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.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Notes on Ian Frazier's "Hogs Wild" - Part III

Ian Frazier is a consummate writer of figurative speech. I’ve pointed this out before (see “Ian Frazier: The Art of Figuration”). Here, from Hogs Wild, are seven examples of his figurative art:

1. Snow had fallen the night before, re-burdening the trees all the way to the crest of the Swans, whose topmost spruces and pines stood minutely whitened against the sky like fine-edged crystals of frost on a windowpane. [“By the Road”]

2. As usual when there are no clouds over the city, the high, white streaks of jet trails stretched like chalk smears across a blackboard. [“Back to the Harbor”]

3. Beneath the chinaberries their little purple blossoms lay on the gray mud like a pattern on an old dress, sometimes with hog tracks squished in between. [“Hogs Wild”]

4. Seen from miles away on the interstate, the crater suggests a giant bullet hole in the surrounding flatness, with rock lifted and folded back around its edges like curled metal around a puncture in a shot-through stop sign. [“On Impact”]

5. Last summer I was driving along the river in western Illinois thinking how horrible the Mississippi had been lately, with its outsized floods and its destruction of New Orleans, and I noted the recent flooding still in progress along the Illinois shore—the miles of roads and fields submerged, and the ferry landing at Golden Eagle, Illinois, now separated from dry land by seventy feet of mud and water, and low-lying parking lots full of river mud cracked like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle curling in the sun. [“Fish Out of Water”]

6. I watched Barack Obama’s speech, closed-captioned above the painfully percussive music, on ceiling TV monitors through a writhing forest of dancers on poles. [“The Rap”]

7. Uncheerful interior, and an air of many people having recently passed through; the floors were like the insides of old suitcases, with forgotten small things in the corners. [“Hidden City”]

Frazier is known for his lists. Hogs Wild contains a dandy:

The B46 passes EZ Pawn Corp., Baby Genius Day Care Center, Miracle Temple Church of God, Cameo Auto Body, Victory Tabernacle of Praise, Tree Stump Barber Shop, Beulah Church of God Seventh Day, Inc., the Lingerie Zone, Sinister Ink Tattoo & Piercing, Brooklyn for Jesus 7th Day Adventist, Rag Top Lounge, Holy Order of Cherubim and Seraphim Movement Church, Grace Church of the Firstborn, Bobby’s Dept. Store, Sneaker King, Saint Jude Religious Items, Tropical Breeze Car Wash, First United Church of Jesus Christ Apostolic, Inc., Yahya Hardware & Discount Store, Plain Truth Temple of Praise, Sunny Corner Restaurant, King Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church, 3-Star Juice Lounge, Eglise de Dieu, Asian Yummy House, Byways and Hedges Youth for Christ Ministry, Pawn Rite, and New Hope Healing Series (Space Available for Worship). [“Bus Ride”]

Frazier is a superb describer. Here, from his brilliant “Blue Bloods,” a report on the decline of one of the earth’s oldest living creatures, the horseshoe crab, is his depiction of throngs of stranded horseshoe crabs on the riprap wall near the Dover Air Force Base fuel dock on Delaware Bay:

The crumbling brittle of horseshoe-crab parts under the car wheels now became so thick it was unnerving, with uncrushed, whole horseshoe crabs all over the road as well. I pulled onto the left-hand berm to investigate. When I climbed up on the riprap wall, I saw throngs of stranded horseshoe crabs lying in the interstices among the rocks. The carnage stretched into the distance and had a major-battlefield air, reminiscent of the Mathew Brady photograph of the dead at the Sunken Road at Sharpsburg. Some of the horseshoe crabs seemed to be moving feebly. The ones on the road had evidently managed to make it past the rocks.

My favorite sentence in Hogs Wild: “All the park benches had blankets of snow pulled up over their knees.” [“Back to the Harbor”]

My favorite detail: the bird-watchers’ birdcall ringtones in the wonderful “Blue Bloods”:  “Some of the bird-watchers were talking on their cell phones and leaving excited messages for other bird-watchers. When the other bird-watchers called back, the ring tones were birdcalls.”

My second favorite detail: the type of fly Frazier used to catch his first steelhead: “Joe tells me where to put the fly – a pattern called the Green Butt Skunk – and I begin to cast” (“The One That Got Away”).

My third favorite detail: the shirt location of Professor David M. Lodge’s pen and mechanical pencil: “He wore a yellow tennis shirt with his ballpoint pen and mechanical pencil stuck neatly in the button part of the neck, an innovation I admired, because I was wearing the same kind of shirt and had compensated for its lack of breast pocket by putting my pens in my pants pockets, always an awkward deal” (“Fish Out of Water”).

In his Introduction to Janet Malcolm’s Forty-One False Starts (2013), Frazier says of Malcolm, “Over and over she has demonstrated that nonfiction – a book of reporting, an article in a magazine, something we see everyday – can rise to the highest level of literature.” In my opinion, the same can be said about Frazier. 

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