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.

Friday, August 26, 2016

August 22, 2016 Issue

The pieces in this week’s issue that I most enjoyed are Ian Frazier’s Talk story, “Body Phrases,” and James Wood’s book review, “Unwelcome Guests.”

Frazier’s “Body Phrases” is an account of “a man’s” experience sitting “in a chair in the café on the first floor of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, at Lincoln Center, for almost seven hours” and listening “to sixteen dancers and former dancers read Blood Memory, the autobiography of Martha Graham, one reader after the other, all the way through from beginning to end.” Sound like torture? Not for this man, whose name, I suspect, is none other than Ian Frazier, writing about himself, in conformity with Talk story tradition, in the third person.

The piece is artfully constructed, covering nearly seven hours of readings and the ninety years of Graham’s amazing life in a mere 797 words. How does Frazier do it? By describing the event in a montage of brilliantly chosen details, e.g., Graham’s childhood “in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania (now Pittsburgh), where her father was a strict Presbyterian and an 'alienist,' or psychiatrist, and coal soot covered everybody”; a person visible in a window across the street organizing papers, holding them in both hands and tapping them downward to make them even”; readers’ pronunciations – “Midwestern, Southern, New Jersey, and British”; the “tactful steps” of dancers leaving the room after they’d finished reading (“A soft step-step-step-step, head down, with torso bent; then longer quiet strides in the open, toward the elevator up ahead”).

Frazier compresses all of Graham’s adult life into this miraculous 104-word, one-sentence history:

Meanwhile, Graham grew up, studied with the Denishawn Dance Troupe, in Los Angeles, moved to New York, unwillingly became a dancer with a musical revue to support her family, refused to wear cheesy costumes, quit the musical revue, began to put together her own company, knocked everybody out with a one-night performance of her work on April 18, 1926, in a theatre she had rented with money borrowed from the owner of the old Gotham Book Mart, appeared all over the country, inspired Fanny Brice to parody her, danced for Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House, danced for eight U.S. Presidents, won worldwide fame.

Frazier is, of course, a genius at creating these capsule reports: see, for example, his wonderful “Russophilia” (The New Yorker, February 16, 2015). “Body Phrases” is among his very best.

Speaking of compression, I note that James Wood, in his “Unwelcome Guests,” an absorbing review of two story collections by Joy Williams – Ninety-nine Stories of God and The Visiting Privilege – describes Williams’s stories as “radically compressed.” He says, “She compresses narrative almost to abstraction.”

At first, I nearly gave up on this review. I’m not a devoted reader of short stories, and I’m allergic to theological writing. But, because it’s by Wood, I stuck with it, and I’m happy I did. The piece moves, in its second section, to a discussion of Williams’s The Visiting Privilege, and in this part Wood shows an essential quality of a great judge – the willingness to set aside his initial resistance to a matter and give it closer consideration. He writes,

A friend of mine likes to complain of certain writers whom she finds difficult that “their words don’t fit in my head.” I sometimes feel that Joy Williams’s words don’t entirely fit in my head. It can be difficult to work out what is at stake; her strange and superb sentences can fail to aggregate, at least for me. Since the problem is clearly with my cranium, I have spent the past few weeks slowly rereading those pages most resistant to my understanding. And it was while rereading “Marabou,” a story that had at first left me wonderingly lukewarm, that I suddenly felt I had a key to understanding not only that work but many of Williams’s best stories.

I relish Wood’s analysis of “Marabou,” his patient effort to give meaning to its “fragile and unexplained” facts. His conclusion that the story turns on the question of hallucination (“But perhaps they are not only rivals in possession but rivals in hallucination, in make-believe”) may or may not be right. I don’t know; I haven’t read the story. But I wouldn’t mind reading it, now that I have the benefit of Wood’s view. Wood’s piece has stirred my interest in Williams’s work, particularly its “radically compressed” aspect. I skipped her “Stuff” when it appeared in the magazine last month. Wood’s review has spurred me to go back and check it out.  

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