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.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

October 26, 2015 Issue


Notes on this week’s issue:

1. I’m pleased to see André Carrilho back in the magazine after a lengthy absence. His portrait of Jeb Bush for Ryan Lizza’s "What Would Jeb Do?" is an eye-catcher. Carrilho has produced some of the magazine’s most inspired illustrations. See, for example, his portrait of Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, for Sasha Frere-Jones’s "Show Runners" (June 27, 2011) and his depiction of Paul Auster for James Wood’s "Shallow Graves" (November 30, 2009) 

2. Dina Litovsky’s photo illustration for Silvia Killingsworth’s "Tables For Two: Timna" beautifully captures the wonderful kubaneh-filled clay flowerpot that Killingsworth mentions in her delectable piece.

3. What to make of Meghan O’Rourke’s "Unforced Error"? Of this much I’m sure – it’s great, even better than her superb "My Aunts" (The New Yorker, July 20, 2009), one of my all-time favorite poems. “Unforced Error” is more complex than “My Aunts.” Like “My Aunts,” it celebrates life. But in “Unforced Error,” failure to see death in the midst of that life is considered a mistake. The combination of disparate images and thoughts is ravishing: “I made a mistake. Now I have a will. It says when I die / let me live. A white shirt, bare legs, bones beneath. / Numbers on a board. A life can be a lucky streak, / or a dry spell, or a happenstance. / Yellow raspberries in July sun, bitter plums, curtains in wind.” That final line is very fine – a form of still life/nature morte. “Unforced Error” is death-haunted. My take-away: Don’t take life for granted.

4. I strongly disagree with the view expressed in Masha Gessen’s "The Memory Keeper" that “the border between journalism and literature is inviolable.” One of this blog’s main premises is that no such boundary exists, and that fact pieces such as Ian Frazier’s "Blue Bloods," Burkhard Bilger’s "Towheads," Lauren Collins’s "Angle of Vision," William Finnegan’s "Dignity," Raffi Katchadourian’s "Transfiguration," Dexter Filkins’s "Atonement," to name just a few recent examples, are as artful, arresting, and meaningful as any novel or short story.

5. The most absorbing piece in this week’s issue is Nicholas Schmidle’s "Ten Borders," which reconstructs the harrowing, dogged, courageous journey of a Syrian refugee named Ghaith from his hometown of Jdeidet Artouz (“Across the street, a sedan was spewing flames. Body parts littered the road”) to Bar Elias (“Ghaith met the smuggler at a restaurant, and paid him five hundred dollars for the plane ticket and the fake passport”) to Beirut (“The officers discovered Ghaith’s Syrian passport in his backpack and arrested him”) to a Beirut jail (“One day, Ghaith watched, horrified, as a pregnant prisoner fell to the floor, blood pooling around her”), back to Jdeidet Artouz (“He felt imperilled whenever he left the house”), then to Istanbul (“After several days, Turkish smugglers herded Ghaith and the others onto buses”), then to Mersin (“Ghaith hitched a ride to the center of Mersin in the back of a produce truck, among piles of oregano, mint, and parsley”), then to Alanya (“Eventually, they were dropped off late one night at a gas station near Alanya, a tourist town on the Turkish Riviera, two hundred and twenty miles west of Mersin”), then via boat into the Mediterranean (“Water slopped over the gunwales and a gaseous odor filled the cabin”), then back to the Turkish Riviera (“Police officers arrived and stretched crime-scene tape around a swath of the beach”), then to Mersin (“In mid-June, Bilal learned that yet another smuggler from Mersin, known as Abu Omar, was running rubber dinghies from Izmir, on Turkey’s western coast, to Lesbos, a Greek island fifteen miles away”), then to Izmir (“At eight o’clock, Turkish smugglers hustled them onto a bus; along the way, they collected another group of refugees, many of whom had to squat in the aisles”), then via rubber dinghy to Lesbos (“The refugees cut the motor and the raft floated to shore”), then to Moria (“They were dropped off at a refugee center that resembled a prison: high fences, watchtowers, concertina wire”), then on an overnight ferry to Athens (“He and Bahaa stood on the deck, watching the sun set on the terra-cotta roofs of Mytilene, Lesbos’s capital”), then via train to Evzonoi, then by foot to Gevgelija (“The Macedonian police collected Ghaith and his friends in a paddy wagon and took them back to the Greek border”), then, following the railroad tracks, trekking to a village five-stops north of Gevgelija, where he and dozens of other refugees boarded a train going north; then disembarking at the last stop before the Serbian border; then trekking to Preševo; then via bus to Belgrade (“Ghaith took a shower to wash off the mud caked behind his ears”); then via smuggler’s van to Vienna (“Ghaith, Bahaa, and Bilal crouched on the floor, so that they couldn’t be seen through the windows”); then via train to Salzburg; then via taxi to Munich; then via train to Copenhagen, and then to Malmö, crossing into Sweden on the Øresund Bridge. It’s an amazing journey, with many close calls and memorable experiences along the way. Schmidle is to be commended for the skillful, detailed way he’s reported it.

6. I read Leo Robson’s "Delusions of Candor" with interest. James Wood, in his recent Slate interview, mentions Robson as one of the critics he regularly reads. He says Robson is “extremely good on fiction.” “Delusions of Candor” is the first Robson piece I’ve read. It’s a review of two books on Gore Vidal – Jay Parini’s Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal and Michael Menshaw’s Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal. Robson describes Vidal’s style as “Olympian detachment, patrician hauteur.” This strikes me as exactly right. I’m not a fan of Vidal’s writing. But I did enjoy Robson’s review, especially his argument that Parini “wants to give us the real Gore, but he keeps on falling for the pose.” I like the way he uses passages from Anais Nin’s diary describing Vidal as “lonely,” “hypersensitive,” “insecure,” contrasting her view with the image of the “strapping, self-assured, untouchable Vidal” that Parini presents in his book. Argument, for me, is a key element of a stimulating book review. Robson appears adept at it. I enjoyed his “Delusions of Candor” immensely.

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