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.

Monday, February 15, 2016

February 8 & 15, 2016 Issue

James Wood, in his "Unsuitable Boys," in this week’s issue, says we live in “an age of the sentence fetish.” Well, as the bartender in Ian Frazier’s "Out of the Bronx" says, “Nuttin’ wrong with that!” I relish sentence rhythm, texture, and structure. If that makes me a fetishist, so be it. It makes Wood one, too – he’s the Casanova of sentence fetishists. “First, there is a simple joy to be had from reading the sentences,” he says in “Saul Bellow’s Comic Style.” In "Red Planet," he says,  “His [Cormac McCarthy’s] sentences are commaless convoys.” In "Late and Soon," he says, His [Per Petterson’s] sentences yearn to fly away into poetry.” In "No Time For Lies," he says, “Her [Elizabeth Harrower’s] sentences, which have an unsettling candor, launch a curling assault on the reader, often twisting in unexpected ways.” I could list dozens of examples of Wood’s intense preoccupation with sentences. I savor them all.

“Diary of a New Yorker Sentence Fetishist” would make a good tagline for this blog. As proof, here are seven sentences from the current issue that I enjoyed immensely:

1. The El Chapo doesn’t feel particularly louche, except that it’s basically a goblet of tequila, with a hint of pisco and citrus (“Very spirit forward,” the server offered optimistically); the Flying Purple Pisco, with purple-potato purée and frothed egg whites, is like a tiny lavender-hued soufflé. [Shauna Lyon, "Tables For Two: Llama Inn"]

2. At the bottom of the stairs, in a barrel-vaulted watering hole, long lines of people waited for the bathroom from whence burst ebullient gaggles of young women and a madly coughing guy in a Thrasher hat. [Nicolas Niarchos, ”Bar Tab: Berlin"]

3. The proprietor of the café—belly, suspenders, glasses on a cord—sidled up to the table. [Lauren Collins, "Dog's Dinner"]

4. Somehow—Jay’s biography, though it comes as close as any source to explaining the how of how, still leaves a reader at the intersection of belief and disbelief—he did magic (specialty: cups-and-balls), played several instruments (dulcimer, trumpet, flute), trick-shot with pistols, demonstrated exquisite ball control at skittles, danced the hornpipe on his leather-encased stumps, married four times, and sired fourteen children (proof, as Jay noted in “Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women,” of “one fully operative appendage”). [Mark Singer, "Sleight of No Hands"]

5. On the advice of sleep doctors, fatigue-management specialists, and know-it-alls on wellness blogs, these tossers and turners drink cherry juice, eat Atlantic perch, set the bedroom thermostat between sixty-seven and seventy degrees, put magnets under the pillow, curl their toes, uncurl their toes, and kick their partners out of bed, usually to little avail. [Patricia Marx, "In Search of Forty Winks"]

6. Sentences expand, even at the cost of some strain, in order to absorb as much of Berlin as possible: “I had no trouble seeing the justice of Manfred’s criticisms when we discussed Rosen-Montag over cigarettes by the Hansa warehouse slated to become a children’s clinic.” [James Wood, "Unsuitable Boys"]

7. Seidel’s elegy has some of the plastered sweetness of a woozy toast. [Dan Chiasson, "Luxe et Veritas"]

What makes these sentences special is that even though they were created to be part of a larger unit of composition, they are beautiful in their own right as stand-alone constructions – the brilliant verbal equivalents of Rauschenberg combines, Cornell boxes, and Calder mobiles.

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