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, January 6, 2017

January 2, 2017, Issue

For me, the most arresting piece in this week’s issue is Dexter Filkins’s “Before the Flood,” in which he reports firsthand on what it’s like to be inside the “gallery,” a tunnel that runs through the base of the Mosul Dam, four hundred feet below the top. Filkins writes,

The interior is cool and wet and dark. It feels like a mine shaft, deep under the earth. You can sense the water from the reservoir pressing against the walls.

Filkins puts us squarely there, in a tunnel under a massive dam that could collapse at any moment. He describes tunnel workers pumping cement into the earth in an effort to fill the cavities under the dam’s foundation:

At Jabouri’s command, the engineers began pushing a long, narrow pipe, tipped with a drill bit, into the earth. The void they were hunting for was deep below—perhaps three hundred feet down from where we were standing. After several minutes of drilling, a few feet at a time, the bit pushed into the void, letting loose a geyser that sprayed the gallery walls and doused the crew. The men, wrestling the pipe, connected it to the pump. Jabouri flicked a switch, and, with the high-pitched whine of a motorcycle engine, the machine reversed the pressure and the grout began to flow, displacing the water in the void. “It’s been like this for thirty years,” Jabouri said with a shrug. “Every day, nonstop.”

Reading this, I was reminded of another Filkins piece, the superb “After Syria” (The New Yorker, February 25, 2013), in which he visits a “vast Hezbollah bunker”:

Under a foot of dirt and rubble is a trap door, and a ladder leading down to the main tunnel. Inside, the only sign of life was a colony of black bats, dangling silently from the ceiling. Startled by my entry, they dropped down, then glided up the shaft toward the light.

Filkins is a true adventurer. Recall last year’s great “The End of Ice” (The New Yorker, April 4, 2016), in which he crosses a Himalayan river in a sketchy gondola lift:

Near the valley floor, we veered onto a rocky trail that tracked an icy river called the Chandra. Our van halted and a group of men appeared: Nepali porters, who led us to an outcropping on the river’s edge. Chhota Shigri—six miles long and shaped like a branching piece of ginger—is considered one of the Himalayas’ most accessible glaciers, but our way across was a rickety gondola, an open cage reminiscent of a shopping cart, which runs on a cable over the Chandra. With one of the porters working a pulley, we climbed in and rode across, one by one, while fifty feet below the river rushed through gigantic boulders.

In clear, evocative prose, Filkins takes me to cool, existential places. I enjoy his work immensely.

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