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.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

September 26, 2016, Issue

Rivka Galchen’s “Keeping It Off,” in this week’s issue, contains echoes of her great “Medical Meals” (The New Yorker, November 3, 2014), in which she recollects her first month of surgical training. The unit that she was assigned to did mostly bariatric procedures – weight-reduction surgeries. That’s what “Keeping It Off” is about, too – bariatric procedures. It follows a patient, Henry Roberts, who undergoes a sleeve gastrectomy. Galchen brilliantly describes the operation:

Large monitors were mounted above Roberts’s body, like sports-bar television screens. Inabnet and Taye Bellistri looked up at the monitors, rather than down at the patient, as they maneuvered the handles of tools threaded through the left and right incisions. On the screens, the image was so big and so clear that it was easy to read the tiny brand names—Covidien, Karl Storz—written on the slender surgical instruments. Roberts’s abdominal cavity looked like the inside of a mossy, yellow cave lit up by miners’ headlamps; vasculature appeared like streaks of mineral ore, the liver like a respiring troglobite.

Early in her piece, Galchen mentions two hospital vending machines: “Arriving early for Roberts’s surgery, I waited in a corner of the lobby by two vending machines, one that sold candies and chips and another that sold kosher food, mainly apples and bagels wrapped in cellophane.”

I smiled when I read that. It reminded me of “Medical Meals,” in which vending machines figure centrally:

The cafeteria would be closed, leaving only a corridor of six or seven vending machines. On illuminated display were pretzels, and chocolate bars, and potato chips that were baked, and potato chips that were made from superior root vegetables, and potato chips that were actually corn chips coated with a supernatural orange powder. There were bright-colored drinks full of “essential electrolytes,” which medical professionals knew basically just meant sugar and salt, but still. One machine was different. It hid its wares. Nothing was on display but a closed freezer unit and artistic renderings of ice-cream bars. The drawings recalled ice-cream trucks from a childhood before mine, with almond-like objects matted onto a chocolate-like substance, with a vanilla-like substance inside. The bars were a dollar and twenty-five cents, I believe, payable in quarters. Mike and I would listen to each coin fall. Then came a whirring sound as the freezer chest opened slowly, like a vampire’s coffin. A robot arm descended, suctioned up glycerides on a wooden stick, then released the treasure into the dispensing slot of the machine. “I’m so glad I’m here,” Mike would say. 

That “Then came a whirring sound as the freezer chest opened slowly, like a vampire’s coffin” is marvelously fine. Vending machines are to Galchen as sunflowers were to van Gogh.

Postscript: In addition to Galchen’s above-quoted surgery description, there are at least six other inspired passages in this week’s issue:

LVL UP sound-checks comfortably in the post-D.I.Y. nostalgia that has driven New York bands and their fans back toward the music that they heard at their first all-ages gig, but wistful thinking is the enemy of originality, especially when you’re sharing amps. “Night Life: LVL UP”

Robinson is a Manet of hot babes and a Morandi of McDonald’s French fries and Budweiser beer cans, magnetized by his subjects as he devotes his brush to generic painterly description.  – Peter Schjeldahl, “Reality Principle”

Ceramics are umber-glazed snarls of curled and twisted slabs. “Art: Lynda Benglis”

A first-time patron strolled in, looked around, and summed up the scene, rather approvingly: “Oh, so this is like a fake shithole, basically.” But, hey—it’s one with bathroom doors that consistently lock, if that’s worth anything to you. – Emma Allen, “Bar Tab: The Johnson’s”

When he arrived at Eyebeam, the immediate challenge was to center the logo of American Eagle Savings Bank on the cover of “Theories of Business Behavior,” by Joseph William McGuire (formerly in the collection of the Cloud County Junior College Library, of Concordia, Kansas). – Mark Singer, “Bank Shot”

As Eight Days a Week springs from color to black-and-white, and as frenzied action is intercut with stills, we get a delicious sense of doubleness. – Anthony Lane, “Come Together”

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