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.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

September 12, 2016, Issue

Hooray! Bilger is back! He’s been absent from The New Yorker for almost two years. I’ve missed him. He’s one of the New Yorker greats, in my opinion – right up there with Liebling, Mitchell, McPhee, and Frazier. Now, here he is, with a terrific “Personal History” piece called “Ghost Stories,” set in Germany, in which he participates in a weird form of group therapy known as Familienaufstellung. His participation isn’t just for reporting purposes; it’s personally motivated. He says, “Like the others in the room, I was there to untangle a knot in my mind. I’d come to Germany to research the life of my grandfather Karl Gönner.” Gönner was born in Weil am Rhein, Germany. He fought in the First World War. During World War II, he was sent to Occupied France to work as a schoolteacher in an Alsatian village. He was also a member of the Nazis Party, and eventually became the village’s Ortsgruppenleiter, or Party chief. Bilger writes,

My mother rarely talked about his years in France, but she was well versed in the atrocities committed by men in his position. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on the Vichy regime. It must have been a torment to her, trying to square what she learned with her memories of her father. How could he have been both the man she knew and the monster history suggested?

Bilger participates in two Familienaufstellungs. His description of the second one produces one of the piece’s most vivid passages:

By the end of the second day, I’d been a brother, a grandfather, Restlessness, and the country of Germany. I’d watched people burst into tears, climb into one another’s laps, and pretend to be God. I’d heard a woman scream that she was bleeding from her vagina and that crows had eaten her baby. At times, the sobs and shouting rose to such a pitch that I worried that the police might come.

Bilger is skeptical about the reliability of Familienaufstellung narratives. He likens the process to “a visit to a psyche under the sober auspices of therapy.” What impresses him is “the careful attention people paid to one another.” He says, “The very act of empathizing so deeply seems to help people understand themselves.”

“Ghost Stories” is different from Bilger’s previous work. It’s more personal. He’s always written in the first person. But here his “I” is very close to his material. I think it’s one of his best pieces.

Three other excellent articles in this week’s issue are: Tom Kizzia’s “The New Harpoon,” Ian Parker’s “Knives Out,” and Dan Chiasson’s “Force of Nature.” In “The New Harpoon,” Kizzia visits the Inupiat community of Point Hope, on the Chukchi Sea in northern Alaska. The piece brims with interesting details (“a whaling skin boat provides the center support for a glass-topped boardroom table”; “a drum made of whale-liver membrane”). Parker’s “Knives Out” profiles The New York Times’ restaurant critic, Pete Wells (“His expressions of enthusiasm often take the form of wariness swept away: Wells found joy in a conga line at Señor Frog’s, in Times Square”). Chiasson’s “Force of Nature” is a review of Alice Oswald’s new poetry collection Falling Awake (“These poems give us the sensation of living alongside the natural world, of being a spectator to the changes that mark our mortality”).

I devoured all these pieces. This week’s New Yorker is one of the year’s best.

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