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.

Friday, November 18, 2016

November 14, 2016, Issue

Who knew that when Alex Ross wasn't covering the musical landscape, he was nosing around Death Valley, communing with lizards, wildflowers, and sculptural rock formations? His “Desert Bloom,” an account of his Death Valley explorations, in this week’s issue, is a delight. He describes Death Valley as “not so much a desert as a surreally varied mountain region with a desert at its heart.” He says, “I have gone back to Death Valley every so often, and this year I have made a series of visits, trying to better understand its allure.”

“Desert Bloom” brims with the kind of sentence – active, specific, first-person – that I devour. For example:

In early March, when the bloom was at its height, I drove from Los Angeles to Beatty, Nevada, northeast of the park, and checked in at a Motel 6.

I went through Daylight Pass, and the entire expanse of Death Valley sprang into view: the dark mountains, the white floor, the perpetual mirage of an ancient lake.

One weekend in April, I rented a Jeep Wrangler and toured the park with Darrel Cowan, a professor of geology at the University of Washington.

In March, I spent a few hours looking at wildflowers with Dianne Milliard, a ranger who had been dividing her time between Death Valley, in the winter, and McCarthy, Alaska, in the summer.

Last summer, I went to see Pauline Esteves, the elder of the Timbisha Shoshone.

I drove to Mahogany Flat, a campground just above eight thousand feet, where I spent the night in a tent.

I read these sentences and immediately sign on for the adventure, happy to be in Ross’s company. There’s no dramatic arc; the “action” is simply “I go here, I see this,” which I love. The piece abounds in thisness: “The dominant presence was desert gold, a sunflower that blossoms on a long, spindly stem”; “Vast slabs of rock descend into the earth at severe angles, like the Titanic making its fatal dive”; “Farther up the slope are bristlecone pines, with sinewy, almost humanoid trunks.”

I also relished the place names – Daylight Pass, Hells Gate, Badwater Basin, Grapevine Mountains, Furnace Creek, Mahogany Flat, Telescope Peak. There’s poetry in those names!

I love pieces that take me places, pieces like Elif Batuman’s “The Memory Kitchen” (Turkey), Geoff Dyer’s “Poles Apart” (New Mexico, Utah), D. T. Max’s “A Cave with a View” (Matera, Italy), Nick Paumgarten’s “Life Is Rescues” (Iceland), Laura Miller’s “Romancing the Stones” (Stonehenge), Keith Gessen’s “Nowheresville” (Kazakhstan). They’re almost pure travelogue – no agenda other than the deep experience of a particular place. Such a piece is Alex Ross’s wonderful “Desert Bloom.” I enjoyed it immensely.

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