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, April 20, 2018

April 16, 2018 Issue

For me, the most absorbing piece in this week’s issue is James Wood’s “Long Road Ahead,” a review of Walter Kempowski’s novel All for Nothing. To say that I’m a fan of Wood’s criticism is an understatement. I’m crazy about it. Of the seven hundred and thirty-six posts I’ve written for this blog, one hundred are tagged with his name, more than any other writer. The next closest is Ian Frazier, with eighty-nine. Wood is a formalist; he analyzes style. That’s what I like most about his work. That he prefers fiction to fact is an annoyance I’ve learned to live with. Many of his critical points are applicable to fiction and nonfiction alike (e.g., his theory of detail). In “Long Road Ahead,” he provides an interesting variation on his notion of “free indirect speech”:

One reason that Kempowski’s interrogative prose has a strange air of detachment is that the words have indeed detached themselves from the characters. Two people bend over the map, each with different anxieties, but who is thinking these thoughts about the Russians? Hirsch, Katharina, Kempowski, or all three? Most of “All for Nothing” is written in free indirect discourse, which is to say that the novelist’s prose closely identifies itself with the perspective and the language of a particular character. But here the questions appear to be voiced by a chorus. The effect is a kind of uncertain omniscience, which allows the novelist not only to move easily among his characters but to blend their thoughts, when need be, into a collective anxiety. It’s a modern epic style. 

Wood has written about free indirect speech before: see, for example, his great How Fiction Works (2008). And I’ve found examples of it in fact pieces (see my post on Lizzie Widdicombe’s “Happy Together,” The New Yorker, May 16, 2016). But in the above-quoted passage, he identifies a new form of it – free indirect speech “voiced by a chorus.” I can’t think of a nonfiction example of it. But from now on, I’ll definitely be watching for it.   

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.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Feinstein's Fine Line

Frank Sinatra (Photo by W. Eugene Smith)

Is politics taking over The New Yorker?

I’m not just talking about Trump, although the magazine’s Trump coverage verges on the excessive. I’m talking about sexual politics. This, for example, from a recent “Night Life” note on Michael Feinstein:

Feinstein is going to have to walk a very fine line as he celebrates the sexist, boozing, and crass-as-they-wanted-to-be kings of the Rat Pack: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr. It’s fortunate that each was a masterly singer who embraced some of the most durable standards still heard today. [April 2, 2018]

I take it that the line Feinstein has to walk is the separation between the artist and his art. He’s allowed to sing Rodgers’ great The Lady Is A Tramp, a song that Sinatra swung magnificently, as long as he doesn’t say anything that could be construed as admiration for Sinatra’s playboy lifestyle. I’m sure Feinstein is capable of pulling this off. But it strikes me as a shade hypocritical, because Sinatra’s life and music are inseparable. Somewhere in his letters, van Gogh says, “If I weren’t as I am I wouldn’t paint.” The same applies to Sinatra. If he’d lived another way, he wouldn’t have been the singer he was.

Friday, April 6, 2018

April 2, 2018 Issue

For me, the most sheerly pleasurable writing in this week’s issue is the opening paragraph of Anthony Lane’s “Unusual Suspects,” a review of Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane and Aaron Katz’s Gemini. Lane writes,

There is a lovely photograph of James Mason and Eva Marie Saint on the set of “North by Northwest” (1959). They are clad for the auction scene; he wears a pale-gray suit, and her dress is rich in roses. He holds her lightly by the arm, smiling, as she stands behind the camera on which the sequence will be filmed. And what a formidable beast that camera is: as big as a motorbike but far less streamlined, bearing on its broad flank the legend “VistaVision”—the wide-screen format in which Hitchcock also shot “To Catch a Thief” (1955), “The Man who Knew Too Much” (1956), and “Vertigo” (1958). James Wong Howe, a king among cinematographers, used VistaVision on “The Rose Tattoo” (1955), and there’s a portrait of him with a similar camera, which towers above him on its wheeled crane, and which he holds by a cable, as if leading a velociraptor through Jurassic Park. Howe, like Hitchcock, knew that the cumbersome effort was worthwhile, for the result would be a rolling expanse of fine-grained images, filling the audience’s gaze. Such beauty could be summoned by the beast.

That “and there’s a portrait of him with a similar camera, which towers above him on its wheeled crane, and which he holds by a cable, as if leading a velociraptor through Jurassic Park” is brilliant. The whole passage is superb, an ingeniously contrastive way to highlight a distinctive aspect of Soderbergh’s Unsane – his use of an iPhone 7 Plus to film it.

Lane isn’t impressed with Unsane’s iPhone cinematography. He says, “I found it as coarse as canvas, though you have to admire Soderbergh for adding a new vista to his vision.”

