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.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

December 12, 2016, Issue

James Wood, in his “Reality Effects” (The New Yorker, December 19 & 20, 2011), writes, “The contemporary essay has for some time now been gaining energy as an escape from, or rival to, the perceived conservatism of much mainstream fiction.” Yet Wood, an excellent essayist himself (see, for example, his terrific “The Fun Stuff,” The New Yorker, November 29, 2010), seldom writes criticism about essays. “Scrutiny,” in this week’s issue, is one of his rare essay collection reviews. The only other one that comes to mind is the aforesaid “Reality Effects,” a consideration of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead.

“Scrutiny” is a review of Helen Garner’s essay/journalism miscellany Everywhere I Look. Wood says that Garner is “superbly alive to the narrative dynamics” of her subject, whether it’s murder, sexual assault, or a memoir of her mother. He says of Garner’s The House of Grief, a nonfiction account of two murder trials of a man charged with killing his three small children,

Again, as in The First Stone, what consumes her are the difficult questions that seem to lie beyond the reach of formal narration: the deepest assumptions of class and gender and power; the problem of how well we ever understand someone else’s motives.

Garner’s narrative art, as described by Wood, reminds me of Janet Malcolm’s work, e.g., her great “Iphigenia in Forest Hills,” The New Yorker, May 3, 2010. Jacqueline Rose’s masterly “Bantu in the Bathroom” (London Review of Books, November 19, 2015) may also be comparable.

As usual with any James Wood review, “Scrutiny” contains several inspired descriptions of style (e.g., “brought alive by her mortal details,” “in the tense torque of its self-argument”; “walks us along an engrossing and plausible narrative fuse”). But what thrills me is that these are descriptions of factual style, even though Wood, a champion of “the fictionality of fiction” (“Reality Effects”), can’t quite bring himself to use the word “factual.” Here is the best literary critic in the world treating an artful work of fact as seriously as he does an artful work of fiction. I love it! I hope he does more of it.

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