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.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

December 7, 2015 Issue

Let us now praise Ian Frazier. His "Bronx Dreams," in this week’s issue, tells about an amazing community organization called DreamYard, “the largest arts organization in the Bronx,” that uses art, theatre, and dance to inspire kids to pursue an education. Frazier reports, “Of the kids who participate long-term in the center’s on-site programs, ninety-eight per cent graduate from high school and go on to college—an achievement, considering that the over-all rate of high-school graduation in the Bronx is just above fifty per cent.” Frazier has a deep social conscience, as anyone who’s read his "Hungry Minds" (The New Yorker, May 26, 2008), "Hidden City" (The New Yorker, October 28, 2013), and 'The Antidote" (The New Yorker, September 8, 2014) well knows. In “Bronx Dreams,” his care and respect for the students, teachers, and founders of DreamYard is palpable. And so are his strong feelings for the Bronx. Consider this passage, one of my favorites:

Walking to DreamYard from the subway one morning, I came upon a small crowd along Third Avenue. A steady rain was falling. Police had stopped four young men in a car, and three patrol cars had pulled over—one alongside the vehicle, one ahead, and one behind. People on the sidewalk were recording the stop on their phones. Five policemen and one policewoman stood next to or behind the stopped car, and the two on the passenger side brought the young men out of the car and made them lean over with their hands on it.

One young man had no coat and was getting wet in the rain. He asked the police if he could retrieve his coat from the car. He reached into the back seat, slowly brought out the coat, put it on with great slowness and caution, and again leaned over against the car. On the faces of the detainees as well as of the cops was an expression of deep, almost sorrowful gravity.

That description of the faces – “deep, almost sorrowful gravity” – is inspired. What I like about the passage is its incidental nature – something he saw along the way. Frazier’s attentiveness to such matters is one of the hallmarks of his style. Here’s another example: Frazier attends the Bronx Arts Festival; he observes the DreamYard teachers; he says,

For the DreamYard teachers in the public schools, the festival was like a reunion. They stood in groups talking and showing each other photos on their phones. In out-of-the-way corners near the refreshment tables, stacks of empty pizza boxes rose to the height of a man.

That brilliant found image of the pizza boxes stacked as high as a man is pure Frazier. Out-of-the-way corners are his specialty.

Another remarkable piece in this week’s issue is Martin Amis’s "Oktober." It’s labeled “fiction,” but it feels more like a personal essay – Amis’s record of his first-hand experience of Berlin this past October as the flood of Syrian refugees approaches the German border. The piece channels Amis’s consciousness as he winds up his book tour, has tea in a hotel foyer, eavesdrops on a phone conversation at a nearby table, takes part in a brief photo shoot on the street outside the hotel, observes the crowd of Oktoberfesters, orders a drink, reads Nabokov’s Letters to Véra, participates in an interview, chats with the man (Geoffrey) whose phone conversation he’d earlier been listening in on, packs his bag for his flight home, goes to bed, participates in another interview the next morning, walks (because there are no taxis due to Oktoberfest) to the train station, arrives at Munich International, has another encounter with Geoffrey the businessman, boards his flight, flies to New York City, has trouble sleeping, reads Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent, and thinks about the refugee crisis. Set out like this, it sounds mundane. But it’s quite the opposite. For one thing, it brims with life-giving details (e.g., “In great numbers, the Oktoberfesters were streaming past, the women in cinched dirndls and wenchy blouses, the men in suède or leather breeches laced just below the knee, tight jackets studded with medals or badges, and jaunty little hats with feathers, rosettes, cockades”). For another, it constitutes a weird, unsettling compound of Oktoberfest and refugee crisis, drunken merriment and impinging reality, postulating, in its final paragraphs (if I’m reading them right) a return of fascism. (“And even now it was as if a tectonic force had taken hold of Europe and, using its fingernails, had lifted it up and tilted it, politically, causing a heavy mudslide in the direction of old illusions, old dreams of purity and cruelty”). I relish “Oktober” ’s essayistic form. Amis appears to have re-created, with extraordinary fidelity, the texture of his anxiety.

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