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, September 20, 2015

September 14, 2015 Issue

Notes on this week’s issue:

1. The Michigan noise trio Wolf Eyes may favor “blisteringly loud and astoundingly inaccessible textures” (Benjamin Shapiro, "Into the Woods"), but I certainly don’t. Much more to my liking is the Bill Charlap Trio, which "Goings On About Town: Night Life" calls “the premier mainstream piano trio of its day,” and says, “the suave interplay between the group’s leader and his longtime partners—Kenny Washington, on drums, and Peter Washington (no relation), on bass—is always a pleasure to hear.” I agree. Charlap is a remarkable improviser. Here’s what Whitney Balliett said about him:

His ballad numbers are unique. He may start with the verse of the song, played ad lib, then move into the melody chorus. He does not rhapsodize. Instead, he improvises immediately, rearranging the chords and the melody line, and using a relaxed, almost implied beat. He may pause for a split second at the end of this chorus and launch a nodding, swinging single-note solo chorus, made up of irregularly placed notes – some off the beat and some behind the beat – flowed by connective runs, and note clusters. He closes with a brief, calming recap of the melody. His ballads are meditations on songs, homages to their composers and lyricists. He constantly reins in his up-tempo numbers. He has a formidable technique, but he never shows off, even though he will let loose epic runs, massive staccato chords, racing upper-register tintinnabulations, and, once in a while, some dazzling counterpoint, his hands pitted against each other. His sound shines; each note is rounded. Best of all, in almost every number, regardless of its speed, he leaves us a phrase, a group of irregular notes, an ardent bridge that shakes us. [“The Natural,” The New Yorker, April 19, 1999].

2. I enjoyed Richard Brody’s capsule review of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (“Revealing the catastrophic impact of seemingly minor events on people who are struggling to subsist, De Sica endows slender side business and incidental pictorial details with high suspense and tragic grandeur. With a keen succession of tracking shots amid crowds at a market and a church, he transforms the sheer scale of the city and the vast number of residents in similarly desperate straits into a symphonic lament for the human condition”). But the title Bicycle Thieves is new to me. I’ve always known it as The Bicycle Thief. That’s what Pauline Kael called it (see her 5001 Nights at the Movies).

3. That “a paddle of shiso, whole and flat like a beautiful leaf pressing” in Silvia Killingsworth’s "Tables For Two: Ganso Yaki" is superb.

4. Atul Gawande’s "Postscript: Oliver Sacks" is a wonderful tribute. Gawande says of Sacks, “He wanted to see humanity in its many variants and to do so in his own, almost anachronistic way—face to face, over time, away from our burgeoning apparatus of computers and algorithms. And, through his writing, he showed us what he saw.”

5. Sack’s "Filter Fish" is immensely enjoyable. The detail of the fishmonger delivering the fish alive, “swimming in a pail of water,” is inspired.

6. John McPhee’s "Omission" is another piece in his excellent “The Writing life” series. This one focuses on deletion of material, what McPhee calls “the principle of leaving things out.” How does a writer decide what to omit? McPhee proposes the following criterion: “You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in – if not it stays out.” It sounds straightforward. But it’s not. McPhee illustrates the problem with a story about riding in a limo with Louis Marx, the toy manufacturer:

So this is the situation: Two-thirds of a century later, I am describing that ride to New York City in an article on the writing process that is focussed on the principle of leaving things out. I am with Mr. and Mrs. Monarch of Toys, whose friends a few years ago led various forms of the invasion of Europe. Do I leave that out? Help! Should I omit the lemony look on General Smith’s face the day he showed up late for lunch after his stomach was pumped? I am writing this, not reading it, and I don’t know what to retain and what to reject. The monarchical remark on being greater than the sum of Lionel and Gilbert—do I leave that out? I once saw Mr. Marx toss a broiled steak onto a rug so his bulldog could eat it. How relevant is that? Do I leave that out? Will it offend his survivors? In a recent year, his great-granddaughter was a sophomore in my college writing course. Her name was Barnett, not Marx. I did not know her beforehand, and had not even learned that my old roommate’s grandniece was at Princeton when her application for a place in the course came in. “You gave my grandmother her first kiss,” it began. How relevant is that? Should I cut that out? Mrs. Marx—Idella, stepmother of my roommate—was rumored among us Princeton sophomores of the time to be the sister of Lili St. Cyr. In the twenty-first century, in whose frame of reference is the strip dancer Lili St. Cyr? Better to exclude that? Best to exclude that Idella danced, too? This is about what you leave out, not what you take off. Writing is selection.

That “This is about what you leave out, not what you take off” made me smile. But the passage doesn’t really solve the question of whether that bit about Louis Marx tossing a broiled steak onto a rug so his bulldog could eat it should go in or stay out. Earlier in his piece, McPhee proposes “interest” as his main criterion for determining selection. But in the above passage he appears to use “relevance” as his guide. I prefer “interest.” Some details, such as that insouciant steak-toss to the bulldog on the rug, can be relished for their own sake. Of course, the true artist finds a way of making the interesting relevant. That’s what McPhee does in “Omission.”

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