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.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

May 21, 2018 Issue

Notes on this week’s New Yorker:

1. Jane Freilicher’s “The Painting Table” is one of this blog’s touchstones (see here). This week’s “Goings On About Town: Art” contains a wonderful description of two of her other paintings: 

“Early New York Evening,” made in 1954, frames a vista of reddish-brown apartment buildings between a vase of irises in the foreground and four distant smokestacks in a violet sky. In an interior painted the same year, the threshold between a living room and a bedroom becomes an adventure of yellow highlights and lavender shadows. 

2. Richard Brody’s capsule review of Howard Hawks’s Fig Leaves (1926) is excellent, featuring this inspired observation: “Though the film is silent, Hawks’s epigrammatic rapidity is already in evidence—the characters talk non-stop with such lively, pointed grace that viewers might swear they hear the intertitles spoken.”

3. Adam Gopnik is a natural-born first-person writer. His best pieces are all first-person, e.g., “Cool Runnings” (The New Yorker, July 11 & 18, 2016), “Bread and Women” (The New Yorker, November 4, 2013), and “New York Local” (The New Yorker, September 3 & 10, 2007). His “Bottled Dreams,” in this week’s issue, has a great subject –a vintner’s quest to create a truly American wine. But, for me, the piece is spoiled by its detached third-person perspective. Where is Gopnik’s inimitable “I” –  the “I,” in “Cool Runnings,” who attends a football match (“Later that day, I crowded, together with what seemed like the entire remaining population of Reykjavík, into Ingólfstorg square to watch the Iceland-Austria match”); the “I,” in “Bread and Women,” who bakes bread with his mother (“I was taken by the plasticity of every sort of dough, its way of being pliable to your touch and then springy—first merging into your hands and then stretching and resisting, oddly alive, as though it had a mind of its own, the collective intelligence of all those little bugs”), the “I” in “New York Local,” who visits a community garden in the Bronx called The Garden of Happiness (“I had come to the Garden of Happiness not only to see a New York City chicken committee in operation but also to get myself a chicken”)? In these pieces, Gopnik is personally present. In “Bottled Dreams,” his voice is there on the page, but that’s all. When Grahm gets in his Citroën and drives out to look at the Popelouchum property, is Gopnik with him? It’s unclear. Is Gopnik present for the wine-tasting session in Bonny Doon’s back office? Again, it’s unclear. Is Gopnik with Grahm when he returns, for the first time in a quarter century, to his original vineyard in Bonny Doon? I’m not sure. Perhaps its implicit in the details Gopnik uses to describe these scenes that he was personally present. Nevertheless, I miss the verification of his authenticating “I.” 

4. Anthony Lane, in his review of a new movie version of Chekhov’s The Seagull, says that the film’s director, Michael Mayer, and its screenwriter, Stephen Karam, “have pruned, or purged, the drama until it runs just over an hour and a half, and, in so doing, mislaid its nervous languor.” This criticism is mild compared to Pauline Kael’s evisceration of Sidney Lumet’s 1968 The Seagull: see “Filmed Theatre” (The New Yorker, January 11, 1969; included in Kael’s classic 1970 collection Going Steady). Kael called Lumet’s version a “disaster” (“The movie version of Chekhov’s The Seagull is a disaster, not because it is a filmed play but because it is a badly filmed play”). She says, “Technically, the movie is slovenly.” But apparently even a slovenly production of The Seagull is worth watching. Kael puts it this way: The Seagull is a terrible movie, but it is a movie of The Seagull.”

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