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.

Friday, September 18, 2015

September 7, 2015 Issue

If you relish descriptions of urban ruin, as I do, you’ll likely enjoy Nick Paumgarten’s "The Death and Life of Atlantic City," in this week’s issue. It’s about a fight amongst a couple of vulture financiers over possession of an immense, luckless hotel and casino called Revel located in Atlantic City’s desolate east end. Paumgarten is a superb describer:

Abandonment, and the spectre of bankruptcy, intensified the bleakness of the winter in Atlantic City. At one end of the boardwalk, Revel loomed dark. At night, the blare of piped-in pop warped in the wind, and floodlight spilled out over the dunes, which, post-Sandy, were just a layer of sand atop an armature of giant sandbags.

The best parts of Paumgarten’s piece are his journal-like first-person reports on his own personal experiences exploring the city’s complex decay, e.g.,

The night of the luncheon, they had me up for a drink. Past a suite of paintings by Ringo Starr and a library shelved with scrapbooks chronicling Hill and Schultz’s twenty-seven years together, a loggia led to a heated pool, which they once filled with wine corks. Here and there were garish furnishings salvaged from the casinos: headboards from Trump Plaza, smokestacks and banquettes from the Showboat, chandeliers from the Sands.

In the piece’s most striking sentence, Paumgarten conjures a vivid metaphor:

Atlantic City, formerly a breeding ground for big ideas, was now a tar pit—trapping financial mastodons and big-eyed dreamers, whether or not their intentions were pure, as the capricious gods of commerce looked on.

“The Death and Life of Atlantic City” is one of two pieces in this week’s issue that most absorbed me. The other is Dan Chiasson’s excellent "Ecstasy of Influence," a review of Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Major Poetry. Chiasson finds Emerson’s “turbocharged prose” superior to his “rickshaw verse.” He says,

His poems sometimes feel intentionally slight, as though making way for the accelerating future, still at his back but quickly gaining on him. His prose was poetry by other means, calling for its own mirror image, a poetry whose “argument” trumped its forms.

That “his prose was poetry by other means” is inspired! In another brilliant line, Chiasson says, “But his quicksilver prose was poetry, its sentences like signal flares launched one after another into the ether.”  

Almost every line in “Ecstasy of Influence” shimmers with original style and perception. Chiasson raises criticism to the level of art. I enjoy his work immensely.

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