Introduction

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.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Interesting Emendations: Geoff Dyer's "White Sands"


I’m enjoying Geoff Dyer’s new collection White Sands immensely. Two pieces in it that I’ve just finished reading and want to comment on are “Space in Time” and “Forbidden City.”

“Space in Time” originally appeared in The New Yorker as the “New Mexico” part of “Poles Apart” (April 18, 2011). It’s an account of a trip that Dyer made to the site of Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field, near Quemado, New Mexico. I was bowled over by this piece when I read it in The New Yorker (see my post here).

Comparing “Space in Time” with “Poles Apart,” I find almost every sentence is different. For example, in “Poles Apart,” the description of The Lightening Field’s poles contains this line:

They were two inches in diameter and cold to the touch.

In “Space in Time,” this is changed to:

They were absolutely vertical, two inches in diameter and cold to the touch, inanimate and inorganic.

In “Poles Apart,” Dyer writes,

The poles surrounded us, but because they were a long way apart we did not feel hemmed in, as if by a forest.

In “Space in Time,” he writes,

We continued walking until there were poles on all sides, surrounding us, but because they were a long way apart – so far apart one could easily forget they were there – it was the opposite of feeling hemmed in, as if by a forest.

In “Poles Apart,” he writes,

We moved off in various directions.

In “Space in Time,” he writes,

We moved away from each other, in different directions.

In “Poles Apart,” Steve says, “We’re a small number of people in a very large space.” In “Space in Time,” it’s Ethan who says it. In “Poles Apart,” the other members of the expedition are sitting on the cabin’s porch “getting drunk on champagne.” In “Space in Time,” they’re sitting on the porch “drinking champagne.”

My favorite passage in “Poles Apart” is this beauty:

Later, we went outside again, into the huge night. The poles were gone, but we knew they were there. The sky was nothing but a dome of stars. We were no strangers to the firmament, but none of us had seen anything like this. The stars poured down all around, down to our ankles, even though they were millions of light-years away. The constellations were complicated by passenger jets, blinking planes, flashing satellites. It was like rush hour in the era of interplanetary travel. The sky was frantic and the night was as cold as old starlight. [My emphasis]

Here’s the “Space in Time” version:

Later, we went outside again, into the huge night. The poles were gone, but we knew they were there. The sky was nothing but a dome of stars. We’d all been in star-studded places before, were no strangers to the firmament, but none of us had seen anything like this. Viewed from most places on earth, stars tend to be overhead. Here they poured down all around to our ankles, even though they were millions of light-years away. I am not entirely clear about astronomy, but it seemed possible that the Milky Way was obscured by the abundance of stars. The constellations were complicated by passenger jets, blinking planes, flashing satellites: rush hour in the era of interplanetary travel. The sky was frantic, the night was as cold as old starlight. [Emphasis added]

Note, in the “Space in Time” passage, the additional “We’d all been in star-studded places before,” “Viewed from most places on earth, stars tend to be overhead,” and “I am not entirely clear about astronomy, but it seemed possible that the Milky Way was obscured by the abundance of stars.”

Note, too, the changing of the sublime “The stars poured down all around, down to our ankles” (“Poles Apart”) to “Here they poured down all around to our ankles” (“Space in Time”).

Another notable change is the merger of “The constellations were complicated by passenger jets, blinking planes, flashing satellites. It was like rush hour in the era of interplanetary travel” (“Poles Apart”) into “The constellations were complicated by passenger jets, blinking planes, flashing satellites: rush hour in the era of interplanetary travel” (“Space in Time”).

Perhaps the most interesting emendation in the above passage is the changing of the brilliant “The sky was frantic and the night was as cold as old starlight” (“Poles Apart”) to the even more brilliant “The sky was frantic, the night as cold as old starlight” (“Space in Time”).

I find these variations fascinating. They’re glimpses into Dyer’s compositional process. The variety of changes make you realize the infinite array of options available to the writer as he proceeds word by word to compose his piece.

“Space in Time” strikes me as more immediate and provisional – like notes made at the time. It shows Dyer thinking his way toward the meaning of his Lightening Field experience. It reminds me of T. J. Clark’s diarized art criticism in The Sight of Death. I relish this form of writing. “Poles Apart” is more concise, more finished, more New Yorkerish. Of course, this is with the benefit of hindsight. When I read the New Yorker piece, I wasn’t aware that it was a “version.” It was just “Poles Apart,” an extraordinary piece, and I couldn’t imagine it written any other way.