Thursday, March 29, 2018

March 26, 2018 Issue

In her wonderful poem “Giraffe,” in this week’s issue, Lucie Brock-Broido, who died earlier this month, muses on reincarnation. In the opening sentence, she says of the giraffe, “In another life, he was Caesar’s pet, perhaps a gift from Cleopatra / When she returned to Rome / Her hair salty and sapphire / From bathing, the winged kohl around her eyes smudged / From heat.” Her next sentence continues the theme: “In another life, he was from Somalia / Where he spent hours watching clouds / In shapes of feral acrobats tipping along their tightropes / Spun of camels’ hair and jute.” Several lines later, she writes, “Once, in another life in the Serengeti, he stretched his neck / To feed on the acacia twigs, mimosa, wild apricot.” Further on, she writes, “If you come back from the other world, to this— / The sky in Denmark, in its reticulated weathers, is inky / On most days in February now.” There are a couple of other lines implying a form of reincarnation, as well: “In the Copenhagen Zoo they only name the animals who grow / Old there, and, in this life, they called him / Marius but he was just a two-year-old,” and “In that moment was he looking at a gray, cobbled / Steeple in the middle distance of a dome / Or thinking of a time when his life was circled by a mane / Of warmth in a bright Numidian sun?” I find these lines ravishing. That “clouds / In shapes of feral acrobats tipping along their tightropes / Spun of camels’ hair and jute” is inspired. The whole poem is brilliant, a perfect illustration of what Dan Chiasson meant when he said, “From her very first poems, collected in A Hunger (1988), Brock-Broido has shown how to bring maximum dazzle to every detail” (“The Ghost Writer,” The New Yorker, October 28, 2013).

Thursday, March 22, 2018

March 19, 2018 Issue

“The architects Louise Harpman and Scott Specht began collecting takeout-coffee lids when they were in college, in the nineteen-eighties, and continued the practice as graduate students at Yale.” So begins Anna Russell’s excellent Talk story “Caffeinated,” in this week’s issue. Reading it, I instantly thought of Robert Sullivan. In his great Cross Country (2006), Sullivan chronicles, among other things, his fascination with plastic coffee lids. At one point, he says,

Plastic coffee lids represent an area in the cross-country world where stream-lined uniformity has not yet prevailed – they are the last vestiges of differentiation. I don’t like to think that we would ever be a one-lid nation, though that day may come.

He even mentions Louise Harpman and Scott Specht:

In their seminal essay on lid design, Louise Harpman and Scott Specht, two lid collectors, identified what they called the “pucker” as the next developmental step in the to-go lid: a plastic lid with a hole, the hole being in that portion of the lid that is constructed in an elevated, mountain-range-like shape.

Russell’s piece tells about some fieldwork Specht and Harpman conducted recently in SoHo. They visit a number of cafés, including Lafayette, La Colombe, Think Coffee, and Gasoline Alley. Russell writes,

In Think Coffee, a man in a blazer, holding two hot drinks, waited while the pair examined the dimples on the compostable lids. “Decaf, cream, and black—that’s all,” Specht said.

“Caffeinated” artfully conveys Specht and Harpman’s crazy world of coffee lid collecting. I enjoyed it immensely.

Monday, March 19, 2018

On Lucie Brock-Broido: Chiasson and Vendler

Lucie Brock-Broido (Photo by Karen Meyers)
Hannah Aizenman, in her “The Enchanting Poems of Lucie Brock-Broido (1956-2018), From The New Yorker Archive” (, March 8, 2018), refers to two New Yorker reviews of Brock-Broido’s work: Helen Vendler’s “Drawn to Figments and Occasion” (August 7, 1989) and Dan Chiasson’s “The Ghost Writer” (October 28, 2013). It’s interesting to compare them.

Both pieces are admiring. Vendler says of Brock-Broido’s “Elective Mutes,” “The rhythmic momentum of this piece of Americana and the audacity of throwing it into a poem about mad English twins suggest the drivenness of Brock-Broido’s imagination, which at other times can be delicate and lyrical.” Chiasson writes, “Brock-Broido’s poems can be baffling, but because of their stylish spookiness (some combination of Poe and Stevie Nicks) they are never boring.” Note that “stylish spookiness”; Vendler calls Brock-Broido’s “Heartbeat” “spookily lyrical.”

Both pieces are also critical. Vendler writes,

Some of the hazards of Brock-Broido’s enterprise are easily seen: preciousness, exaggeration, a histrionic use of the more sensational edges of the news. Other hazards, less immediately apparent, take an insidious toll in the long run – chiefly the persistent use of a few obsessive words, among them the adjectives “small,” “little,” “tiny,” “frail,”, “fragile”; the nouns “child” and “girl”; the verb “curl.”

Chiasson says Brock-Broido’s poems have a “blurted quality, as though long-roiling tumult finally blew off the stopper.” He continues:

The thrill of improvisation is precisely that it cannot be isolated from the risk of mere looniness or doodling. I don’t like everything in Brock-Broido’s work, but, to steer clear of tour de force, a style like this one has to fail some of the time; it has to find some subject that suits it badly.

I like that “thrill of improvisation.” It gets at the quality in Brock-Broido’s work I most enjoy – its combinational wizardry. Vendler catches this quality when she says of Brock-Broider’s “I Wish You Love,”

A broken heart, death, the exhumed body of Mengele, ecological disaster, commercial slaughter, the humdrum, the extravagant, the technological, the distorted, the lyric all lurch together into an eclectic postmodern elegy.

That “lurch” is inspired. It exactly captures the wayward dream logic of Brock-Broido’s dazzling art.