Introduction

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.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

August 31, 2015 Issue


If you relish “visit” pieces, as I do, you’ll devour Elif Batuman’s "The Big Dig," in this week’s issue. It’s a vivid, absorbing report on the Byzantine shipwrecks and other archeological marvels that came to light during the construction of the first-ever tunnel under the Bosporus. In it, Batuman visits the Yenikapı excavation site (“To one side stood an armada of long objects, wrapped in white plastic, resembling monstrously elongated pianos. They turned out to be escalators awaiting installation. The shipwrecks were likewise hidden from view, in long white plastic tents, where sprinklers kept them damp twenty-four hours a day”), a specially-constructed laboratory (“In several black rectangular pools, up to thirty metres long, dismembered ship pieces glimmered like eels”), the makeshift labs where all the artifacts are processed (“In a shed nearby, a noisy filtration machine was chugging its way through approximately two thousand sacks of Byzantine and Neolithic dirt”), a research center devoted to animal remains (“We entered through a padlocked iron gate, passed the word ‘osteoarcheology’ spelled out in bones, and eventually came to a narrow hallway lined, from floor to ceiling, with three hundred Byzantine horse skulls”), and the offices of Yüksel Construction, where she talks with Esat Tansev, a project director responsible for the Yenikapı-Taksim metro-line extension, the site where the largest number of ships were found. Two years after she saw the ships being excavated, she returns to the University of Istanbul lab to see their preservation (“I looked through the round window of the lab’s freeze-drying machine. In the gloom inside, distributed among six shelves, pieces of Byzantine ship were entering a new phase of existence”). Most memorably, in the final section of her piece, Batuman goes to the now completed Marmaray station and rides the train through the tunnel:

Few find a seat on Marmaray: each carriage accommodates five standing passengers for every seated passenger. Like Neolithic man, I crossed the Bosporus upright, “on foot on the highway.” I went to Asia and back again. I got off at the first European stop: Sirkeci Station, the old terminus of the Orient Express, where the Marmaray platform is connected to the surface of the earth by a twenty-story escalator—the longest in Turkey. Strange questions may pass through your mind as you travel on this escalator. If fifteen houses are built on top of one another, which one is the most important? Whose voices should be heard—those of the living or those of the dead? How can we all fit in this world, and how do we get where we’re going? 

It’s a great, epiphanic ending to a brilliant piece. Bravo, Ms. Batuman!  

Postscript: Other pleasures in this week’s issue include Richard Brody’s capsule review of Alfred Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn (Hitchcock “draws a crucial line between love and lust and, in brilliant scene of mirrors and darkness, evokes the perilous loss of self that sexual passion entails”), Dan Chiasson’s analysis of Linda Gregerson’s poetry (“Gregerson’s syntax acts as a strong forward current, carving a jagged path through the stony resistance of her lines and stanzas”), and Peter Schjeldahl’s description of Whistler’s Mother (“The paint looks soft, almost fuzzy – as if it were exhaled onto the surface”).

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