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.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Bliss of Precision

Rereading John Updike’s wonderful review-essay "Journeyers" (The New Yorker, March 10, 1980; included in his great 1983 collection Hugging the Shore) the other day, I was struck by his observation that there is “a certain bliss of precision in a sentence like ‘Their tents are frog-shaped, constructed of hides and woven mats of goat and camel hair on a stick frame, the large mouth facing east.’ ” I agree. “Bliss of precision” exactly captures the literary quality I most crave. The New Yorker brims with it. Here are ten recent examples:

1. “The octopus cocktail is an agreeably blunt counterpoint, a lilac-colored soup with the consistency of drinkable yogurt, in which purple and blue corn and charred avocado bob alongside tentacled slices on the right side of chewy” (Amelia Lester, "Tables For Two: Cosme," February 9, 2015).

2. But, if you’ve paid any attention to the hype, the entire endeavor might be a very delicious excuse for dessert: a corn-husk meringue with its own hashtag, possessed of an intensely milky taste from the mousse of mascarpone, cream, and corn purée that spills out like lava from its core (Amelia Lester, "Tabels For Two: Cosme," February 9, 2015).

3. “One evening in Chinatown, a young woman in a Nirvana T-shirt took a break from mixing Hawaiian punches—a juggling act involving eight kinds of liquor, pineapple juice, and grenadine—to pull out a giant laser disk, grab a mic, and perform ‘Santeria,’ by Sublime” (Emma Allen, "Bar Tab: Winnie's," February 9, 2015).

4. “Instead, the music of Gallery 621 is largely one of color: the red of Paul’s tunic, in the Ribera, emerges from a dark background like a tone from silence” (Alex Ross, "Eyes and Ears," February 9, 2015).

5. “Inside the shed, I tried on a watch, and its stainless-steel chain bracelet, guided by magnets, fell into place with the click of someone stacking nickels” (Ian Parker, "The Shape of Things to Come," February 23 & March 2, 2015).

6. “The table previously covered with a flat cloth was now uncovered: it was a glass-topped Apple Watch display cabinet, accessible to staff from below, via a descending, motorized flap, like the ramp at the rear of a cargo plane” (Ian Parker, "The Shape of Things to Come," February 23 & March 2, 2015).

7. “The most astounding is ‘Robe with Mythic Bird’ (1700-40), from an unknown tribe of the Eastern Plains: a tanned buffalo hide pigmented with a spiky abstraction, probably of a thunderbird, in red and black, which rivals the most exciting modern art” (Peter Schjeldahl, "Moving Pictures," March 16, 2015).

8. “Beadwork, metal cones, and cotton and silk cloth figure in a headdress from the Eastern Plains, circa 1780, along with local stuffs including bison horns, deer and horse hair, and porcupine quills” (Peter Schjeldahl, "Moving Pictures," March 16, 2015).

9. “There was a Boston mule made from textured velvet in crimson or gold, inspired by a Persian-lamb coat that Haslbeck had discovered in a flea market. An Arizona sandal had a rose-gold leather foot bed and an upper made from pinkish-peach tweed threaded with iridescent silver. It looked as if it had been cut from the sleeve of a Chanel jacket. Another Arizona sandal, in black leather, had been lined in sapphire-blue shearling” (Rebecca Mead, "Sole Cycle," March 23, 2015).

10. “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” (Rivka Galchen, "Weather Underground," April 13, 2015)

Credit: The above artwork is by Andrea Kalfas; it appears in the February 9, 2015 New Yorker as an illustration for Emma Allen’s “Bar Tab: Winnie’s.”

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