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, April 3, 2016

March 28, 2016 Issue

I’ve followed Andrew O’Hagan’s work in the London Review of Books for many years. He’s one of my favorite writers. I’ve often wondered if, some day, he’d appear in The New Yorker. Now, here he is, in this week’s issue, with a brilliant piece called “Imaginary Spaces,” a profile of the set designer Es Devlin. O’Hagan is a superb describer. In "Imaginary Spaces," he evokes behind-the-scene moments with a specificity that puts us squarely there. For example:

There’s nothing emptier than an empty arena. The spotlight operators were being winched up on pulleys, disappearing into a galaxy of lights. The bar staff were preparing drinks. At every entrance, security was speaking into radios and getting ready for an onslaught. U2’s guitarist, The Edge, was up onstage for a final sound check, chopping out chords and testing pedals. The drummer, Larry Mullen, was beating a snare drum at the other end of the long walkway. He stopped to respond to shouts from a sound guy. Willie Williams, the band’s veteran creative director, was talking to a group of technicians just to the side of the stage.


Before the show, I saw her smiling broadly as she walked into the V.I.P. area. Each band member had a curtained-off space named for the Dublin location where he grew up—St. Margaret’s, Glasnevin, Cedarwood Road, and Rosemount—and the group’s respective guests gathered inside each one, drinking Australian Shiraz and sitting on white leather sofas. Personal assistants holding clipboards circled. Devlin went in and spoke with Bono and a couple of others. “O.K.,” she said. “I’ve done my hellos.”

My favorite passage in “Imaginary Spaces” is O’Hagan’s description of the set that Devlin created for a production of Hamlet starring Benedict Cumberbatch:

She presented a grand house imbued with a political story from ceiling to skirting boards, a large, deteriorating room where the psychologies of the characters who lived there seemed to be inscribed as shadows on the blue-painted walls. I saw the play twice, and had an increasing sense of psychological disturbance. Devlin had found the key not only to the mood of the play but to the horror of its generational conflict. The set married royal sumptuousness to genocidal mania, littering the palace with taxidermy, glum military portraits, abandoned toys, and deep, shadowy spaces. But in the second half the set turned into a giant heap of dirt—a battlefield had entered the house, and Ophelia climbed over bones and earth to her death. The set was a living organism, emitting turmoil and images of chaos: when an old piano was played, its discordancy seemed to echo through the language; when Cumberbatch, as Hamlet, feigned madness, or became mad, the portraits on the walls seemed to glower at him.

That last sentence is inspired! “Imaginary Spaces” is a compelling argument for set design as art. I enjoyed it immensely. 

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