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.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

September 18, 2017 Issue

Evan Osnos, in his extraordinary “On the Brink,” in this week’s issue, reports on a trip he made to Pyongyang, North Korea, last month, three days after Trump’s “locked and loaded” tweet. I say “extraordinary” because Osnos’s piece puts us on the ground inside North Korea at the very moment when the U.S. and North Korea appear headed for the unthinkable – nuclear war. It’s the equivalent of having an American reporter in Havana at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. I confess I read “On the Brink” somewhat perversely, hoping not only to gain insight into what Kim Jong Un is really up to (are his threats serious or is he merely posturing?), but also to enjoy a good travel tale. I wasn’t disappointed. In Pyongyang, Osnos stays at the Kobangsan Guest House (“The place had an air of low-cost opulence—chandeliers, rhinestones, and pleather sofas”). He has supper with a Foreign Ministry official in a private hotel dining room (“We were in a private hotel dining room that felt like a surgical theatre: a silent, scrubbed, white-walled room bathed in bright light. Two waitresses in black uniforms served each course: ginkgo soup, black-skin chicken, kimchi, river fish, and vanilla ice cream, along with glasses of beer, red wine, and soju”). In the company of a Foreign Ministry guide, he tours Pyongyang and notes what he sees:

Soviet-era Ladas and ancient city buses ply the streets, while passengers stick their heads out the windows in search of cool air. Buildings are adorned with Korean-language banners hailing the “Juche ideology,” the official state credo, which glorifies self-reliance and loyalty. On an embankment near a major intersection, workers in gray coveralls were installing an enormous red sign that praised the “immortal achievements of the esteemed Supreme Leader, comrade Kim Jong Un, who built the nuclear state of Juche, the leader in rocket power!”

Some women can be seen wearing stilettos and short skirts, though these can be no higher than two inches above the knee, according to Workers’ Party regulations. (Jeans are still practically taboo, because of their association with America.) Now and then, I saw people hunched over cell phones. Since 2013, Pyongyang has had 3G mobile service, but most people have access only to North Korea’s self-contained intranet, which allows them to send e-mail inside the country and to look at some Web sites.

I passed couples whispering on park benches, and a grandmother following a toddler across fresh asphalt. A black Lexus, buffed to a high shine, honked its way through pedestrians. (Officially, most private cars are provided as gifts from the Supreme Leader, but insiders acquire cars by registering them in the names of state enterprises.) We came upon a van fitted with oversized loudspeakers on its roof. Pak said that the message being played was a “warning about American aggression.” He explained, “We have a propaganda unit in every district.” Nobody seemed to be paying much attention.

I relished Osnos’s use of “I”; it’s the glue that holds his extensive report together, enlivening it with personal perspective (e.g., “Outside the Administration, the more people I talked to, the more I heard a strong case for some level of diplomatic contact”).

My takeaway from “On the Brink” is that North Korea is deeply sunk in its own mythology (some would say propaganda), dangerously cut off from reality. In one of Osnos’s most compelling passages, he writes,

Every country valorizes its war record, but North Korea’s mythology—the improbable victory, the divine wisdom of the Kim family, and America’s enduring weakness and hostility—has shaped its conception of the present to a degree that is hard for the rest of the world to understand. In something close to a state religion, North Korea tells its people that their nation may be small, but its unique “single-hearted unity” would crush a beleaguered American military. That’s a volatile notion.

My favorite details in “On the Brink” have nothing to do with nuclear war. Osnos and his guide stop for lunch at a “large blue-and-white boat that doubles as a restaurant, moored on the banks of the Taedong River.” Osnos writes,

The restaurant’s distinguishing charm is that you can catch your own lunch in its tanks. On the way to our table, we passed a man standing on a ladder, holding a net, trying to nab a large fish with long whiskers. We reached a dining room where several tables were occupied by families, whose members ranged in age from a grandfather in a Mao-style suit to a couple of kids chasing each other around the table.

Details like that man with a net, standing on a ladder “trying to nab a large fish with long whiskers,” and those kids “chasing each other around the table” help humanize a people who, in many respects, seem quite other.    

Thursday, September 21, 2017

John McPhee's "Draft No. 4": Writing Tips

Just fling mud at it. That’s a writing tip, and a damn good one, too, from one of the best in the business – John McPhee. In his absorbing new book, Draft No. 4, McPhee says,

The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something—anything—out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again—top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see.

Draft No. 4 abounds with practical writing tips. Here are three more:

1. Write a lead. “Often, after you have reviewed your notes many times and thought through your material, it is difficult to frame much of a structure until you write a lead. You wade around in your notes, getting nowhere. You don’t see a pattern. You don’t know what to do. So stop everything. Stop looking at the notes. Hunt through your mind for a good beginning. Then write it. Write a lead. If the whole piece is not to be a long one, you may plunge right on and out the other side and have a finished draft before you know it; but if the piece is to have some combination of substance, complexity, and structural juxtaposition that pays dividends, you might begin with that acceptable and workable lead and then be able to sit back with the lead in hand and think about where you are going and how you plan to get there.”

