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.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

May 23, 2016 Issue

Pick of the Issue this week is Jonathan Franzen’s "The End of the End of the World," an absorbing account of a deluxe three-week trip to Antarctica on board the National Geographic Orion that he and his brother Tom recently undertook. I think most of us would be exhilarated by the prospect of taking such a trip. Not Franzen. He says, “Tom reported being excited, but my own sense of unreality, of failure to pleasurably anticipate, grew only stronger. Maybe it was that Antarctica reminded me of death—the ecological death with which global warming is threatening it, or the deadline for seeing it that my own death represented.” But his attitude soon changes when he sees the gentoo and chinstrap penguins on Barrientos Island:

Downy gray chicks chased after any adult that was plausibly their parent, begging for a regurgitated meal, or banded together for safety from the gull-like skuas that preyed on the orphaned and the failing-to-thrive. Many of the adults had retreated uphill to molt, a process that involves standing still for several weeks, itchy and hungry, while new feathers push out old feathers. The patience of the molters, their silent endurance, was impossible not to admire in human terms. Although the colony was everywhere smeared with nitric-smelling shit, and the doomed orphan chicks were a piteous sight, I was already glad I’d come.

My favorite passage in “The End of the End of the World” is the description of Lemaire Channel:

Sheltered from wind, the water was glassy, and under a solidly gray sky it was absolutely black, pristinely black, like outer space. Amid the monochromes, the endless black and white and gray, was the jarring blue of glacial ice. No matter the shade of it—the bluish tinge of the growlers bobbing in our wake, the intensely deep blue of the arched and chambered floating ice castles, the Styrofoamish powder blue of calving glaciers—I couldn’t make my eyes believe that they were seeing a color from nature. Again and again, I nearly laughed in disbelief. Immanuel Kant had connected the sublime with terror, but as I experienced it in Antarctica, from the safe vantage of a ship with a glass-and-brass elevator and first-rate espresso, it was more like a mixture of beauty and absurdity.

Beauty and absurdity
Franzen’s piece is alive not only with acute perceptions of unreality (“Sitting in the lounge of a ship burning three and a half gallons of fuel per minute, we listened to Adam extoll the benefits of shopping at farmers’ markets and changing our incandescent bulbs to L.E.D. bulbs”) but with consolations of intense natural splendor (“Their plumage had the hypercrispness of pattern, the hypervividness of color, that you can normally experience only by taking drugs”). It’s an amazing trip! I enjoyed it immensely.

Postscript: Two other pieces in this week’s issue that I especially enjoyed are Matthew Trammell’s "Night Life: Wristband Tans" (“Merch booths shill ‘Boycott Beyoncé’ T-shirts, while surprise rap guests and dance routines set to current club staples give the set list a layer of menace; every reference to her maybe-unfaithful husband, Jay Z, tightens chests”) and Jiayang Fan’s "Bar Tab: Fat Buddha" [“At Fat Buddha, an East Village Asian-fusion ultra-dive, the eponymous Buddha (corpulent, imperious, swathed in mini disco balls, and encased in a glass box stuffed with cash) looks like a reincarnated bouncer who opted for an off-book route to enlightenment: namely, booze, hip-hop, and a jovial no-holds-barred policy on happy-hour pork buns”]. And while we’re at it, let’s give a huzzah for Ping Zhu’s five (five!) gorgeous “Goings On About Town” illustrations.

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