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.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Frazier on McMurtry; McMurtry on Frazier

Reading Ian Frazier’s wonderful review of Larry McMurtry’s Thalia: A Texas Trilogy (The New York Review of Books, December 21, 2017), I was reminded of McMurtry’s equally wonderful review of Frazier’s On the Rez (The New York Review of Books, February 10, 2000). On the Rez is one of my all-time favorite books. It tells about Frazier’s experiences among the Oglala Sioux on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota. McMurtry’s piece, titled “Lighting Out for the Territory,” is an excellent appreciation of it. He calls it “a complex follow-up” to Frazier’s superb Great Plains. He says of Le War Lance, one of On the Rez’s central characters,

Ian Frazier and Le War Lance begin as strangers, become friends, and end as brothers. The brotherhood they achieve is a high estate but not an easy estate. The spiritual travel involved was mainly Mr. Frazier’s; this book is the story of that pilgrimage, that is, of his effort to live up to what is best in the Sioux. And what is best in the Sioux, as he already knows from his attachment to Crazy Horse, is very good indeed. Living up to it involves a good deal of struggle and a lot of tension, as Mr. Frazier grapples with the uncertainties, inconsistencies, and inscrutabilities of life on the rez.

Frazier, in his piece, has some memorable things to say about McMurtry’s work, too. I particularly like this one: “The books in this trilogy are like songs for acoustic guitar, with maybe some chase-scene banjo thrown in.”

Frazier and McMurtry – two great writers in love with the Great Plains.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

James Wood's Banality Hunger

James Wood (Photo by Juliana Jiménez)

I’m not crazy about the word “banal.” To me, it smacks of superiority, a snooty distain for everyday life. Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1984) says,

With “common,” “commonplace,” “trite,” “trivial,” “mean,” “vulgar,” “truism,” “platitude,” and other English words, to choose from, we should confine “banal” and “banality,” since we cannot get rid of them, to occasions when we want to express a contempt deeper than any of the English words can convey.

James Wood, one of my favorite writers, relishes the word. He uses it endlessly – “the banal amnesia of existence,” “brutally banal,” “the present banality of her existence,” “the mere pantomime of banality,” “banal failure,” “level banality,” “beautifully banal,” “banal details,” “apparent banality,” “the repetitive banality of his existence,” “blind banality,” “the evil of banality,” on and on. What does he mean by it? Is he using it to express contempt? Or is it, for him, just another word for “ordinary”? To answer, I want to consider twelve examples of Wood’s use of “banal”:

1. Both have been caricatured, and what is being enjoyed here is not the deep comic surprise of ordinariness (as in Chekov, say) but the mere pantomime of banality. [“Julian Barnes and the Problem of Knowing Too Much”]

The mere pantomime of banality – a great phrase, in which “banality” is used negatively, contrasting with “the deep comic surprise of ordinariness (as in Chekov, say).”

2. But Porphiry does not really lie to himself, for he has lost touch with the truth. He speaks the “truths” (as he sees them) that are all around him, and they are the most dismal, banal, lying platitudes. [“Saltykov-Shchedrin’s Subversion of Hypocrisy”]

Here again, “banal” is used pejoratively (“the most dismal, banal, lying platitudes”). This is “banal” as old Fowler would use it.

3. And so his father, who surely knows this, meekly agrees, says, “That’s true!” – incidentally, a beautiful placing of the exclamation point, suggesting a final fervency before death, a fervency all the more affecting because it is about an apparent banality – and dies. [“Giovanni Verga’s Comic Sympathy”]

Here, too, “banality” is used pejoratively to indicate triviality. But it’s also an early instance of Wood distinguishing between banality and apparent banality. In the same piece, Wood says, “What seems to be a fleeting triviality is actually very important – this is both Verga’s subject and his mode of writing: his banalities, like those of his characters, are never unimportant.” It’s an indication Wood understands the aesthetic of certain writers (e.g., Verga, Knausgaard, Chaudhuri) who aim to give banality its beautiful due.

