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, November 10, 2017

November 6, 2017 Issue

What was it like to be in Raqqa this summer during the fight to expel ISIS? Luke Mogelson’s extraordinary “Dark Victory,” in this week’s issue, tells us in detail after gritty detail. It puts us on the ground, near the front lines, with the Syrian Democratic Forces, amid the city’s bombed-out ruins:

Inside the city, the devastation was apocalyptic. Block after block of tall apartment towers had been obliterated. Every building seemed to have been struck by ordnance: either destroyed entirely, scorched black by fire, or in a state of mid-collapse, with slabs of concrete hanging precariously from exposed rebar and twisted I-beams. Bulldozers had plowed a path through heaps of cinder blocks, felled power poles, and other detritus. Up ahead, missiles hit: a whistle, then a crash, then a dark plume. Smoke and dust roiled over rooftops.

“Dark Victory” is riveting, and what makes it riveting (for me, at least) is Mogelson’s masterful use of “I,” which gives his reports the immediacy and authenticity of personal experience. Examples:

In August, in the living room of an abandoned house on the western outskirts of Raqqa, Syria, I met with Rojda Felat, one of four Kurdish commanders overseeing the campaign to wrest the city from the Islamic State, or ISIS.

One afternoon this summer, near a front line in West Raqqa, I sat in a requisitioned residence with Ali Sher, a thirty-three-year-old Kurdish commander with a handlebar mustache and the traditional Y.P.G. uniform: camouflage, Hammer pants and a colorful head scarf tied back pirate-style.

A few days after speaking with Ali Sher in West Raqqa, my translator and I followed two pickup trucks, crowded with about twenty Arab fighters, through the southern fringes of the city.

Another afternoon, on a street in East Raqqa, where the S.D.F. had pushed into the city’s old quarter, breaching a huge mud-mortar wall from the eighth century, I watched an armored bulldozer return from clearing some rubble nearby.

In another bedroom of the house, I found the ranking commander for the area, a Kurd, sitting on a box spring beneath a shattered window that overlooked the hospital.

These wonderful first-person sentences report war as lived experience. I devour them.  

The Mauricio Lima photos illustrating “Dark Victory” (especially the version) are transfixing, among the best to appear in the magazine in recent memory.

Photo by Mauricio Lima

“Dark Victory” is Mogelson’s third piece on the war against ISIS. The others are “The Front Lines” (The New Yorker, January 18, 2016) and “The Avengers of Mosul” (The New Yorker, February 6, 2017). Together they make one of the most brilliant series of war reports The New Yorker has ever published. I hope Mogelson collects them in a book. It would be an instant classic.

Postscript: Five inspired lines from this week’s New Yorker:

1. “Over here—put in potato—close—strong,” a centenarian named Anastasia instructed, pinching dumplings shut with practiced rhythm. – David Kortava, “Tables For Two: Streecha”

2. Three drinks in, a teetering twentysomething left most of his Up and Cumming—a frothy high-proof pineapple margarita—spilled on the bar. – H. C. Wilentz, “Bar Tab: Club Cumming”

3. The muralist packed up, leaving a half-painted Liza Minnelli to gaze out, smirking, on the besotted crowd. – H. C. Wilentz, “Bar Tab: Club Cumming”

4. The penumbral horse that Georges Seurat let loose with his black Conté crayon in 1882, on view here, might be up for a wild ride with Black Hawk’s “Buffalo Dreamers.” – Andrea K. Scott, “Paper Weight”

5. The cinematographer William Lubtchansky’s grainy black-and-white images have the feel of cold stone, and, when the pragmatic Lilie challenges François to get on with his life, the chill of hard reality is all the more brutal. – Richard Brody, “Movies: Regular Lovers”

Friday, November 3, 2017

October 30, 2017 Issue

I relish description. One of my favorite forms of it is ekphrasis. There’s a wonderful example of it in Peter Schjeldahl’s “Think Big,” a profile of the painter Laura Owens, in this week’s issue. Schjeldahl describes Owens’s one-off installation Ten Paintings:

The paintings didn’t exist yet, except in the potential form of concealed panels that shared a continuous surface of room-girdling handmade wallpaper: in effect, a single painting, more than fourteen feet high and more than a hundred and seventy-three feet long, executed in acrylic, oil, vinyl paint, silk-screen inks, charcoal, pastel, graphite, and sand. Non-repeating bitmap patterns, derived from a scanned piece of crumpled paper, underlay passages of newsprint reproductions, fugitive brushwork, a micrographic version of Picasso’s “Guernica,” and attached whatnots, including a watercolor of a sailing ship by Owens’s grandfather, patterns of embroidery by her grandmother, and a drawing by her younger brother Lincoln, who is a chef in New Orleans. Prevailing blacks, whites, and pale blues, with purple accents, imposed a gently rhythmic unity. At intervals on the walls, phone numbers were printed, with invitations to text any question that a viewer might have. The nearest of eight concealed loudspeakers would deliver an answer in a male, female, or robotic voice, to spooky or daffy effect, from a computer that Owens, with technical help, had programmed to recognize a hundred key words. (Imagine an ultra-high-tech Magic 8 Ball.) To the query “Where are the paintings?,” all the speakers replied, “Here!”

