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.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

June 22, 2015 Issue

Notes on this week’s issue:

1. Nick Paumgarten’s "Hut!" is one of this year’s best Talk stories. It describes a recent evening excursion in New York Harbor carried out by members of the Polynesian Voyaging Society. Traveling in two Hawaiian-style canoes, “forty-five feet long and made of fibreglass, with outriggers (ama) connected by spars (iako),” they’re looking for possible moorings for the Hokule’a, “a working replica of a traditional Polynesian sailing vessel” that will be visiting New York City next summer. I like “Hut!” ’s brisk, vivid notation: “The boats skimmed out into the current”; “The harbor was a bedlam of gulls and boats”; “Unmenacing flotsam drifted past. Foam baseball bat, soccer ball, scrunchie”; “They flew on the tide, the city sparkling by.” The piece brims with open air immediacy. I enjoyed it immensely.

2. I devoured Calvin Tomkins’s "What Else Can Art Do?." It’s a profile of Los Angeles artist Mark Bradford. I relished its description of Bradford’s process:

He starts with a stretched canvas and builds up its surface with ten or fifteen layers of paper—white paper, colored paper, newsprint, reproductions, photographs, printed texts—fixing each layer with a coat of clear shellac. Sometimes he embeds lengths of string or caulking to form linear elements in the palimpsest. When the buildup reaches a certain density, he attacks it with power sanders and other tools, exposing earlier layers, flashes of color, and unexpected juxtapositions. Not until the first sanding does he begin to see where the painting is going. He works like an archeologist, rediscovering the past. The method seems haphazard, but it’s not, and the results can take your breath away.

And I enjoyed Tomkins’s personal perspective – the way he participates in his report, e.g., “It was nearly eight in the evening, time for dinner. Bradford locked up the studio, and we got into his silver Range Rover—he bought it last year, after sitting in a lot of other cars and deciding that it had the most headroom—and drove for fifteen minutes to a restaurant in another part of South Los Angeles, called Leimert Park”; “Bradford had recently installed a major sculpture at the Los Angeles International Airport, and we went to see it the next morning.” Tomkins has changed his style since his The Bride and the Bachelors days. Back then he wrote mostly in the third person major. I find his subjective, first-person approach, as exemplified in “What Else Can Art Do?” and last year’s superb "Into the Unknown," much more engaging, immediate, and satisfying.

3. I’m pleased to see that James Wood hasn’t lost his edge. I enjoy his appreciative reviews, but I like it when, every now and then, he takes the gloves off. His excellent "Story of My Life," in this week’s issue, is an assessment of Alejandro Zambra’s new story collection My Documents. In it, Wood takes aim at “self-reflexive fictionality.” Regarding Zambra’s story “The Private Life of Trees,” he says,

Julian, the protagonist of “The Private Lives of Trees,” described as “a professor, and a writer on Sundays,” waits up one evening for his wife, Veronica, to return home. To pass the time, and to keep his young stepdaughter distracted, he tells her a story that he has been improvising at bedtime, which he calls “The Private Lives of Trees.” But Julian is also writing a real book, which sounds a lot like Zambra’s own first novel—it’s “about a young man tending a bonsai.” This level of self-reflexivity can sometimes seem about as resonant as the prospect of repeatedly having to smell one’s own breath, and perhaps Zambra is knowingly protecting himself from such criticism when he has one of Julian’s friends complain to him that he’s been reading “too much Paul Auster.”

That “This level of self-reflexivity can sometimes seem about as resonant as the prospect of repeatedly having to smell one’s own breath” made me smile. It put me in mind of other Wood zappers, like the one in his piece on Sheila Heti, where he says of a passage in Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, “If I wanted to hear that, I could settle in at a Starbucks and wait for the schoolkids to get out at three o’clock.” Whoa! Watch out for Wood. He can dance, but he can also sting. It’s what gives his criticism its delicious acerbity.  

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