2. Write by hand. “Another way to prime the pump is to write by hand. Keep a legal pad, or something like one, and when you are stuck dead at any time – blocked to paralysis by an inability to set one word upon another – get away from the computer, lie down somewhere with pencil and pad, and think it over. This can do wonders at any point in a piece and is especially helpful when you have written nothing at all. Sooner or later something comes to you. Without getting up, you roll over and scribble on the pad. Go on scribbling as long as the words develop. Then get up and copy what you have written into your computer file.”

3. Look back upstream. “I always know where I intend to end before I have begun to write. William Shawn once told me that my pieces were a little strange because they seemed to have three or four endings. That surely is a result of preoccupation with structure. In any case, it may have led to an experience I have sometimes had in the struggle for satisfaction at the end. Look back upstream. If you have come to your planned ending and it doesn’t seem to be working, run your eye up the page and the page before that. You may see that your best ending is somewhere in there, that you were finished before you thought you were.”

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Faithfulness to Fact: McPhee v. Malcolm

Defenders of the boundary between fact and fiction recently received powerful support from one of the greatest writers of our time – John McPhee. In his new book, Draft No. 4, McPhee writes,

It is sometimes said that the line between fiction and nonfiction has become blurred. Not in this eye, among beholders. The difference between the two is distinct.

McPhee’s view clashes with Janet Malcolm’s. In her “The Master Writer of the City” (The New York Review of Books, April 23, 2015), a review of Thomas Kunkel’s Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker, she excuses Mitchell’s fabrications on the basis of his exceptional gifts as an imaginative writer. She says,

Mitchell’s travels across the line that separates fiction and nonfiction are his singular feat. His impatience with the annoying, boring bits of actuality, his slashings through the underbrush of unreadable facticity, give his pieces their electric force, are why they’re so much more exciting to read than the work of other nonfiction writers of ambition.

McPhee, in his Draft No. 4, shows how that “electric force” can be achieved without messing with the facts. See, for example, his account of how he composed his exquisitely structured “The Encircled River” (“You’re a nonfiction writer. You can’t move that bear around like a king’s pawn or a queen’s bishop. But you can, to an important and effective extent, arrange a structure that is completely faithful to fact”).

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Double Bliss: John McPhee's "Draft No. 4"

Remember Warren Elmer in John McPhee’s superb “The Survival of the Bark Canoe” (The New Yorker, February 24, 1975)? He’s the guy in the bow of Henri Vaillancourt’s canoe who shouted, “You God-damned lunatic, head for the shore!” Well, it turns out that’s not exactly what Elmer said. What he really said, according to McPhee, in his fascinating new book, Draft No. 4, is “You fucking lunatic, head for the shore!” But in 1975, when the piece was written, “fucking” was still a shocker. New Yorker editor, William Shawn, wouldn’t allow it in the magazine. And, as McPhee points out,

There were no alternatives like “f---” or “f**k” or “[expletive deleted],” which sounds like so much gravel going down a chute. If the magazine had employed such devices, which it didn’t, I would have shunned them. “F-word” was not an expression in use then and the country would be better off if it had not become one. So Warren Elmer said “fucking” on Caucomgomoc Lake, but the quote in The New Yorker was “You God-damned lunatic, head for the shore!”

Remember McPhee’s question about the fat gob behind the caribou’s eye in his great “The Encircled River” (The New Yorker, May 2 & 9, 1977)? Removed from its context, it’s one of the most delightfully surreal lines ever to appear in The New Yorker:

To a palate without bias – the palate of an open-minded Berber, the palate of a travelling Martian – which would be the more acceptable, a pink-icinged Pop-Tart with raspberry filling (cold) or the fat gob from behind a caribou’s eye?

In Draft No. 4, McPhee describes Shawn’s queasy response to the above-noted question:

There was in those days something known as “the Shawn proof.” From fact-checkers, other editors, and usage geniuses known as “readers,” there were plenty of proofs, but this austere one stood alone and seldom had much on it, just isolated notations of gravest concern to Mr. Shawn. If he had an aversion to cold places, it was as nothing beside his squeamishness in the virtual or actual presence of uncommon food. I had little experience with him in restaurants, but when I did go to a restaurant with him his choice of entrée ran to cornflakes. He seemed to look over his serving flake by flake to see if any were moving. On the Shawn proof beside the words quoted above, he had written in the wide, white margin – in the tiny letters of his fine script – “the pop tart.”