The same goes for “Forbidden City.” What a transfixing piece! It’s fiction; it originally appeared in Harper’s as a “story” (see here). But it feels very close to reality. Written in the first person, it’s about an exhausted writer (I imagine it’s Dyer) on his last day in Beijing, visiting the Forbidden City, whose spirits are suddenly revived by his encounter with his tour guide, a woman named Li. It’s one of the most arresting (and humorous) descriptions of romantic infatuation I’ve ever read. I read the White Sands version first. Afterwards, comparing it with the Harper’s version, I found that the original is written in the third person. The writer’s name is James. I prefer the White Sand’s first-person version; it’s much more real. It’s like an excerpt from Dyer’s personal journal. And it contains, near the end, a crucial line not in the Harper’s version. Here’s the way the Harper’s version concludes:

Then, everyone agreed, it was time to go. James checked his watch. Two in the morning. His flight was eight hours from now. They paid — the Chinese paid; James’s money was stuffed back into his hand — stood up, and left the roof. The dismal elevator returned them to the still-busy street with its crude lights and lusts. There was much milling around, waiting for taxis. Some people in their group were heading in one direction, others in another. Li was by his side. With a little contrivance he could whisper to her, “Can I come home with you?” or, “Will you come back to my hotel?” It was premature to propose such a thing and, at the same time, almost too late. And even if she said yes, how to navigate the complications of taxi-taking, how to avoid the assumed arrangement of sharing a taxi with Min, Jun, and Wei? There was, in addition, the gulf between the polite reasonableness of the question — “Can I come home with you?’ — and everything the answer to it might allow. Why was it — what law of the barely possible decreed — that these situations only cropped up on the last night? Instead of falling asleep and waking up together, instead of eating breakfast and spending the day getting to know each other, he would get on a plane a few hours later and leave with an even greater sense of regret because, instead of having missed out on all of this totally, he would have experienced just enough to make him realize how much more he had missed out on by not missing out on it entirely. Li was still by his side. Two taxis pulled up, one behind the other. Hours and minutes had ticked by. Doors were opening, goodbyes being said. There were not even minutes left, only seconds before she would turn toward him so that he could kiss her goodbye, and then turn away. Or turn toward him and not say goodbye, not turn away.

This is an incredibly, achingly beautiful romantic ending. The White Sand’s version of it is subtly different:

Then, everyone agreed, it was time to go. It was two in the morning. My flight was eight hours from now. The bill was paid — by the Chinese; my money was stuffed back into my hand, as it had been every time I’d tried to pay for anything. We stood up and left the roof. The dismal elevator returned them to the still-busy street with its crude lights and lusts. There was much milling around, waiting for taxis, as everyone in the now-expanded group worked out who was going in which direction. Li was by his side. With a little contrivance I could whisper to her, “Can I come home with you?” or, “Will you come back to my hotel?” It was premature to propose such a thing and, at the same time, almost too late. And even if she said yes, how to navigate the complications of taxi taking, how to avoid the assumed arrangement of sharing a taxi with Min, Jun, and Wei? There was, in addition, the gulf between the polite reasonableness of the question — “Can I come home with you?’ — and everything the answer to it might allow, all that could become unforbidden. Why was it — what law of the barely possible decreed — that these situations only cropped up on one’s last night, so that instead of falling asleep and waking up with her, instead of eating breakfast and spending the day getting to know each her, I would get on a plane a few hours later and leave with an even greater sense of regret because, instead of having missed out on all of this totally, we would have experienced just enough to make us realize how much more we had missed out on by not missing out on it entirely? Li was still by my side. I turned towards her, spoke in her ear. Two taxis pulled up, one behind the other. Hours and minutes had ticked by. Doors were opening, goodbyes being said. There were not even minutes left, only seconds before she would turn towards me so that I could kiss her goodbye – or turn towards me and not say goodbye, not turn away. [My emphasis]

My god, I find that an intense, gorgeous, moving piece of writing – one of the most memorable I’ve ever read. The additional line in the White Sands version – “I turned towards her, spoke in her ear” – is significant. Gatsby would do this. Bogart would do it. Sinatra would do it. It’s a tremendous romantic gesture. What does he say to her? It’s not indicated. But I imagine he suggests they not part, not yet. In the Harper’s version, he doesn’t say anything, thereby diminishing the romantic potential. In the White Sand’s version, there’s a greater chance of his falling asleep and waking up with her.

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