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.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

April 10, 2017, Issue

Two excellent pieces in this week’s issue are Ben Taub’s “We Have No Choice” and Calvin Tomkins’s “Troubling Pictures.” Taub reports the desperate six-month journey of a Nigerian teenager named Blessing, travelling a perilous migration trade route from her home in Benin City to Agadez, on the edge of the Sahara Desert, to Tripoli, and then by dinghy out into the Mediterranean, where she’s eventually picked up by a rescue boat and taken to Messina, on the eastern coast of Sicily.

The piece brilliantly conveys a raw intimacy with Blessing’s circumstances, much of it based on first-hand observation. Taub visits Benin City and searches for Blessing’s mother, Doris:

One day, I went to the Uwelu spare-parts market, where adolescent boys lift car engines into wheelbarrows, and bare-chested venders haggle over parts salvaged from foreign scrap yards. A dirt path at the western end of the market leads to a shack where I saw a middle-aged woman dressed in purple selling chips, candy, soda, and beer. I asked if she was Blessing’s mother, Doris. She nodded and laughed, then started to cry.

He goes to Agadez and reports on the “connection houses,” migrant ghettos, and Nigerian brothels. He attends a meeting of a dozen of the biggest human smugglers in the Sahara – “half were Tuareg, half Toubou, and all had fought in recent rebellions.” He describes Blessing’s migration across the Ténéré, an expanse of sand roughly the size of California (“Their journey through the desert had been a blur of waiting, heat, thirst, discomfort, beatings, dead bodies, and fear”). He reports her fate in Brak (“One day in Brak, the madam sold Blessing and Faith to the owner of a connection house, to work as a prostitute”). He describes her rescue at sea (“Her feet were pruning; they had been soaking for hours in a puddle at the bottom of the dinghy”). He visits her at Palanebiolo, the makeshift migrants’ camp outside Messina (“We headed back up the hill, to Palanebiolo. Blessing moved with slow, labored steps. Her joints ached and were still swollen from her time in detention in Libya”). He visits Ballarò, an old neighborhood of Palermo, center of the Nigerian sex trade in Sicily:

One night in Ballarò, I met with a former drug dealer from Mali at an outdoor bar that smelled like sweat, weed, and vomit. Sex workers walked past in red fish-nets and six-inch stilettos. On the corner, two men grilled meat over a trash fire. Italians and Africans exchanged cash and drugs, unbothered by the presence of witnesses. “This is the power of the Nigerian mafia,” the Malian said. “It gives work to those people who don’t have papers.”

“We Have No Choice” has an inspired structure. It begins in medias res with the loading and launching of the tightly packed dinghy carrying a hundred and fifty migrants, including Blessing. It then expands its scope to report on the network of sex work that girls like Blessing, migrating from Benin City, get caught in. Taub was on the Médecins Sans Frontière boat that rescued Blessing. He appears to have listened to her story, retraced her steps from Benin City to Messina, and then woven her experiences with his own personal observations. It’s Taub’s first-person perspective that, for me, gives his piece its awesome power and authenticity.

Tomkins’s “Troubling Pictures” is also exhilaratingly written in the “I.” It’s about Dana Schutz’s paintings, particularly her controversial Emmett Till painting, “Open Casket,” currently on view at the Whitney Biennial. I enjoyed this piece for its vivid descriptions of Schutz’s studio. For example:

Large and medium-sized canvases in varying stages of completion covered most of the wall space in the studio, a long, windowless room that was once an auto-body shop, and the floor was a palimpsest of rags, used paper palettes, brushes, metal tubs filled with defunct tubes of Old Holland oil paint, colored pencils and broken charcoal sticks, cans of solvent, spavined art books, pages torn from magazines, bundled work clothes stiff with paint, paper towels, a prelapsarian boom box, empty Roach Motel cartons, and other debris.

And this delightful bit:

When I went back again a few days later, the studio floor was littered with discarded paintbrushes, dozens of them, some still oozing paint—I got bright orange on one of my shoes.

Tomkins’s “I” is much more prominent now than it used to be back in his The Bride and the Bachelor days. His recent pieces are more journal-like – records of his personal art world experiences. I enjoy them immensely.

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