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 Ben McGrath is not like a piece by Jill Lepore, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Goodyear, or Filkins for Khatchadourian, or Bilger for Paumgarten. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, December 9, 2016

December 5, 2016, Issue

One trait I can’t abide is snobbery. I detect a trace of it in James Wood. I detect it in the question he asks in his “A Fine Rage” (The New Yorker, April 13, 2009): “Why on earth should Dickens have wanted to resemble the working classes? Why would anyone want to, least of all the working classes themselves?” I detect it in his description of his mother as “petty-bourgeois” (“On Not Going Home, London Review of Books, February 20, 2014), a description he repeats in his memoir of his mother, titled “The Teacher,” in this week’s issue (“Her own origins were lower middle class, petit bourgeois”). Most of all, I detect it in his use of “shabby”:

This semi-fictional England, beautifully described in “The Lion and the Unicorn,” was a rather shabby, stoical, anti-American, ideally classless place, devoted to small English pleasures like marmalade and suet pudding and fishing in country ponds, puritanical about large luxuries like the Ritz Hotel and Rolls-Royces, and suspicious of modern conveniences like aspirins, shiny American apples, cars, and radios.  [“A Fine Rage”]

Route 12D, north of Utica, New York, south of Fort Drum and Carthage, runs through poor, shabby countryside. In the unravelled townships, there are trailers and collapsed farmhouses. Here and there, a new silo, shining like a chrome torpedo, suggests a fresh start, or maybe just the arrival of agribusiness. The pall of lost prosperity hangs heavily. Heavily? No, to the skimming driver aiming elsewhere it falls only vaguely. [“Shelf Life,” The New Yorker, November 7, 2011]

She preferred the security of the law, or medicine (the path my brother took), or the academy (a shabby but dependable cousin to these grander professions). [“The Teacher”]

Obviously, class distinctions are important to Wood. Shabbiness, in his privileged eyes, denotes inferiority. Trump would surely agree with him; I don't. “Nobody better, better than nobody” is my philosophy. The artists and writers I admire most are generously egalitarian. They don’t look down on anyone. W. H. Auden said of van Gogh, “He believed that the truly human subject for art in his day was the life of the poor” (“Calm Even in the Catastrophe”). I believe that’s true in our day, too. Some of the writers Wood admires believed it, e.g., Chekhov, Henry Green. But I’m not sure Wood himself does.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

James Merrill's “Self-Portrait in Tyvek™ Windbreaker”

James Merrill (Photo by Jill Krementz)

Great poets can make poetry out of the damnedest things. Prime example: James Merrill’s “Self-Portrait in Tyvek™ Windbreaker.” I first read it when it appeared in the February 24, 1992, New Yorker. I remember it for the white windbreaker imprinted with a world map delightfully described in the first stanza:

The windbreaker is white with a world map.
DuPont contributed the seeming-frail,
Unrippable stuff first used for Priority Mail.
Weightless as shores reflected in deep water,
The countries are violet, orange, yellow, green;
Names of the principal towns and rivers, black.
A zipper’s hiss, and the Atlantic Ocean closes
Over my blood-red T-shirt from the Gap.

But, as Stephen Burt points out in his marvelous new book, The Poem Is You, Merrill’s poem contains two windbreakers – a white one and a black one. The black one briefly materializes in the second-last stanza (“It’s my windbreaker / In black, with starry longitudes, Archer, Goat”). Burt comments,

Merrill learned in 1986 that he had HIV, for which in the early 1990s there were no effective treatments; “Self-Portrait” has also been read as his plan for his funeral, a self-elegy complete with choice of coffin. As Helen Vendler explains, by the penultimate stanzas Merrill has decided that the original windbreaker, “white with a world map,” cannot be his shroud: the “black celestial twin of his jacket,” however, strikes him as a “garment for death not only appropriate but beautiful.”

The reference is to Helen Vendler’s “Self-Portraits While Dying: James Merrill and A Scattering of Salts” (Last Looks, Last Books, 2010), a brilliant study of Merrill’s dying self-portraits, in which “Self-Portrait in Tyvek™ Windbreaker” is described as an “organic living portrait, the poet’s last walk wearing his absurd and surreal Tyvek shroud.”

Merrill’s world-map-imprinted white Tyvek windbreaker may be absurd and surreal, but I like it. I suspect Merrill secretly did, too. After all, as Burt points out, he wore it. And wearing it is what inspired this beautifully flowing, chiming poem. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

November 28, 2016, Issue

I find flashbacks annoying. They impede narrative momentum, scramble time frames, disrupt cause and effect. The worst, for me, are the jarring, disjointed Blue Valentine variety in which time jumps without notice. Those are the flashbacks that, as Anthony Lane says, in his review of Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, in this week’s issue, “take some getting used to.” Lane describes them perfectly:

They’re not announced in any way. They don’t look different from what’s happening now. They just cut right in, like a car pulling in front of you, and you have to brake for a second and take stock. Near the start of the film, for instance, Lee learns from a phone call that Joe has suffered cardiac failure, in Manchester; by the time that Lee has driven from Boston to the coast, his brother has died. Suddenly, we flick to Joe sitting up in bed, in hospital, being given a diagnosis. The past is upon us, without ado, and we have the curious sensation of watching a living person in the immediate aftermath of his death. The is and the was are looped and tied together.

