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.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

July 11 & 18, 2016 Issue

Last year, Adam Gopnik, in his delightful “The Coffee of Civilization in Iceland” (, April 16, 2015), wrote about a trip he took to Reykjavik to attend a literary retreat. The piece is notable for, among other things, Gopnik’s analysis of Icelandic culture – “one part coffee to one part anything else.” Now, in this week’s issue, there’s a sort of sequel, “Cool Runnings,” in which Gopnik returns to Iceland to cover the Presidential election. Gopnik knows the leading candidate, the historian Guðni Jóhannesson. He attends various events (Jóhannesson’s speech in the Höfðatorg, a women’s soccer match, election night in the ballroom of the Reykjavik Grand Hotel), and visits Jóhannesson at his home – all the while logging impressions, noting details, collecting quotations. Here’s his report on the soccer game:

We arrived at the little stadium. There were about thirty or forty people in the stands. Seagulls wheeled and cawed mournfully overhead. We sat alone with Guðni’s Canadian father-in-law, nothing suggesting that six or seven hours later Guðni might well be elected Iceland’s head of state. I did notice a small girl tugging at her father’s shirt and pointing, and in the second half the two came over for a selfie portrait. It had taken about seventy minutes to break past the politeness barrier. The game was excellent, with the Stjarnan side having an edge, in large part owing to one Donna Key Henry, a Jamaican international who has been playing in Iceland. She was running at slant angles, right through and around the earnest, straightforward Icelandic women, with their blond ponytails and square-to-the-play alignments.

I like the way Gopnik takes time to sketch the play on the field, naming a standout player and describing her technique. Nothing is wasted in Gopnik’s art. He makes the most of every experience.

My favorite passage in “Cool Runnings” is the ending, in which Gopnik reports on election night in the ballroom of the Reykjavik Grand Hotel and describes “a hallucinatory moment”:

I have always wanted to be the first to say to someone “Congratulations, Mr. President.” And so I waited for Guðni to come to the ballroom. He arrived at last, buffeted by cameras, and made a speech, with Eliza, in a blue First Lady’s dress, by his side. He was obviously promising to be the President of all Icelanders, the last step in the choreography of candidacy. A birthday cake appeared, and then—a hallucinatory moment—another Icelandic actress sang “Happy Birthday,” in a perfect impression of Marilyn singing it to J.F.K., sexy sibilant by erotic syllable: “Happy biiirthday, Misstah Prez-uh-dent . . . ” The crowd cheered in pleasure and recognition. We live on one planet, indivisible.

That “sexy sibilant by erotic syllable: ‘Happy biiirthday, Misstah Prez-uh-dent . . . ’ ” is inspired! “Cool Runnings” is stylish, perceptive, and entertaining. I enjoyed it immensely.     

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