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, August 12, 2016

August 8 & 15, 2016 Issue

Jill Lepore’s “The War and the Roses,” in this week’s issue, is extraordinary, as extraordinary as Norman Mailer’s “Miami and the Siege of Chicago,” which is the only literary precedent I can think of that resembles it. Like Mailer, Lepore sees the Republican and Democratic National Conventions with her own eyes and her own words, see it by the warp or stance of my character,” as Mailer expressed it in the Preface of his great 1976 collection of convention pieces, Some Honorable Men. What makes their convention reporting extraordinary is the writing – great gusts of description and perception – this one, for example, “The War and the Roses” ’s superb opening paragraph:

They perched on bar stools, their bodies long and lean, like eels, the women in sleeveless dresses the color of flowers or fruit (marigold, tangerine), the men in fitted suits the color of embers (charcoal, ash). Makeshift television studios lined the floor and the balcony of the convention hall: CNN, Fox, CBS, Univision, PBS. MSNBC built a pop-up studio on East Fourth Street, a square stage raised above the street, like an outdoor boxing ring. “Who won today? Who will win tomorrow?” the networks asked. The guests slumped against the ropes and sagged in their seats, or straightened their backs and slammed their fists. The hosts narrowed their eyes, the osprey to the fish: “Is America over?”

I read that and was immediately hooked, swept into the speeding prismatic current of Lepore’s heightened consciousness. But the passage that blew me away comes seventeen paragraphs later when Lepore reports the last day of the G.O.P. convention. She says, “The rule inside the Convention was: Incite fear and division in order to call for safety and union,” and then she does something totally wild and unexpected; she breaks away from the Convention, steps outside and unfurls this 258-word tour de force of description and observation:

I decided that the rule outside the Convention was: No kidding, it’s really awfully nice out here, in a beautiful city park, on a sunny day in July, where a bunch of people are arguing about politics and nothing could possibly be more interesting, and the Elect Jesus people are giving out free water, icy cold, and the police are playing Ping-Pong with the protesters, and you can take a nap in the grass if you want, and you will dream that you are on a farm because the grass smells kind of horsy, and like manure, because of all the mounted police from Texas, wearing those strangely sexy cowboy hats; and, yes, there are police from all over the country here, and if you ask for directions one of them will say to you, “Girl, I’m from Atlanta!” and you have to know that, if they weren’t here, who knows what would happen; there are horrible people shouting murderous things and tussling, that’s what they came here for, and anything can blow up in an instant; and, yes, there are civilians carrying military-style weapons, but, weirdly, they are less scary here than they are online; they look ridiculous, honestly, and this one lefty guy is a particular creep, don’t get cornered; but, also, there’s a little black girl in the fountain rolling around, getting soaked, next to some white guy who’s sitting there, just sitting there, in the water, his legs kicked out in front of him, holding a cardboard sign that reads “Tired of the Violence.”

What this passage shows, among many other amazing things, is the spectacle of a great journalist suddenly taking, with powerful sureness, a daring creative leap. She turns her back on the “grievously vexed” proceedings she’s been describing inside the Quicken Loans Arena and cuts to the Public Square where “the Elect Jesus people are giving out free water, icy cold, and the police are playing Ping-Pong with the protesters, and you can take a nap in the grass if you want, and you will dream that you are on a farm because the grass smells kind of horsy, and like manure. . . .” It’s an inspired Maileresque move, showing an alternative to the “fear and division” inside the Convention hall. Lepore is a brilliant stylist. “The War and the Roses” is her masterpiece.

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