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, February 15, 2018

February 12 & 19, 2018 Issue

David Grann’s “The White Darkness,” in this week’s issue, is a riveting account of Henry Worsley’s extraordinary solo attempt to achieve what his hero, Ernest Shackleton, failed to do a century earlier: trek on foot from one side of Antarctica to the other, a journey of more than a thousand miles, passing through the south pole, traversing “what is arguably the most brutal environment in the world.” The key word is “solo.” Grann says,

And, whereas Shackleton had been part of a large expedition, Worsley, who was fifty-five, was crossing alone and unsupported: no food caches had been deposited along the route to help him forestall starvation, and he had to haul all his provisions on a sled, without the assistance of dogs or a sail. Nobody had attempted this feat before.

Grann’s piece is an impressive reconstruction of Worsley’s venture, based mainly on Worsley’s diary and his audio broadcasts (via satellite phone). It puts us squarely there with Worsley on the ice (“It was hard to breathe, and each time he exhaled the moisture froze on his face: a chandelier of crystals hung from his beard; his eyebrows were encased like preserved specimens; his eyelashes cracked when he blinked”), slogging through blizzards (“Trudging uphill, with his head bowed against a fusillade of ice pellets, he moved at less than a mile per hour”), engulfed in obliterating whiteouts (“At times, he could not even discern the tips of his skis through the murk, which, he wrote, was as ‘thick as clotted cream’ ”). Once, in the poor visibility, he nearly falls into a crevasse (“He felt himself slipping into the hole, which was widening around him. He grabbed the edge and clung to it, dangling over an abyss, before he hauled himself up”). Another day, he blindly skis over a ridge:

His head and back and legs slammed against the ice. The sled flipped over twice, dragging him for twenty yards. He lay splattered on the ice, cursing. When he got to his feet, he nervously checked his fuel cannisters. One crack and he would be doomed, but there were none, and, conscious of time slipping away, he untangled his harness and set off again.

The brutal journey takes its toll. Early January, Worsley climbs the Titan Dome. Grann describes his condition:

Yet, as he climbed the Titan Dome, he found the ascent to be “a killer.” He had lost more than forty pounds, and his unwashed clothing hung on him heavily. “Still very weak—legs are stick thin and arms puny,” he noted in his diary. His eyes had sunk into shaded hollows. His fingers were becoming numb. His Achilles tendons were swollen. His hips were battered and scraped from the constantly jerking harness. He had broken his front tooth biting into a frozen protein bar, and told A.L.E. that he looked like a pirate. He was dizzy from the altitude, and he had bleeding hemorrhoids.

Soon afterwards he’s afflicted by stomach pain so bad he starts taking painkillers. Grann writes,

On January 19th, after man-hauling through another storm, Worsley was too tired to give a broadcast, and with his frozen hand he scribbled only a few words in his diary, the writing almost illegible: “Very desperate . . . slipping away . . . stomach . . . took painkillers.” He was incontinent, and repeatedly had to venture outside to squat in the freezing cold. His body seemed to be eating itself.

Keep going or call it quits? What would Shacks do? Never give up, is Worsley’s first thought. And here, at this pivotal moment, is where Grann writes his most inspired passage, shifting into free indirect style, inhabiting Worsley’s perspective:

But maybe that was wrong. Hadn’t Shackleton survived because he had realized that, at a certain point, he had no more moves and turned back? Unlike Scott and others who went to a polar grave, Shackleton reckoned with his own limitations and those of his men. He understood that not everything, least of all the Antarctic, can be conquered. And that within defeat there can still be triumph—the triumph of survival itself.

On January 22, 2016, after seventy-one days and a trek of nearly eight hundred nautical miles, Worsley calls for help. Two days later, in a Punta Arenas hospital, he dies of peritonitis.

“The White Darkness” is an unforgettable story of courage and endurance. Grann tells it magnificently.  

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