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.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

October 10, 2016, Issue

James Wood’s superb “Male Gaze,” in this week’s issue, seems to praise David Szalay’s All That Man Is for the very practice that he (Wood), in his classic “Coetzee’s Disgrace,” criticized J. M. Coetzee for – use of shorthand description (“Thus at the simplest level, no one is ever adequately described as simply ‘tall and wiry … a thin goatee and an ear-ring … black leather jacket.’ This is only the beginning of description”). In “Male Gaze,” he says of Szalay’s novel,

Characters are lightly, but also terminally, blocked in, as they are in movie scripts: “He is short, blonde, with a moustache—Asterix, basically.” As the Russian oligarch moves through the London streets in his luxury Maybach, we get: “Sloane Street, its familiar shops—Hermès, Ermenegildo Zegna. Cheyne Walk.” In the same story, when Lars, Aleksandr’s lawyer, takes off his sunglasses, he is peremptorily dispatched. We’d been given a brisk inventory of his apparel; now we’re informed, “The understated tan sharpens the blue of his eyes. He is in his mid-forties: he looks younger.” And that’s it for Lars. We get no more physical description—just dialogue. Lars is up and running.

Wood calls Szalay’s use of reduced language “startup mimesis” (“Szalay practices a kind of startup mimesis: in canny, broad strokes, full of intelligently managed detail, each story funds its new fictional enterprise, as if he were calling out, each time, ‘Where do you want to go? Poland? Copenhagen? Málaga? Berlin? I can do them all. Let’s go’”).

I’d like to hear more from Wood on why Szalay’s broad strokes are “canny,” whereas Coetzee’s are “sheerest conventionality.”

Similarly, there appears to be an inconsistency between Wood’s criticism of Emma Cline’s use of sentence fragments (see his “Making the Cut,” in which he says such usage “fetishizes detail and the rendering of detail”) and his seeming admiration for Szalay’s use of them (“The men in these stories, as if writing lyrics in their heads, express themselves in passionate stutters”).

Where Wood’s piece shines is in its comparison of Szalay’s book with Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. At one point, Wood brilliantly observes,

Reality is very sticky in both writers: brand names, objects, humdrum details of all kinds adhere to the text.

Later in his piece, he writes,

When Knausgaard talks about a VW Beetle, he seems obsessed by its tormenting VW-ness; for Szalay, a VW Passat is just a VW Passat, the detail doing its functional, reflexive duty.

That “tormenting VW-ness” is inspired! Wood’s “Male Gaze” is the second review of All That Man Is I’ve read. The first – also excellent – was Michael Hofmann’s “Muted Ragu Tones” (London Review of Books, April 21, 2016). Hofmann says of Szalay’s writing,

There is a cheerful and ghastly sordidness to everything, and Szalay’s prose with its ruthlessly banal dialogue, arm-twisting present tense, shard-like fragments, and every other page or so an irresistibly brilliant epithet or startlingly quotable phrase, lets nothing go to waste. Even if it’s something as simple as a man putting up an umbrella, to go out into the rain and try to talk down his unhappy mistress, it’s unforgettable: “It bangs into place above him, and immediately fills with sound.”

A writer who excites two of the world’s best literary critics is worth checking out. I don’t read much fiction. But I’m looking forward to reading David Szalay’s All That Man Is.

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