" (London Review of Books, December 4, 2014), on Reiner Stach’s massive Kafka biography, is excellent. Now, in “Weather Underground,” she tries her hand at a fact piece – writing’s ultimate test, in my opinion – and succeeds brilliantly. It’s about man-made earthquakes in Oklahoma. It brims with the kind of vivid, participant-observer specificity I relish, e.g.,

Driving outside Oklahoma City one evening last November, I ended up stopped in traffic next to an electronic billboard that displayed, in rotation, an advertisement for one per cent cash back at the Thunderbird Casino, an advertisement for a Cash N Gold pawnshop, a three-day weather forecast, and an announcement of a 3.0 earthquake, in Noble County. Driving by the next evening, I saw that the display was the same, except that the earthquake was a 3.4, near Pawnee.

Galchen has Ian Frazier’s eye for human actuality. Here, for example, is her description of a conference on induced seismicity led by Oklahoma Geological Survey’s Austin Holland:

On the first day of the conference, a few dozen people were gathered in a small room at the Sheraton: mostly scientists, but also oil and gas representatives, insurance representatives, and civil engineers. A bus tour of a local disposal well was cancelled, owing to icy roads. “I’ll give you the dog and pony show that I was going to give on the bus, and then I’ll answer questions and we’ll have a few beers,” Holland said.

That Holland quotation is inspired! Galchen’s piece abounds with piquant details. My favorite is the “milk bottle filled with what looked like gravel” on geology professor Todd Halihan’s desk. “ ‘That’s from the Arbuckle,’ he said, a geological formation under Oklahoma.” My second favorite is the observation that Oklahoma’s constitution “includes a legal definition of kerosene.” I could go on and on quoting from this deliciously written piece. Suffice it to say here that it’s enormously enjoyable.

Dan Chiasson’s "Out of This World," a review of Langdon Hammer’s James Merrill: Life and Art, is also a source of tremendous reading pleasure. Chiasson is a master of descriptive analysis. For example, he says of Merrill,

His work is replete with the transfigured commonplace, bits of the world reclaimed in his daily imaginative raids: an “Atari dragonfly” on the Connecticut River, a joint smoked on a courthouse lawn, a trip to the gym, a Tyvek windbreaker. Hammer, the chair of Yale’s English department, is first and foremost a gifted poetry critic, which means that he knows how to tell a story, without hype, about how poems are made, and he appreciates the irony of an art that made ski trips and wallpaper central to American literature.

How I love that “transfigured commonplace”! The passage gets at the reason I treasure Merrill’s poems – his ingenious incorporation of everyday experience into his wonderful, rippling assemblages, e.g., the carwash in his great "Overdue Pilgrimage to Nova Scotia" (The New Yorker, October 23, 1989) (“Suds glide, slow protozoa, down the pane”). Chiasson is on a roll this year: first his marvelous "Beautiful Lies" (The New Yorker, March 30, 2015), on Jorie Graham’s From the New World: Poems 1976-2014, and now his dazzling “Out of This World.” I devour everything he writes and yearn for more.

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