This is very beautiful, and its specificity (“Non-repeating bitmap patterns, derived from a scanned piece of crumpled paper, underlay passages of newsprint reproductions, fugitive brushwork, a micrographic version of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ ”) is what is beautiful.

Schjeldahl is a master ekphrasist. Here are five more examples of his work:

1. Gustav Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907):

The subject is placed off-center, to the right, on a canvas more than four and a half feet square. Imperious and smart, making her slightly horse-faced features seem a paradigm of feminine perfection, she wears a shoulder-strap gown with a cloak-like, billowing outer layer and broad gold and silver bracelets and a bejewelled silver choker. A storm of patterns—spirals, targets, nested squares, split ovals, checks, dots, short vertical bars, arrowhead triangles, ankh-like eyes—may represent fabric, furniture, and wallpaper, or they may be sheer invention. Most of the ground (not background, because almost everything in the picture that isn’t flesh snugs up to the picture plane) is mottled gold. Her asymmetrically upswept hair is painted matte black. Her right hand is oddly raised to her shoulder and, wrist bent at a painful-looking right angle, is grasped by her left, as if to restrain it. (On a Viennese note of that epoch, the pencil-outlined fingers faintly suggest claws.) Her frontal gaze turns inward, registering sensations that can only be sexual. Her dark-shadowed hazel eyes, under tapering black brows, are wells of seduction; someone could fall into them. Her bee-stung red mouth parts to expose two competent teeth. Blue tints along her collarbones, wrists, and hands hint at subcutaneous veins: erogenous zones. She is a lighthouse, or shadehouse, of desire. (Lauder, speaking for the Neue Galerie, has called the painting “our ‘Mona Lisa.’ ” I have seen the “Mona Lisa,” and “Adele” is no “Mona Lisa.” Not very much is mysterious about this cookie.) The picture is most excitingly viewed, after close inspection, from afar. Patterns shatter into drifting, pure abstraction while the facial expression still reads at full power. The double pleasure dizzies. [“Golden Girl,” The New Yorker, July 24, 2006]

2. Fra Angelico’s The Annunciatory Angel (ca. 1450):

The androgynous angel, in pink robes with a slash of blue, leans forward as if into a gust of wind, one hand on his chest and the other beginning to advance in a gesture of offering. The face is intent but serene. A swiftly brushed wing, of brown feathers, merges with the gilt background, above a swath of patterned floor in convincing perspective. The delicately roughened surface texture gives sensuous immediacy – suddenness, even – to a figure that feels less lit and shaded than made of materialized light and shade. [“Heaven on Earth,” The New Yorker, November 21, 2005]

3. Edward Hopper’s New York Movie (1939):

In a corner of an ornate theatre, a pretty usherette leans back against a wall out of sight of a screen that displays an illegible fragment of black-and-white movie, watched by two solitary people. Dimmed, reddish lights oppose a russet cast to inky shadows. Parted red curtains frame a stairway to the balcony. The usherette’s reverie, if any (she may be dozing), centers our involvement. She has seen the film. Wanting to be elsewhere, she is elsewhere. Where are we? I think we are in Plato’s Cave, perceiving layered dispositions of reality—those of the movie, the audience, the usherette, the theatre, and the civilization that must have theatres. I comprehend the picture’s economy when I imagine something that is necessarily absent from it: noise, the clamor of a soundtrack that fills the space and assaults the usherette’s unwilling ears. Life goes on? No, it roars on, indifferent to all who have temporary shares in it. We exist in the middle of a rush so constant that it resembles stillness. [“Ordinary People,” The New Yorker, May 21, 2007]

4. Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940):

It presents Kahlo in a plain white blouse, with a thorned vine twisted around her neck, drawing drops of blood, and a dead hummingbird with outstretched wings, worn like a crucifix. A monkey toys with the vine at one shoulder; a black cat stares from behind the other. A background of ornamental vegetation includes what may be a zinnia and a fuchsia, which appear to be morphing into diaphanous insects like the two silver filigree butterflies in Kahlo’s hair. [“Native Soil,” The New Yorker, May 25, 2015]

