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, July 2, 2016

Ian Frazier's "Hogs Wild" - Baggy Masterpiece?

I see in The New York Times that Carl Rotella, reviewing Ian Frazier’s Hogs Wild, says that Frazier “tends to leave things a little baggy.” I’m not sure what he means, but it doesn’t sound attractive. As a description of clothes, “baggy” indicates loose and hanging in folds. As a description of eyes, it denotes folds of puffy skin below them. As a description of writing, it means … what? Loosely constructed? Voluminous? Inflated with inessential elements? These aren’t valid descriptions of Frazier’s work. Rotella also says,

Frazier doesn’t insist on a perfect roundedness of form in his essays. Rather than arranging every last element for maximum thematic coherence and effect, he’ll leave in a moment, a scene, seemingly for the hell of it. Do we need to see Jansen trying to find his Volvo in an airport garage by homing in on the sound of his wool-­colored dog barking from inside it? Is it absolutely necessary, in order to understand there are relatively few outward signs of the opioid crisis, to wander around Staten Island and note an ice cream truck playing “I Can’t Stop Loving You”?

Well, speaking for myself, I don’t need to see these things, but I enjoy seeing them. Frazier’s inclusion of incidental experiences, stuff that most writers omit, is one of his maker’s marks. For instance, in his great “Form and Fungus” (in Hogs Wild), about the invention of an all-natural substitute for Styrofoam, there’s a part in which he’s on his way to visit the Ecovative company in Green Island, New York, and he stops at an abandoned railroad bridge that crosses a branch of the Mohawk River. This digression produces one of the piece’s most delightful passages:

All river confluences are glorious. Canoes full of Iroquois Indians travelled past here, and fur traders, and soldiers, and surveyors for the Erie Canal. The canal turned left near this point, followed the Mohawk’s shale valley westward, tapped into the Great Lakes, and made the fortune of New York City. Here, as at all confluences, wildlife congregates. In the early morning, it’s an amphitheatre of birdsong, while Canada geese add their usual commotion. So many crows show up in the evenings that they plague the town of Green Island, and the mayor has to scare them away with a blank pistol.

That last line about the crows and the mayor and the blank pistol makes me smile every time I read it. There’s nothing baggy about it. It’s a wonderful evocation of the river. Frazier makes its inclusion seem the most natural thing in the world.

Here’s another example. In Frazier’s superb “The March of the Strandbeests” (also in Hogs Wild), an account of his visit to Scheveningen, in the Netherlands, to observe beach trials of Theo Jansen’s walking Strandbeests, there’s a day of rain when nothing is happening at the beach, so Frazier hops a train to Amsterdam and visits the Rijksmuseum, where, in a small room, “not part of the Greatest Hits,” he finds an “unassuming show of landscapes on paper.” Frazier writes,

People were passing through it without stopping. I ducked in and took a breath. The show, “Dunes: Holland’s Wilderness,” was about the shore where I’d just been. The introductory label said, “Holland’s landscape is man-made. Only the sands and the dunes along the coast are more or less nature’s creation. They are our natural defense against the sea. . . . The earliest known drawings of Holland’s landscape are views of the dunes near Haarlem recorded by Hendrick Goltzius around 1600. Many landscape specialists followed in his footsteps. . . . Their work shows the wide, endless space, the quiet and the wildness.”

All the drawings were sketchbook size, done in pencil, ink, or black chalk. If the giant Rembrandt in the adjoining room was jet-engine powerful, his little horizontal sketch here, of a shore landscape, was moving for its simplicity and self-effacement. Some of the dune sketches showed the blades of windmills against the sky; the main purpose of Dutch windmills wasn’t so much to mill anything as to pump the incoming sea back out. A Jacob van Ruisdael sketch with a heavy shading of cloud in one corner showed more clearly the same quality of torque that his paintings often have. In a vitrine, a leather-bound sketchbook of Gerard ter Borch the younger lay open to a black-chalk drawing of a tangled patch of brush on a hillside. Such a no-count, lovely piece of ground! The drawing dated from 1634, though it could have been done in the Scheveningen dunes, or maybe West Texas, just last week.

Such a no-count, lovely piece of ground! I love that line. It’s an epiphany. It perfectly expresses a key element of Frazier’s governing aesthetic – his eye for the overlooked and the disregarded. We wouldn’t have the benefit of this sudden insight, except that Frazier decided to take a side-trip to the Rijksmuseum and to write up his experience and include it in his piece on the Strandbeests. Does Frazier’s digression make his piece “baggy”? Not in the eyes of this beholder. It makes it a great essay. Adam Phillips, in his Side Effects (2006), says, “The literary essay as a form – at least from the early nineteenth century onwards – has not only allowed for the artfulness, the interest of digression, but has also positively encouraged it.” I rest may case.

Postscript: There’s one sense, of course, in which Frazier is a baggy writer. He’s obsessed with bags in trees. See his classic “Bags in Trees” trilogy (in his 2005 collection Gone to New York) and his recent "The Bag Bill" (The New Yorker, May 2, 2016). But this clearly isn’t what Rotella is referring to.  

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