4. Exile is acute, massive, transformative; but homelooseness, because it moves along its axis of departure and return, can be banal, welcome, necessary, continuous. [“Secular Homelessness”]

This is an instance of “banal” used positively, as a desirable aspect of a way of life Wood calls “homelooseness.”  

5. Her life seems circumscribed, satisfying, banal, disappointing. [“All Her Children”]

Here, “banal” seems ambiguous; it could be positive or negative, though not as negative as Saltykov-Shchedrin’s usage in the example above.

6. This sort of ordinariness anchors the book. Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse, by contrast, is finely written but is afraid of banality. [“Cormac McCarthy’s The Road”]

Afraid of banality – this is interesting: “banality” used positively as a synonym for “ordinariness.”

7. Of course, Richard, who was just a child during the war, is guilty only of the evil of banality, the moral myopia that dims most of our lucky lives in the West. [Strangers Among Us]

The evil of banality – sounds bad, but as an element of “our lucky lives in the West,” appears to signify mere ordinariness.

8. He wants us to inhabit the ordinariness of life, which is sometimes visionary (the Constable sketch), sometimes banal (the cup of tea, the Old Spice), and sometimes momentous (the death of a parent), but all of it perforce ordinary because it happens in the course of a life, and happens, in different forms, to everyone. [Total Recall]

No question here; “banality” is used as a form of ordinariness (“all of it perforce ordinary”).

9. These people stare at us, as if imploring us to rescue them from the banal amnesia of existence. [“W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz”]

I love this line, but I struggle with its meaning. It’s Wood’s response to the photographs of people in Sebald’s Austerlitz. My interpretation is that “amnesia of existence” means “oblivion.” Wood describes it as “banal” because oblivion is the destiny that awaits most of us; it’s our common fate. Earlier in his piece, Wood looks at the Austerlitz photo of the white-caped little boy and says,

The boy’s identity has disappeared (as has the woman whose photograph is shown as Agáta, the boy’s mother), and has disappeared – it might be said – even more thoroughly than Hitler’s victims, since they at least belong to blessed memory, and their murders cry out for public memorial, while the boy has vanished into the private obscurity and ordinary silence that will befall most of us.

Note that “ordinary silence.” Wood sees our one-way death trip to oblivion as ordinary. “Banal” in this instance isn’t pejorative; it’s not belittlement of the average person’s fate. It’s simply a synonym for “common” or “ordinary.”

10. Arvid’s life is drifting, like the sentences he voices, moving between banal failure and bottomless losses. [“Late and Soon”]

Obviously, banal failure is more than just failure; it’s uninteresting failure, low-level failure, uninspired failure. But the question is: by using “banal,” did Wood also mean to convey a tinge of distain? I’m not sure.

11. As is generally the case at such final celebrations, speakers struggled to expand and hold the beautifully banal instances of a life, to fill the dates between 1968 and 2012, so that we might leave the church thinking not of the first and last dates but of the dateless minutes in between. [“Why?”]

This, to me, is one of Wood’s most questionable uses of “banal.” Obviously, there’s no pejorative intent here. But is there a hint of unconscious condescension? The line is from the first paragraph of Wood’s personal essay “Why?,” in which he describes his attendance at the memorial service of a man he’s never met. Wood writes,

He was the younger brother of a friend of mine, and had died suddenly, in the middle of things, leaving behind a wife and two young daughters. The program bore a photograph of the man, above his compressed dates (1968-2012). He looked ridiculously young, blazing with life—squinting a bit in bright sunlight, smiling slightly, as if he were just beginning to get the point of someone’s joke. In some terrible way, his death was the notable, the heroic fact of his short life; all the rest was the usual joyous ordinariness, given form by various speakers. Here he was, jumping off a boat into the Maine waters; here he was, as a child, larkily peeing from a cabin window with two young cousins; here he was, living in Italy and learning Italian by flirting; here he was, telling a great joke; here he was, an ebullient friend, laughing and filling the room with his presence. As is generally the case at such final celebrations, speakers struggled to expand and hold the beautifully banal instances of a life, to fill the space between 1968 and 2012, so that we might leave the church thinking not of the first and last dates but of the dateless minutes in between.