5. Arshile Gorky’s Scent of Apricots on the Fields (1944):

A pileup of loosely outlined, thinly painted fragmentary shapes, like plant or body parts, embedded in passages of golden yellow, hovers above a green suggestion of a table and below a skylike expanse of brushy rose red. Dabs of raw turpentine cause runny dissolutions, as if some forms were melting into their white ground. The downward drips yield a paradoxical sensation of buoyancy. The picture’s visceral shapes seem to ascend like putti in a Renaissance firmament. The dynamics are at once obvious and inspired, stroke by stroke and hue by hue, and deliriously affecting—when viewed near at hand. [“Twentieth-Century Man,” The New Yorker, November 2, 2009]

Friday, October 27, 2017

October 23, 2017 Issue

The article in this week’s issue I enjoyed most is Jonathan Franzen’s “Under Construction,” a brief “Personal History” piece about the 1981 summer he spent in Manhattan, helping his brother renovate a loft. Franzen writes interesting sentences. I gobble them up. What makes them interesting is their specificity:

We arrived in June with a fifth of Tanqueray, a carton of Marlboro Lights, and Marcella Hazan’s Italian cookbook.

Our friend Jon Justice, who that summer had Thomas Pynchon’s “V.” stuffed into the back pocket of his corduroys, was mugged at Grant’s Tomb, where he shouldn’t have been.

I spent long afternoons in a cloud of acetone fumes, cleaning rubber cement off the laminate, while Tom, in another room, cursed the raised dots.

On the Fourth of July weekend, V and Jon Justice and I got up onto the old West Side Elevated Highway (closed but not yet demolished) and went walking past the new World Trade Center towers (brutalist but not yet tragic) and didn’t see another person in any direction.

He also had a willowy and dumbstrikingly beautiful wife, Pru, who came from Australia and wore airy white summer dresses that made me think of Daisy Buchanan.

The money seemed of no consequence to Bob’s father-in-law, but we noticed that one of the mother-in-law’s shoes was held together with electrical tape.

That last one made me smile. Tanqueray, Marlboro Lights, Marcella Hazen, Thomas Pynchon, corduroys, Grant’s Tomb, acetone fumes, white summer dresses, Daisy Buchanan, Fourth of July, West Side Elevated Highway, World Trade Center, mother-in-law’s shoes, electrical tape – just some of the variegated ingredients of this delightful, highly particularized memory piece. I enjoyed it immensely.

Friday, October 20, 2017

October 16, 2017 Issue

Pick of the Issue this week is Joshua Yaffa’s absorbing “House of Shadows,” an exploration of the rich, tragic history of an old Moscow apartment building called the House on the Embankment. Yaffa writes, “No other address in the city offers such a compelling portal into the world of Soviet-era bureaucratic privilege, and the horror and murder to which this privilege often led.” The House on the Embankment is massive, “a self-contained world the size of several city blocks.” Yaffa describes it as “a mishmash of the blocky geometry of Constructivism and the soaring pomposity of neoclassicism.” Yaffa speaks from personal knowledge of the place; he lives there. In his piece, he describes his apartment (“Successive renovations had left the place without much of the original architectural detail, but as a result it was airy and open: less apparatchik, more IKEA. Tall windows in the living room looked out over the imperious spires of the Kremlin”), talks to friends and neighbors (“We spoke about the atmosphere in the building back then, what Tolya’s grandparents must have been thinking as the bright and just world they thought they had built began to cannibalize itself”), and recounts the building’s nightmarish history:

Volin, I learned, kept a suitcase packed with warm clothes behind the couch, ready in case of arrest and sentence to the Gulag. His wife burned an archive of papers dating from his time as a Bolshevik emissary in Paris, fearing that the work would brand him a foreign spy. They gave their daughter, Tolya’s mother, a peculiar set of instructions. Every day after school, she was to take the elevator to the ninth floor—not the eighth, where the family lived—and look down the stairwell. If she saw an N.K.V.D. agent outside the apartment, she was supposed to get back on the elevator, go downstairs, and run to a friend’s house.

Interestingly, even though Yaffa lives in the House on the Embankment and is intensely aware of its traumatic history, he’s not weighed down by it. When a former tenant says to him that the building “stands on mournful ground, and its residents are doomed to carry a very difficult sorrow,” he writes,

I, like many of my acquaintances in the building, don’t necessarily feel the burden of such heavy symbolism. A friend of mine, Nina Zavrieva, a consultant and tech entrepreneur, grew up in an apartment that first belonged to her grandfather, a lawyer who worked in the Politburo secretariat. Nina, who is thirty, told me that from a young age she was familiar with the building’s rich history. “I knew all this in theory, but I never really felt it,” she said. “I never internalized it.” I asked her if anything about the building felt different after all these years. She said that she wasn’t sure, then remembered something: the color of the façade had changed. “At some point, it was pink, then it became bright gray, but really I don’t think I notice anymore.”