Lane isn’t irked by Lonergan’s use of flashback. He finds meaning in it. He makes sense of Lonergan’s art. This is instructive. I must learn to be more tolerant of flashbacks. Manchester by the Sea will be a good test.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Inexplicable Omission of Ian Frazier’s “Hogs Wild” from The New York Times’ “100 Notable Books of 2016”

I see the editors of The New York Times Book Review have selected their “100 Notable Books of 2016.” It’s a fine list, except for one whopping flaw – the inexplicable omission of Ian Frazier’s brilliant collection of New Yorker reporting pieces, Hogs Wild. Frazier is one of the all-time great literary journalists – in a class with A. J. Liebling, Joseph Mitchell, and John McPhee. Hogs Wild is his richest collection. It should not only be in the Top 100; it should be in the Top 10. The Times’ failure to include it on its list is baffling.

Friday, November 25, 2016

November 21, 2016, Issue

This week’s issue contains two scintillating pieces by Jill Lepore: “Esmé in Neverland,” an account of an unsuccessful attempt to make J. D. Salinger’s “For Esmé – With Love and Squalor” into a movie; and “Wars Within,” part of the superb series “Aftermath: Sixteen Writers on Trump’s America.”

“Esmé in Neverland” begins with Lepore poking around an overgrown eighteenth-century Vermont farm:

Ruins were everywhere. The overgrown labyrinth; stone walls; the foundations of barns; a pine shack, collapsed; abandoned roads; a junk yard at the bottom of a ravine, a little village of bathtubs and glass bottles and old stoves and washbasins; dumped cars, a Plymouth of indiscernible vintage, a Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, its hood and trunk popped open, like an upturned deerstalker cap. Grapevines climbed up the mopey branches of a willow. Wasps had lain siege to the barn. There was a wooden rocking horse in the shed, a faded Victorian settee in the attic, and, crammed in between the rafters, resting on plaster made of lime and horsehair, there were corncob husks that had been fashioned into Colonial dolls, folded and tied into the shape of skirted girls.

Note that Karmann Ghia; it appears again at the end of the piece. In between, Lepore tells the fascinating story of how J. D. Salinger’s “For Esmé – With Love and Squalor” (The New Yorker, April 8, 1950) nearly got made into a movie. The man at the center of this project was a TV director named Peter Tewksbury. Lepore is a consummate rescuer of the dead (see, for example, her superb “Joe Gould’s Teeth,” The New Yorker, July 27, 2015); Tewksbury is one of her great rescues. He was a successful TV director, winning an Emmy in 1959 for “Father Knows Best.” But, as Lepore reports, “Toward the end of the nineteen-sixties, he threw his Emmy out the window of a car and left Hollywood.” He and his wife, Ann Schuyler, moved to a farm in Vermont, then to California, , then to Canada, then back to Vermont, where, Lepore says, “he lived very happily, until his death, in 2003, when he was nearly eighty.” One of the things he did during his Vermont years was make cheese. Lepore writes,

Tewksbury learned to make cheese by driving from dairy to dairy, talking to farmers. He got a job at the Brattleboro Food Co-op as a dishwasher. He worked his way up to the cheese counter. “I know the cheeses and I know the people,” he wrote, in his only book, “The Cheeses of Vermont.” In 2001, a reporter from the Times found him after calling every Tewksbury in the phone book. Tewksbury agreed to meet him at the co-op. He came out from behind the cheese counter with his hat on and sat down. He gave the reporter fifteen minutes, the length of his break. He did not mention J. D. Salinger.

Amazing! Here’s a guy who directed Elvis Presley, Fred MacMurray, and Danny Thomas, had two hit TV series (“Father Knows Best” and “My Three Sons”), and happily spent the last thirty years of life working at the cheese counter of the Brattleboro Food Co-op. I admire the hell out of him.

As for that Karmann Ghia with “its hood and trunk popped open, like an upturned deerstalker cap” that Lepore finds as she noses around Tewksbury’s old farm, it reappears in the piece’s brilliant final paragraph:

I left the labyrinth and went back to the barn. I laid my spade on the floor. I hung up my axe. I wondered who owned that Karmann Ghia. I crammed a jackknife into my pocket and went back to the woods. I figured I might be able to pry open the glove compartment.

Jill Lepore is among The New Yorker’s very best writers. “Esmé in Neverland” is one of her finest pieces. I enjoyed it immensely.