Draft No. 4 brims with such stories. “It’s McPhee on McPhee,” as Parul Sehgal says in her “The Gloom, Doom and Occasional Joy of the Writing Life” (The New York Times Sunday Book Review, September 13, 2017). In other words, it’s double bliss – an enthralling tour of some of McPhee’s finest works, conducted by the Master himself. I’m enjoying it immensely.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Interesting Emendations: John McPhee's Brilliant "Structure"

The “Structure” in John McPhee’s excellent new book, Draft No. 4, is not the “Structure” that appeared in the January 14, 2013, New Yorker. The book version contains three additional sections – one on the composition of “The Encircled River” (The New Yorker, May 2 & 9, 1977), one on writing leads, and one on the structuring of “Looking For a Ship” (The New Yorker, March 26 & April 2, 1990). These additions make “Structure” the longest and, for me, the richest of Draft No. 4’s eight essays. I’ll have more to say about this great piece in future posts.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

September 11, 2017 Issue

Anthony Lane, reviewing the Dardenne brothers’ new film, The Unknown Girl, in this weeks issue, mocks the documentary plainness of their work. He writes,

Holy moly, a Dardenne car chase! Purists may flinch, but the rest of us are already looking forward to the brothers’ next film, Fast & Furious: Showdown in Seraing, in which only Vin Diesel and his matte-black Corvette can get the lonely single mother to the welfare office before it closes for lunch. ["Inquiring Minds"]

That line made me smile. It’s true that Dardenne movies lack visual extravagance. But that’s exactly what I like about them. They track the problems and troubles that afflict ordinary, yet particular individuals, and find the drama in that. As Christine Smallwood says, in her terrific “The In-Between World” (The New York Review of Books, May 10, 2012), a review of the Dardennes’ great The Kid with a Bike, “The Dardennes are interested in the everyday moral dramas of average people suffering and colliding and surviving within it.” That doesn’t mean their films are boring. Quite the opposite – they’re transfixing! Smallwood says of them, “These films are high-wire acts of dramatic irony.” I agree. I look forward to seeing The Unknown Girl.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Hilaire Belloc's Flawed Genius (Contra Calvin Tompkins)

Calvin Tompkins, in his “The Inexplicably Enduring Appeal of Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales” (, September 5, 2017), says, “Belloc had the bad luck to mistake himself for a serious writer.” I think Tompkins is the one who’s mistaken. At the level of diction, rhythm, and syntax, Belloc was a genius. Wilfrid Sheed called him “a grand master of language” (The Morning After, 1972). This points us in the right direction. Consider these passages from Belloc's classic 1902 travelogue The Path to Rome:

It was in the very beginning of June, at evening, but not yet sunset, that I set out from Toul by the Nancy gate; but instead of going straight on past the parade-ground, I turned to the right immediately along the ditch and rampart, and did not leave the fortifications till I came to the road that goes up along the Moselle.

So I thanked him and went and found there a youth of about nineteen, who sat at a fine oak table and had coffee, rum, and a loaf before him. He was waiting for the bread in the oven to be ready; and meanwhile he was very courteous, poured out coffee and rum for me and offered me bread

When I awoke it was full eight o’clock, and the sun had gained great power. I saw him shining at me through the branches of my tree like a patient enemy outside a city that one watches through the loopholes of a tower, and I began to be afraid of taking the road. I looked below me down the steep bank between the trunks and saw the canal looking like black marble, and I heard the buzzing of the flies above it, and I noted that all the mist had gone. A very long way off, the noise of its ripples coming clearly along the floor of the water, was a lazy barge and a horse drawing it. From time to time the tow-rope slackened into the still surface, and I heard it dripping as it rose. The rest of the valley was silent except for that under-humming of insects which marks the strength of the sun.

Then I came into the long street and determined to explore Epinal, and to cast aside all haste and folly

There are many wonderful things in Epinal. As, for instance, that it was evidently once, like Paris and Melun and a dozen other strongholds of Gaul, an island city.

Then the apse is pure and beautiful Gothic of the fourteenth century, with very tall and fluted windows like single prayers.

As this was the first really great height, so this was the first really great view that I met with on my pilgrimage. I drew it carefully, piece by piece, sitting there a long time in the declining sun and noting all I saw.

When I call up for myself this great march I see it all mapped out in landscapes, each of which I caught from some mountain, and each of which joins on to that before and to that after it, till I can piece together the whole road.

By the time I reached it the dawn began to occupy the east.

For a long time I stood in a favoured place, just above a bank of trees that lined the river, and watched the beginning of the day, because every slow increase of light promised me sustenance.

This book is endlessly quotable. Unfortunately, it’s marred by two or three passages of anti-Semitism. Belloc was both a considerable writer and a considerable anti-Semite.