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, September 7, 2016

September 5, 2016, Issue

Pick of the Issue this week is unquestionably Janet Malcolm’s “Performance Artist.” Malcolm is one of this blog’s presiding deities. A new piece by her is an event. At age eighty-two, she’s still very much in the game. Her “The Master Writer of the City” was one of last year’s most memorable reviews. And her Forty-One False Starts was one of 2013’s best books. What makes Malcolm great is her combination of sharp-eyed journalism with sharp-edged criticism. And she likes to be provocative. “Performance Artist” contains all three of these elements. It’s a profile of piano virtuoso Yuja Wang. But it’s a profile with a difference. It has a subtle sexual aspect, introduced in the opening sentence:

What is one to think of the clothes the twenty-nine-year-old pianist Yuja Wang wears when she performs—extremely short and tight dresses that ride up as she plays, so that she has to tug at them when she has a free hand, or clinging backless gowns that give an impression of near-nakedness (accompanied in all cases by four-inch-high stiletto heels)?

The piece is peppered with references to Wang’s “stripper-wear,”  “nude dress,” “skintight flame-colored dress,” etc. Malcolm describes Wang playing at Carnegie Hall:

As she performed, the thigh, splayed by the weight of the torso and the action of the toe working the pedal, looked startlingly large, almost fat, though Yuja is a very slender woman. Her back was bare, thin straps crossing it. She looked like a dominatrix or a lion tamer’s assistant. She had come to tame the beast of a piece, this half-naked woman in sadistic high heels. Take that, and that, Beethoven!

“Performance Artist” culminates in a wild photo-shoot in a Steinway piano showroom. Malcolm describes the scene:

Yuja went to the designated piano, and Dukovic—a handsome young man, with a warm and charming manner—began circling around it, snapping pictures with a handheld camera, as she played bits and pieces of repertoire. At first, she played tentatively and quietly, starting a piece and trailing off—and then she worked her way into a horrible and wonderful pastiche of Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart, Gershwin, Horowitz, Tchaikovsky, all mushed together, playing louder and louder and faster and faster, banging with mischievous demonic force, as Dukovic continued his circling and snapping, like the photographer in the famous orgasmic scene in “Blowup.” Yuja ended with a parodic crescendo as Dukovic shouted, “I love you!” and she burst into laughter.

Photo by Pari Dukovic
I enjoyed that passage immensely. It builds and builds, enacting the musical climax it describes. And it’s cool seeing The New Yorker’s Pari Dukovic in action, “circling and snapping, like the photographer in the famous orgasmic scene in Blowup.”

“Performance Artist” is also a self-portrait of sorts. It touches on Malcolm’s preoccupation with apartments. She’s a master interpreter of apartments, using them as an indicator of their occupants’ taste (see, for example, her brilliant “A Girl of the Zeitgeist”). Malcolm’s description of Wang’s apartment contains an interesting detail:

When you walk into the apartment—which is small and dark—the first thing you see is a royal-blue nylon curtain suspended from the ceiling like a shower curtain and drawn around a lumpish object that turns out to be a Steinway grand piano. The curtain is there to muffle the piano’s sound, to accommodate a neighbor for whom the practicing of a world-class pianist is not the thrill it would be for you and me.

I smiled when Malcolm proposed visiting the apartment again – this time with a notebook – and Wang “politely demurred.” It showed Wang drawing a boundary, limiting Malcolm’s scrutiny. She does it again later in the piece when Malcolm asks her what her concert fee is and Wang refuses to tell her.

Malcolm and Wang appear to have more than just a journalist-subject relationship. They appear to be friends. Their discussions at the Sky Lounge are, at times, fairly intimate. This made me uneasy. Would Malcolm betray Wang’s trust and write something embarrassing about her? As we all know, she’s quite capable of it. Her classic The Journalist and the Murderer famously begins,

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.

I’m pleased to report there’s no betrayal in “Performance Artist.” It’s a superb portrait of an alluring, passionate, immensely gifted artist. Bravo, Ms. Wang! Well done, Ms. Malcolm! 

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