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.

Monday, April 25, 2016

April 18, 2016 Issue

Notes on this week’s issue:

1. I relished this "Goings On About Town" detail plucked from National Museum of the American Indian’s “Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains”: “Plains artists, short on paper, used to draw on discarded ledger books. So does Dwayne Wilcox: in one drawing, a woman, resplendent in a Lakota robe, holds a smartphone that reads ‘r u at da pow wow.’ ”

2. And I enjoyed this line from “Goings On About Town” ’s note on Haris Epaminonda: “Think of her wooden fish regarding itself in the mirror as one of our primordial ancestors, contemplating evolution in our era of selfie-drenched narcissism.” (This is the version; the magazine version erroneously refers to “his rubber” fish.)

3. And I loved this “Goings On About Town” comment on photographer Scott Alario: “Alario reveals marvels in life’s minutiae, whether it’s steam curling up from a forkful of pasta or coolant streaming into a car’s radiator.”

4. Perhaps the most sheerly pleasurable sentence in this week’s issue is found in Wei Tchou’s "Bar Tab: Tomi Jazz": “On a recent Saturday night, as oil lamps flickered throughout a full house, a woman in a light-blue kimono nodded her head to the Standard Procedures, featuring the L.A.-based saxophonist Ray Zepeda, which was closing its set with a lively rendition of Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘A Night in Tunisia.’ ”

5. My takeaway from Elizabeth Kolbert’s absorbing "Unnatural Selection" is the notion of “assisted evolution” – human intervention in natural processes with the aim of improving corals’ and trees’ chances of survival. Kolbert’s description of donning a wetsuit made me smile: “The only suit in my size was an extra-thick one; getting into it made me empathize with any animal that’s ever been eaten alive by a boa.”

6. I was pleased to see Wayne Koestenbaum quoted in Hilton Als’s "Immediate Family." Koestenbaum is one of my favorite writers. I’m looking forward to his new book Notes on Glaze: 18 Photographic Investigations.

7. Ariel Levy’s "Beautiful Monsters," an account of artist Niki de Saint Phalle's wild life, contains this gorgeous surreal line: “Walk downhill along the path that leads away from the Sphinx, and you are confronted by a voluptuous golden skeleton—Death—riding a blue horse over a mirrored green sea, from which disembodied arms stretch up to cling to the world of the living.”

8. I’m allergic to TV, but I read Clive James’s "Thrones of Blood" anyway because … well, because it’s by Clive James, one of the great essayists of our time. “Thrones of Blood” is terrific! Here’s a sample:

From Homer until now, and onward to wherever the creaking fleet of “Battlestar Galactica” may go in the future, there never was, and never will be, a successful entertainment fuelled by pure cynicism. And, when we click on Play All and settle back to watch every season of “The Wire” all over again, we should try to find a moment, in the midst of such complete absorption, to reflect that the imagined world being revealed to us for our delight really is an astounding achievement, even though we will always feel that we need an excuse for doing nothing else except watch it.

I could quote this piece endlessly. Savor this strange beauty: “John Hurt as Caligula in ‘I, Claudius’ ate the baby from his sister’s womb, whereas all Joffrey does is shoot a prostitute with his crossbow.”

9. I’m a fan of Dan Chiasson’s criticism. His "Mind the Gap," a review of Rosemarie Waldrop’s Gap Gardening, in this week’s issue, is excellent. In one of its best passages, Chiasson quotes a section of Waldrop’s “Hölderlin Hybrids” and beautifully analyzes it:

Waldrop’s poems aren’t “visual” in the sense that paintings are visual, but they feel as though they had been applied to paper, not simply written down, and they reward the kind of scrutiny we give to discrete visual surfaces. In a section from “Hölderlin Hybrids”:

Monet writes a friend he’s painting “the instant.” Succession stopped at success. A light his palette gives off. And color subdivided into into. On the retinal surface. Ground so fine. In each ray of light. Move motes of dust.

The passage is slyly mimetic of the painter’s process, his “succession” of brushstrokes suspended, like the word “succession,” when he reaches “success.” The halting sentence fragments are like synaptic flashes as the image passes from “palette” to “color,” from color transformed (“into” this or “into” that) to the eye and then to the gallery, where, aeons later, dust motes intervene.

That last sentence is inspired!

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