“Joyous ordinariness,” “beautifully banal” – I see the connection. “Banal” and “ordinary” are being used interchangeably. Still, I find it an odd thing for Wood to say about a person he doesn’t know. I believe he intends it as praise. But it’s a backhanded kind of praise because it judges the deceased’s life as ordinary. It denies him his singularity.

12. One’s own small hardships—such as forgetting one’s A.T.M. card number, as Julius does, and being consumed by anxiety about it—may dominate a life as completely as someone else’s much larger hardships, because life is brutally one’s own, and not someone else’s, and is, alas, brutally banal. [“The Arrival of Enigmas”]

Life is no longer “beautifully banal”; now, it’s “brutally banal” – “banal” as an expression of contempt. Fowler would approve.

What to make of all this “banality”? One conclusion is that Wood likes writing “banal.” Sometimes he uses it positively (“beautifully banal”); sometimes he uses it negatively (“brutally banal”). Sometimes he uses it simply as a synonym for “ordinary”; sometime he uses it to express contempt. Obviously, it’s an important word in his vocabulary. It’s part of his aesthetic. 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

January 15, 2018 Issue

Bendik Kaltenborn is one of The New Yorker’s best illustrators. He has a dandy picture in this week’s issue, showing Trump swaddled in a bathrobe, lying on the Oval Office carpet, blissfully watching his favorite morning show, “Fox & Friends.” It’s an illustration for Andrew Marantz’s “Friends in High Places,” in which Marantz brilliantly describes “the thin fourth wall between Trump and his TV.” Kaltenborn captures Trump’s infatuation perfectly.

Friday, January 12, 2018

January 8, 2018 Issue

Siddhartha Mukherjee, in his absorbing “Bodies at Rest and in Motion,” in this week’s issue, recounts his experience of his father’s dying. He writes,

I had versed myself in the reasons that my father had ended up in the hospital. It took me longer to ask the opposite question: What had kept my father, for so long, from acute decline? I had to reimagine the fall—the blow, the bleed, the delirium, the coma—and try to understand why such disasters hadn’t occurred earlier, as his brain had inched, woozily, inexorably, unrecognizably, toward dementia.

Why is he still alive? – it seems like an odd question to ask about someone receiving medical care. Why is he dying? And what can be done to prevent it? seem more to the point. But Mukherjee already knows why his father is dying (“the blow, the bleed, the delirium, the coma”). He knows his father’s condition is terminal. His question – why is he still alive? – gets at a different matter, a quality we tend to take for granted when we’re healthy – the body’s resilience, it’s resistance to death. Mukherjee points out that the physiological term for this resilience is homeostasis (“the capacity to maintain a functional equilibrium”), which he says has often been called “one of the defining principles of life.”

I confess I’ve never thought of the human body as resilient. The adjective that leaps to my mind is “fragile.” “We are the delicate part, transient and vulnerable as cilia,” Lewis Thomas said, in The Lives of a Cell. After the collapse of his homeostatic resistance, Mukherjee’s father is incredibly fragile. His “feats of resilience surrendered to the fact of fragility,” Mukherjee says. In what, for me, is the piece’s most memorable passage, Mukherjee describes his father’s death:

And soon all his physiological systems entered into cascading failure, coming undone in such rapid succession that you could imagine them pinging as they broke, like so many rubber bands. Ping: renal failure. Ping: severe arrhythmia. Ping: pneumonia and respiratory failure. Urinary-tract infection, sepsis, heart failure. Ping, ping, ping.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Andy Friedman on Andrew Wyeth

Andy Friedman, "Wallpaper, Kuerner House" (2017)

Recently, searching for a review of the movie Wind River, I stumbled on a wonderful piece by Andy Friedman that I hadn’t seen before. Titled “A Journey in Pictures for Andrew Wyeth on his Centennial Birthday,” it’s a sort of annotated sketchbook – beautiful watercolors of scenes and items that Friedman noted when he visited the Brandywine River Valley Museum of Art, in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, to see the “Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect” exhibit.

