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.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

April 9, 2018 Issue

Pick of the Issue this week is John Seabrook’s “Six Skittles,” a fascinating personal account of what it’s like to be the victim of a black-ice accident. Seabrook puts us squarely there behind the wheel with him (and his nine-year-old daughter, Rose, in the backseat), as he loses control of both steering and brakes, and becomes “the passenger in a two-ton object now driven by the physics of inertia and friction, with a front-row seat to your own demise.”

Seabrook is very good on the science of what happened, describing the type of black ice he encountered (“Mine was garden-variety black ice. It formed the same way that the clear ice on my windshield formed. Even at higher elevations, where raindrops could be five degrees below freezing, they don’t crystallize into sleet or snow, which would be less slippery; instead, they remain in a liquid, ‘supercooled’ state, until they ‘nucleate’—become ice—on striking anything hard, such as the road surface or a car”), and his heightened awareness as his vehicle spun and left the road (“Neuroscience has a pretty good explanation for what happened in my head during those several seconds. A close encounter with extreme danger led to abnormal neuro-electric activity in the limbic system and temporal lobes of my brain, which sent signals to my adrenal medulla, located on top of the kidneys, and told them to secrete adrenaline”). 

He’s even better when he describes the dynamics of the experience itself:

We were now sliding backward at about fifty-five miles per hour, while also drifting slightly east, because that was the last steering move I had made before losing control. I studied the vectors as though they’d been drawn in marker on the windshield. It appeared that our present course and speed would carry us across the path of the propane truck before it hit us, and we would slide off the east side of I-91 North, facing south, where there was a width of shoulder, and also, I noted with newly enhanced peripheral vision, a snowy, uphill bank that would absorb the impact on my side of the truck. At this point, about two seconds had passed since I had lost control.

“Six Skittles” is a brilliant mixture of variegated ingredients – black ice, Emily Dickinson, “heuristic trap,” “crystalline array,” Skittles, Ambrose Bierce, Albert Einstein, near-death experience, depersonalization, Buddhism, to name a few. It shows a great journalist writing at the peak of his power, concentrating on his black-ice experience, extracting meaning after meaning, even verging on the cosmic:

The traction system of social life is good at getting us going, and keeping us on the road, but it fails when we hit the figurative black ice—death—as eventually we all do. It may be true, as Buddhism teaches, that only when we calmly accept that everything ends, including our selves—“profound acceptance,” in Heim’s phrase—can we see the miracle of this world for what it really is.

I enjoyed this piece immensely.

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