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.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Ian Frazier's "A Vast and Terrifying Saga"

Iqaluit Beach, 2007 (Photo by Lorna MacDougall)

Ian Frazier, in his wonderful “A Vast and Terrifying Saga” (The New York Review of Books, February 23, 2017), a review of Annie Proulx’s new novel, Barkskins, writes,

“Brokeback Mountain” and Proulx’s other Wyoming stories, many of them found in her collection Close Range, get their power from the [western] myth’s dependable high-lonesome twang, but they stay in the mind because of the details. Nobody, old-timer or otherwise, has a better eye for the physical, geographic, geologic, flotsam-strewn American West.

This is a considerable compliment from a writer whose own eye for “physical, geographic, geologic, flotsam-strewn” places is extraordinary: “spavined barns, bladeless windmills, crumpled stock tanks, tree-sheltered homeplaces with home missing, fallen-down corrals, splintered stock chutes, rusting farm machinery” (Great Plains); “an armchair, a pink plastic bottle in the shape of a baby’s shoe, a pile of shingles, an old-fashioned TV antenna, beer cans, a rusting John Deere swather” (On the Rez); “crumpled-up Caterpillar treads, school bus hulks, twisted scaffolding in rats’-nest heaps, rusted gold dredges, busted paddle wheels, crunched pallets, hyperextended recliner chairs, skewed all-terrain vehicle frames, mashed wooden dogsleds, multicolored nylon exploded to pompoms, door-sprung ambulance vans, dinged fuel tanks, shot clutch plates, run-over corrugated pipe, bent I beams, bent rebars, bent vents” (Travels in Siberia). 

I relish these junky lists. I, too, am drawn to such stuff. When I lived in Iqaluit, Nunavut, I used to walk the beach, marveling at the mishmash of plywood shacks, torn tents, broken-up boats, twisted tarps, frayed ropes, cannibalized snowmobiles, decaying caribou skins, scattered tools and engine parts, on and on. What accounts for their attraction? For me, it’s the sheer chaotic randomness of it all, what Leo Steinberg, in his description of Robert Rauschenberg’s great Washington’s Golden Egg, called “disjunction by juxtaposition” (Encounters with Rauschenberg, 2000).

But for Frazier, I think the attraction is deeper. I think it’s an aspect of his elegiac impulse – his intense awareness of and lament for life’s ephemerality. There’s a tinge of this in “A Vast and Terrifying Saga” when he notes that the western myth is

always looking back to what’s been lost: to the days of the buffalo before white men came, to the fur-trapper rendezvous blowouts of the 1820s, to the open cattle range of the 1870s, to the unplundered plains of recent memory before strip-mining for coal and fracking for natural gas and oil – all of it lost and gone forever and mourned, as Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar spend the rest of their lives mourning the summer when they were young and in love in their sheep camp on Brokeback Mountain.

In “A Vast and Terrifying Saga,” Frazier salutes a fellow western elegist.

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