I’m drawn to Wyeth’s painting. I relish its expressionistic strangeness – the absorbed microscopic way skin, hair, fur, fabric, etc. are rendered. I relish its off-kilter angles and bird’s eye views. Most of all, I relish its undertow of melancholy. Friedman touches on this when he notes that Wyeth’s Pennsylvania pictures “are painted with reticent shades of melancholy ochre.”

Friedman’s sketches reflect Wyeth’s close attention to plain, ordinary-looking things. I particularly like his depictions of the frontispiece of a light switch in Wyeth’s studio and the crumpled wallpaper in the Kuerner house. Friedman writes, “In another room, the wallpaper has shrivelled like a blossom in reverse.”

Friedman’s “A Journey in Pictures for Andrew Wyeth on his Centennial Birthday” is delectable. I wish I’d discovered it earlier. If I had, I would’ve included it on my “Best of 2017” list. 

Friday, January 5, 2018

January 1, 2018 Issue

Peter Schjeldahl’s “Points of View,” in this week’s issue, has a great opening line:

I both like and dislike “Thérèse Dreaming” (1938), the Balthus painting that thousands of people have petitioned the Metropolitan Museum to remove from view because it brazens the artist’s letch for pubescent girls—which he always haughtily denied, but come on!

That vehement “but come on!” made me smile. Schjeldahl has long insisted on “Thérèse” ’s erotic charge. In his “Balthus” (The Hydrogen Jukebox, 1991), he writes,

Seduced rather than seductive, few of them [Balthus’s paintings of young girls] would appeal to Lolita’s Humbert Humbert as precociously sluttish nymphets – one exception being the Thérèse of 1938, a hard case if ever there was one.

And in his “In the Head” (The New Yorker, October 2013), he says,

Then, in 1936, Balthus met Thérèse Blanchard, the eleven-year-old daughter of a restaurant worker. During the next three years, he made ten paintings of her, which are his finest work. They capture moods of adolescent girlhood—dreaming, restless, sulky—as only adolescent girls may authoritatively understand. (I’ve checked with veterans of the condition.) In two of the best, a short-skirted Thérèse raises her leg, exposing tight underpants. We needn’t reflect on the fact that an adult man directed the poses, any more than we must wonder about the empathic author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” But there it is. Balthus claimed a quality of sacredness for his “angels,” as he termed his models. That comes through. Yet, looking at the paintings, I kept thinking of a line by Oscar Wilde: “A bad man is the sort of man who admires innocence.”

In his latest piece, Schjeldahl argues for the Mets continued display of “Thérèse” on the basis of “the work’s aesthetic excellence and historical importance.” I agree. But I find the case he makes for the painting in his first piece more compelling. In that essay (“Balthus”), he says, “It is precisely in his perversity that Balthus achieves artistic authenticity, and perhaps only there that he does.”

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Best of 2017: 21 Inspired Lines

Rosz Chast, "Motherboard (Back)" (2017)

Shauna Lyon, describing the rich refinement of the Brooklyn bistro, Otway, notes “the natural shades of toffee, rhododendron, and sunlight filling the lovely corner space” (“Tables For Two: Otway,” June 26, 2017). That, for me, is one of the year’s most sheerly pleasurable lines. Here are twenty more to go with it:

1. A mustachioed violinist, in quasi-Edwardian garb, crouched almost fetally under water, his bow rising above the surface, like a shark’s fin, then falling below it. [Rebecca Mead, “Transformer,” September 25, 2017]

2. When I look at the back of a Datograph, one of Lange’s more complicated watches (it features a date as well as a chronograph, a kind of stopwatch), I see a small city of silver and gold gears and wheels, a miniature three-dimensional universe in which everyone is running to catch the next bus. [Gary Shteyngart, “Time Out,” March 20, 2017]

3. Rich saxophones and organs stood in for synthesizers, drums jangled and twitched, and vocalists like King Krule gave the beats another sheet of voice. [Matthew Trammell, “Step Out,” June 5 & 12, 2017]

