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.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

July 25, 2016 Issue

Conservation has always been a significant element of New Yorker river writing: see, for example, John McPhee’s classic “The Encircled River,” and David Owen’s recent “Where the River Runs Dry.” But in George Black’s “Purifying the Goddess,” in this week’s issue, “conservation” seems pallid as a description of what’s required to clean up the Ganges. Black reports, “The Ganges absorbs more than a billion gallons of waste each day, three-quarters of it raw sewage and domestic waste and the rest industrial effluent, and is one of the ten most polluted rivers in the world.” This arresting piece contains some of the grossest descriptions of river pollution I’ve ever read. Here, for example, is Black’s depiction of the river at Varanasi:

When I visited, last October, the garbage and the post-monsoon silt lay thick on the ghats, the four-mile stretch of steps and platforms where thousands of pilgrims come each day to take their “holy dip.” The low water at the river’s edge was a clotted soup of dead flowers, plastic bags, feces, and human ashes.

Note that “When I visited last October.” Black’s piece abounds with the kind of authenticating first-person observation and engagement I relish (e.g., “One evening, I climbed a steep flight of steps from the ghats to the tiny Atma Veereshwar Temple, where I met Ravindra Sand, a Saraswat Brahmin priest who is deeply engaged in the religious traditions of Varanasi and the river”).

Black reports that the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has embarked on a Ganges cleanup initiative called Namami Gange. Under this program, the Ganges’ surface will be cleaned with “trash-skimming machines and booms,” and “sewage-treatment plants that are already under construction will be completed.” But the Varanasi sewers and the Kampur tanneries remain an “intractable problem.”

“Purifying the Goddess” ends vividly with Black accompanying Navneet Raman, chairman of the Benares Cultural Foundation, as he walks along the Ganges’ east bank, scattering the purple seeds of a tropical almond known locally as “the sewage tree,” “because it can filter heavy metals and other pollutants out of standing water.”

Black’s piece is an excellent addition to The New Yorker’s long line of great river writing.

Postscript: My favorite sentence in this week’s issue is Jiayang Fan’s sensuous “The delicious budino arrives in a small orange Mason jar with a cloud of cream” (“Tables For Two: Covina”).

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