I never really felt it. I find this detachment from the traumatic history of the building they live in fascinating. Unlike, say, W. G. Sebald, in The Rings of Saturn, immersed in melancholy contemplation of the past (“Everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life,” etc.), Yaffa and his friend Nina show a tonic pragmatism. The House on the Embankment isn’t a ruin; it’s a functioning apartment building. Life goes on.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

October 9, 2017 Issue

Janet Malcolm’s “The Storyteller,” a profile of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, in this week’s issue, contains a delightful surprise. In the penultimate section, a vivid character from one of her earliest New Yorker pieces suddenly reappears. Here are the words that usher him in:

“Does the name Ben Maddow mean anything to you?” Maddow asked during one of our early interviews. “Yes, it does,” I said. In the early eighties, I had read a brilliant book—an illustrated biography of the photographer Edward Weston—by a man of that name.

The book is Edward Weston: Fifty Years. Malcolm not only read it; she favorably reviewed it in a piece titled “Two Photographers” (The New Yorker, November 18, 1974; re-titled “East and West” in her superb 1980 collection, Diana & Nikon), praising it for, among other things, its “enormous, almost novelistic, interest,” and concluding that it will “outlast many of Weston’s photographs.”

This is high praise, indeed, from a critic known for her disdain for biography: see, for example, her great The Silent Woman (1994) (“Biography is the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world”). Maddow’s Edward Weston: Fifty Years is one of the few biographies she’s admired. (Another is Quentin Bell’s Virginia Woolf: see “A House of One’s Own,” The New Yorker, June 5, 1995.)

Malcolm’s “East and West” imprinted Ben Maddow’s name in my memory. The passage in “The Storyteller,” beginning with the words “Does the name Ben Maddow mean anything to you?,” made me smile. Here is Malcolm, forty-three years after “East and West,” writing about Maddow again. Nothing in those intervening decades has changed her opinion of his book. She calls it “brilliant.”

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Bill Charlap's Sparkling "Uptown, Downtown"

September was a banner month. Two of my heroes produced new works. John McPhee published Draft No. 4. And Bill Charlap released Uptown, Downtown. I’ve already posted my response to McPhee’s superb book (see here, here, and here). Today, I want to comment on Charlap’s brilliant album. The choice of material is inspired – Gerry Mulligan’s “Curtains,” Tommy Wolf and Fran Landesman’s “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” Stephen Sondheim’s “Uptown, Downtown,” Isham Jones and Gus Kahn’s “The One I Love Belongs to Someone Else,” Michael Leonard and Herbert Martin’s “I’m All Smiles,” Rodgers and Hart’s “There’s a Small Hotel,” Gigi Gryce’s “Satellite,” Jim Hall’s “Bon Ami,” and Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady.” Each number is stocked with surprising notes and rich melodic imaginings. Charlap’s playing is fresh, sparkling, and perfect. He’s an improviser of the greatest subtlety and invention. His sidemen – bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington – are excellent. My favorite cut is “Curtains,” a gorgeous, swinging, shimmering thing that went straight into my personal anthology of great piano jazz.

Friday, October 6, 2017

October 2, 2017 Issue

Pick of the Issue this week is Alex Ross’s charming “Cather People,” an account of his recent trip to Red Cloud, Nebraska, to attend the opening of the National Willa Cather Center. He stays at a bed-and-breakfast, roams the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie (“When I was last there, in June, the sky was a blaring blue and the hills were a murmur of greens. The air was hot and heavy enough that thoughts evaporated from my mind. I lay under a cottonwood tree and listened to leaves and grass swaying”), talks about Cather’s letters (“The letters echo her voice—‘confident, elegant, detailed, openhearted,’ as Jewell and Stout describe it”), speaks with Cather scholars, and recalls visits he made a few years ago to places in New Mexico that figure in Cather’s novels. One such place is Acoma. Ross writes,

The vistas around that shiver-inducing place, which a small group of Acoma still inhabit, have hardly changed since Cather saw them almost a century ago, and, as usual, her description is definitive: “This mesa plain had an appearance of great antiquity, and of incompleteness; as if, with all the materials for world-making assembled, the Creator had desisted, gone away and left everything on the point of being brought together, on the eve of being arranged into mountain, plain, plateau. The country was still waiting to be made into a landscape.”

“Cather People” is a delightful blend of travelogue and literary criticism. I enjoyed it immensely.