4. The film’s images are filled with a pointillistic profusion of detail—wheat stalks at the roadside, a modern bridge’s metallic latticework, even the duo’s jazzily patterned shirts—that’s as alluring as it is nerve-jangling. [Richard Brody, “On the Wild Side,” July 3, 2017]

5. Save space, too, for malab iyo malawax, sweet crepes soaked in honey and dusted with cinnamon, and a mug of steaming qaxwo, pungent black coffee spiked with ginger. [Nicolas Niarchos, “Tables For Two: Safari,” September 4, 2017]

6. After the great pea-guacamole controversy of 2015, it takes cojones to add mint to an otherwise innocent, chunky scoop, which arrived, one afternoon, dramatically hidden under an elephant-ear-size purple-corn chip. [Shauna Lyon, “Tables For Two: Atla,” June 5 & 12, 2017]

7. The slanted early-morning sun amid the pillars colors the sides of bread trucks moving slowly on their deliveries. [Ian Frazier, “Drive Time,” August 28, 2017]

8. Now she seemed slight, fine-boned, almost translucent—it was hard to imagine her surviving a sea of forearms, iPhones, and gropey hands. [Nick Paumgarten, “Singer of Secrets,” August 28]

9. Even when she’s performing small steps, or no steps, you can still feel, across the auditorium, that astonishing engine, humming along like an Alfa Romeo, at the base of her spine. [Joan Acocella, “Dance: Alfa Romeo,” June 19, 2017]

10. I nibbled a small pie: it tasted like pumpkin, but with a weedy aftertaste, which brought back Proustian memories of high school. [Lizzie Widdicombe, “High Cuisine,” April 24, 2017]

11. 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. [Calvin Tomkins, “Troubling Pictures,” April 10, 2017]

12. His punch lines are not punched at all but flicked as casually as cigarette butts. [Anthony Lane, “Across the Divide,” June 26, 2017]

13. This is the “seashore at evening,” where lithesome mermaids on motorcycles whiz by, their “leather-clad calves” united with a “noir chassis.”  [Dan Chiasson, “Merry War,” September 4, 2017]

14. It causes the wasp-waisted barmaids in strappy green minidresses to grunt audibly as they muddle handfuls of cherries, and scoop ice as if shovelling a driveway. [Talia Lavin, “Bar Tab: Fishbowl,” May 29, 2017]

15. Smeared, apocalyptic guitar riffs buoy Bryan Funck’s grim, screeching vocals, which invoke classic black-metal singers while sidestepping any hint of Dungeons and Dragons. [“Night Life: Thou,” January 9, 2017]

16. I’ve imagined a whole film just about the waitress who describes the chorizo and eggs in “Midnight Run.” [Patton Oswalt, “Deep Cut,” September 4, 2017]

17. Actually, the culprit was likely the Slow Reveal, which encourages anything but: a syrupy accelerant in a bisected brass pineapple, the round belly of the bottom half balanced on the stiff fronds of the top half. [McKenna Stayner, “Bar Tab: Super Power,” February 27, 2017]

18. They play a high-octane strain of rock and roll that’s best described as ripping, advancing a thread of brawny, pissed-off fight music hybridized by groups like the Dwarves and Fear. The effect is ideally experienced while pogo-dancing around a room of diaphoretic night owls. [“Night Life: Hank Wood and the Hammerheads,” July 24, 2017]

19. There’s usually sports on the TV, but the broad array of neighborhood bargoers watch indifferently; there are conversations to be had in big, gossipy groups, cold beer to be sipped, flirtations to be advanced in sly increments. [Talia Lavin, “Bar Tab: Salud,” September 11, 2017]

20. Shroud-like disguises figure into her work from subsequent decades, too, counterbalanced by absurdly tailored pieces, including cinched whirlpools of deconstructed menswear and gingham frocks deformed by asymmetrical humps. [“Art: Metropolitan Museum: Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between,” September 4, 2017]

Enough already! Time to let go. Be off with you, old New Yorkers. Down to the basement you go. The new year’s first issue beckons. There’s a piece in it by Peter Schjeldahl I want to read. Let’s get started.