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, December 29, 2016

Best of 2016: The Critics

Illustration by John Gall

Here are my favorite New Yorker critical pieces of 2016 (with a choice quote from each in brackets):

1. James Wood, “Scrutiny,” December 12, 2016 [“Her narrative is lit by lightning. Hideous, jagged details leap out at us: the old, child-filled car swerving off the road and plunging into dark water; the trapped children (the youngest was strapped into a car seat); Farquharson’s casual—or shocked—impotence at the crime scene (his first words to Moules, when he arrived, were ‘Where’s your smokes?’); the slack, defeated, anguished defendant, weeping throughout the trial; the wedding video of the happy couple, Gambino gliding ‘like a princess in full fig, head high,’ and Farquharson, mullet-haired, ‘round-shouldered, unsmiling, a little tame bear’; the first guilty verdict, Farquharson’s vanquished defense lawyer standing ‘like a beaten warrior . . . hands clasped in front of his genitals’ ”].

2. Peter Schjeldahl, “Seriously Funny,” May 16, 2016 (“Jumbled heads share a bottle, which a single hand lifts and pours out, under a table that is topped with a stuffed olive, a cigarette emitting an arabesque of smoke, and a huge salami, its sliced end textured with psychedelic dots of color”).

3. Dan Chiasson, “Cross Talk,” November 21, 2016 [“His sound effects are exquisite: the clusters of consonants (hard ‘c’s, then ‘b’s and ‘p’s) and the vowels so open you could fall into them, the magisterial cresting syntax, the brilliant coupling of unlike words (‘iceberg-Golgotha’)”].

4. Anthony Lane, “In the Picture,” June 6 & 13, 2016 (“Since her quest for conflict was a natural reflex, bred in the bone, even her most outlandish pictures come to seem like self-portraits: windows transmuted into mirrors”).

5. James Wood, “Making the Cut,” June 6 & 13, 2016 (“It looks like tidied-up Joyce (a version of stream of consciousness), but it is really broken-up Flaubert: heavily visual, it fetishizes detail and the rendering of detail”).

6. Peter Schjeldahl, “Insurance Man,” May 2, 2016 (“He came slowly to a mastery of language, form, and style that revealed a mind like a solar system, with abstract ideas orbiting a radiant lyricism”).

7. Dan Chiasson, “Mind the Gap,” April 18, 2016 (“The passage is slyly mimetic of the painter’s process, his “succession” of brushstrokes suspended, like the word “succession,” when he reaches “success.” The halting sentence fragments are like synaptic flashes as the image passes from “palette” to “color,” from color transformed (“into” this or “into” that) to the eye and then to the gallery, where, aeons later, dust motes intervene”).

8. Alex Ross, “Stars and Snow,” February 22, 2016 (“At the end, the music seems on the verge of resolving to G major, but an apparent transitional chord proves to be the last, its notes dropping out one by one. Underneath is the noise of paper being scraped on a bass drum—“like walking in the snow,” the composer says. At Carnegie, there was a profound silence, and then the ovation began”).

9. Leo Robson, “Doings and Undoings,” October 17, 2016 (“Green remained in London, responding to air raids, frequenting jazz clubs, falling serially in love, socializing with other firemen—and writing one of his best novels, the charged, ornate, and wrenching Caught, which amounted to a virtual live feed of all that activity”).

10. James Wood, “Floating Island,” March 21, 2016 (“But, humanly speaking, one is always interested in the surplus, the secretive, the unrecovered margin, all those mysterious dimensions of personality which escape or contradict a person’s professional function; and the original writer seeks them out and imagines them onto the page”).

Credit: The above illustration, by John Gall, is from Peter Schjeldahl’s “Insurance Man” (The New Yorker, May 2, 2016).

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