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.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Mid-Year Top Ten (2016): Critical Pieces

Illustration by John Gall
The top ten critical pieces are:

1. Anthony Lane, "In the Picture," June 6 & 13, 2016 (“Since her quest for conflict was a natural reflex, bred in the bone, even her most outlandish pictures come to seem like self-portraits: windows transmuted into mirrors.”)

2. James Wood, "Making the Cut," June 6 & 13, 2016 [“It looks like tidied-up Joyce (a version of stream of consciousness), but it is really broken-up Flaubert: heavily visual, it fetishizes detail and the rendering of detail.”]

3. Peter Schjeldahl, "Insurance Man," May 2, 2016 (“He came slowly to a mastery of language, form, and style that revealed a mind like a solar system, with abstract ideas orbiting a radiant lyricism.”)

4. Dan Chiasson, "The Tenderness Trap," March 21, 2016 (“It’s a paranoid vision, often an unsettling one, but a huge variety of phenomena enter the poems. From H1N1 to supermarket carnations and the petrified rictus of a lobster (“like a terrible crack / in a wall something worse is coming through”), these poems are interested in everything, possessing a capaciousness that, paradoxically, requires tight control.”)

5. Clive James, "Thrones of Blood," April 18, 2016 (“If I sound dismissive, it’s just because I’m still looking for all the reasons it would have been right not to watch the show, before I get to the more difficult task of specifying the reasons that not watching would have been a loss.”)

6. James Wood, "Stranger in Our Midst," April 25, 2016 (“O’Brien tumbles into her characters’ voices; the prose has a life-filled, unstopping locomotion: ‘her little Mini, her chariot of freedom.’ ”)

7. Peter Schjeldahl, "Laughter and Anger," March 21, 2016 (“Beautifying asphalt would seem to be no cinch, but the naked quiddity of the stuff, after a third or fourth look, turns cherishable.”)

8. Alex Ross, "Stars and Snow," February 22, 2016 (“At the end, the music seems on the verge of resolving to G major, but an apparent transitional chord proves to be the last, its notes dropping out one by one. Underneath is the noise of paper being scraped on a bass drum—“like walking in the snow,” the composer says. At Carnegie, there was a profound silence, and then the ovation began.”)

9. Peter Schjeldahl, "Seriously Funny," May 16, 2016 (“Jumbled heads share a bottle, which a single hand lifts and pours out, under a table that is topped with a stuffed olive, a cigarette emitting an arabesque of smoke, and a huge salami, its sliced end textured with psychedelic dots of color.”)

10. James Wood, "Floating Island," March 21, 2016 (“This is formulaic writing, sprinkled with male sweat: ‘He had never wanted a woman more.’ ”)

Honorable Mentions: Alex Ross, “Piano Theatre” (January 11, 2016); Adam Gopnik, “Little Henry, Happy at Last” (January 18, 2016); Nathan Heller, “Air Head” (February 1, 2016); James Wood, “Unsuitable Boys” (February 8 & 15, 2016); Dan Chiasson, “Luxe et Veritas” (February 8 & 15, 2016); Anthony Lane, “Beauty and Beasts” (March 14, 2016); Jill Lepore, “After the Fact” (March 21, 2016); Alexandra Schwartz, “Blast Radius” (April 4, 2016); Dan Chiasson, “Mind the Gap” (April 18, 2016); Alex Ross, “Embrace Everything” (April 25, 2016); Anthony Lane, “On the Rocks” (May 9, 2016); Laura Miller, “Descendants” (May 30, 2016); Alex Ross, “Cello Nation” (June 6 & 13, 2016); Peter Schjeldahl, “The Future Looked Bright” (June 6 & 13, 2016); Dan Chiasson, “Boundary Conditions” (June 20, 2016); Peter Schjeldahl, “This Is America” (June 20, 2016).

Tomorrow, I’ll post my favorite “Talk of the Town” and “Goings On About Town” pieces.

Credit: The above illustration, by John Gall, is from Peter Schjeldahl’s “Insurance Man” (The New Yorker, May 2, 2016).

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