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.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

June 19, 2017 Issue

This week’s issue contains four superb Talk of the Town pieces: Robert Sullivan’s “Facing History”; Tad Friend’s “Pulverizer”; Lauren Collins’s “Sideline”; and Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Incidents.”

Sullivan’s “Facing History” starts with the issue of whether a Brooklyn street named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee should be renamed (“When the city of New Orleans took down its last Confederate statue, of General Robert E. Lee, Representative Yvette Clarke, of New York’s Ninth Congressional District, had a local take. She tweeted, ‘We should do likewise with General Lee Avenue in Brooklyn’ ”). In the fifth paragraph, it shifts focus to another Robert E. Lee memorial:

General Lee Avenue is not the only Confederate memorial in Bay Ridge. Another can be found just a few blocks away, at St. John’s Episcopal Church, on Fort Hamilton Parkway. In the church’s front yard, there is a maple tree marked with an iron sign that reads, “This tree was planted by General Robert Edward Lee, while stationed at Fort Hamilton.” The sign was installed in 1912, also by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

The piece then proceeds to tell the history of St. John’s Episcopal Church and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and ends with a visit to Goodfellows barbershop and a conversation with two dog walkers.

The first appeal of this delightful piece is the appearance of spontaneity. It seems completely natural, as relaxed as conversation. Secondly, it brims with interesting facts. An inventory of its contents looks like this:

General Robert E. Lee – Representative Yvette Clarke – Bay Ridge – Fort Hamilton – United Daughters of the Confederacy – Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church – Confederate-statue removals – June 19th, or Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the end of slavery – St. John’s Episcopal Church – Southern Poverty Law Center – Brooklyn Daily Eagle – the Robert E. Lee tree – two Brooklyn politicians – Shore Road – Indecision, the Bay Ridge hardcore band – Goodfellows, a barbershop on Fourth Avenue – two residents walking their dogs

The piece is like a Cornell box filled with fascinating objects. And yet it coheres; it tells a story. That’s another of its attractions: its “plot” unfolds from real life. This is true of all good Talk stories, including the other three pieces discussed here.

Tad Friend’s “Pulverizer” is a sort of mini-profile of the actor Anthony Michael Hall. Its opening paragraph snared my attention immediately:

“Left arm straight, head down,” Anthony Michael Hall murmured as he took his stance at the Chelsea Piers driving range. His 5-wood carved the air but only grazed the ball, which lolloped gently over the Astro-Turf toward the Hudson River. Hall glared after it. “First of all, plant your fucking feet!” he told himself. “Turn your hips. Be the ball!” When his next shot boinged sideways into the protective netting, he cracked up. “My mother taught me that, to laugh at yourself,” he said. The actor, who goes by Michael, had arrived wearing an outfit that seemed to embody this precept: black suit, white sneakers, tomato-red T-shirt, Ninja Turtle-green backpack. “I’m not afraid of color,” he explained. “It’s my Italian side.”

I read that, and I just kept going, devouring the piece in about four minutes, and then going back to savor this line: “The hairs on his forearm stood erect, like little soldiers.”

All four of these pieces end in quotation. “Pulverizer” ’s might be the most memorable. Friend quotes Hall saying, “On this movie I got down on my knees and prayed before takes, and then just grabbed my balls and tried somehow to be of service.”

In “Sideline,” Collins describes her recent visit with the writer Michel Houellebec at his Paris apartment. She writes,  

Houellebecq answered the door wearing a denim shirt and jeans—hiked up to a seemingly concave chest—and ushered a visitor inside, past a polka-dot shopping cart, some metal shelves stocked with bottled water, and a closet filled with three-ring binders. One had the feeling that Houellebecq, like a lot of his characters, might not get out much.

I relish the way Collins sketches detail – three quick strokes (“TV, recliner, lots of yellow”) and – voila! – Houellebecq’s living room springs to life. She’s an excellent noticer. At one point in “Sideline,” she says of Houellebecq, “He must have been chewing on his cigarette, because it hung from his mouth like a broken limb.”

Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Incidents” also reports on a visit. She’s present with the artist James Turrell at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, in North Adams, as he views preparations for the opening of new wing showing nine of his works, including “an apartment-size piece” titled “Perfectly Clear.”

One of the pleasures of Kolbert’s piece is her vivid description of “Perfectly Clear”:

In front of him, a set of stairs led up to a rectangular opening cut into a wall. Beyond the opening was an empty chamber. Lights installed in the walls of the chamber were making it glow different shades—first fuchsia, then baby blue, then electric yellow. Everything outside the chamber also kept changing color, including Turrell.

One of Turrell’s associates, Ryan Pike, was tapping on a laptop that controlled the lights. At times, the chamber seemed to vanish, and it looked as if the opening had become a wall of radiant color. At other points, the chamber reappeared, and its back wall became visible. At still other points, the lights strobed and a sort of psychedelic plaid pattern appeared across the opening.

“We’re not getting much printout with this one,” Turrell told Pike, who tapped away more vigorously.

That detail of the associate tapping away “more vigorously” in response to Turrell’s comment is inspired!

All four of these pieces are terrific. Which is my favorite? I think it might be Sullivan’s “Facing History.” His visit to Goodfellows barbershop in search of local knowledge of the Robert E. Lee tree made me smile. It's such a Sullivan-esque thing to do.

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