The other Lepore piece in this week’s issue, “Wars Within,” is part of the “Aftermath” series assessing the implications of Trump’s shocking election. Of the series’ sixteen essays, “Wars Within” comes closest to expressing my view. Lepore writes, “There are many reasons for our troubles. But the deepest reason is inequality: the forms of political, cultural, and economic polarization that have been widening, not narrowing, for decades.” What’s needed, in my opinion, is what Charles Reich advocated in The New Yorker forty-six years ago: a change of consciousness (“The Greening of America,” September 26, 1970). Peter Tewksbury’s life exemplifies such a change.

Other pleasures in this week’s issue: “Goings On About Town” ’s delightfully surreal description of Carolee Schneemann’s “Precarious” (“An associatively structured collage of degraded video footage, focused on the constrained movements of a caged cockatoo, a chained bear, dancing prison inmates, and the artist herself, wearing a blindfold”); Jeremy Liebman’s gorgeous photograph of Yeman Café’s kitchen stove, illustrating Nicolas Niarchos’s sensuous “Tables For Two” (“The liquid is murky but it sparkles with citrusy zest when it hits the tongue”); Colin Stoke’s vivid “Bar Tab” description of the “unironic” goings on at Kettle of Fish (“Choruses of ‘I Love My Green Bay Packers’ and ‘The Bears Still Suck’ bounced off wood-panelled walls like a ball off a receiver’s hand, and homesick Wisconsinites ordered delicious ‘imported’ brats buried in sauerkraut and mustard for five dollars”); Tad Friend’s inspired Talk story “The Undead,” in which cast members of “The Dead, 1904” rehearse for an “immersive re-creation” of the holiday feast in James Joyce’s “The Dead” (“O’Reilly sampled the petits fours and wondered whether the quinoa and Tabasco-flavored ones might not be anachronistic”); Gary Shteyngart’s brilliant “Aftermath” contribution, “Dystopia” (“The jump from Twitter racism to a black church set aflame on a warm Southern night is steady and predictable”); Dan Chiasson’s wonderful “Cross Talk,” a review of Ishion Hutchinson’s “punk-baroque” poetry [“His sound effects are exquisite: the clusters of consonants (hard ‘c’s, then ‘b’s and ‘p’s) and the vowels so open you could fall into them, the magisterial cresting syntax, the brilliant coupling of unlike words (‘iceberg-Golgotha’)].

Monday, November 21, 2016

Is Nicholas Schmidle's "Getting bin Laden" Accurate?

Illustration by John Ritter (from Nicholas Schmidle's "Getting bin Laden")

To what extent, if any, does Seymour Hersh’s controversial “The Killing of Osama bin Laden” (London Review of Books, May 21, 2015) undermine the accuracy of Nicholas Schmidle’s great “Getting bin Laden” (The New Yorker, August 8, 2011)? Hersh’s piece doesn’t mention “Getting bin Laden,” but its account of the Abbottabad raid contradicts at least four aspects of Schmidle’s narrative:

1. Hersh claims bin Laden’s hideout was revealed not by CIA spying, but by a Pakistani informant. He writes,

It began with a walk-in. In August 2010 a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer approached Jonathan Bank, then the CIA’s station chief at the US embassy in Islamabad. He offered to tell the CIA where to find bin Laden in return for the reward that Washington had offered in 2001.

In contrast, Schmidle, in his piece, reports that the CIA discovered bin Laden’s location. He writes,

In August, 2010, Panetta returned to the White House with better news. C.I.A. analysts believed that they had pinpointed bin Laden’s courier, a man in his early thirties named Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Kuwaiti drove a white S.U.V. whose spare-tire cover was emblazoned with an image of a white rhino. The C.I.A. began tracking the vehicle. One day, a satellite captured images of the S.U.V. pulling into a large concrete compound in Abbottabad. Agents, determining that Kuwaiti was living there, used aerial surveillance to keep watch on the compound, which consisted of a three-story main house, a guesthouse, and a few outbuildings. They observed that residents of the compound burned their trash, instead of putting it out for collection, and concluded that the compound lacked a phone or an Internet connection. Kuwaiti and his brother came and went, but another man, living on the third floor, never left. When this third individual did venture outside, he stayed behind the compound’s walls. Some analysts speculated that the third man was bin Laden, and the agency dubbed him the Pacer.

2. Hersh claims that the Pakistani military collaborated in the raid. He says,

Pasha [General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, director general of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI)] and Kayani [General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of Pakistan’s army] were responsible for ensuring that Pakistan’s army and air defence command would not track or engage with the US helicopters used on the mission. The American cell at Tarbela Ghazi was charged with co-ordinating communications between the ISI, the senior US officers at their command post in Afghanistan, and the two Black Hawk helicopters; the goal was to ensure that no stray Pakistani fighter plane on border patrol spotted the intruders and took action to stop them.

He further says, “At the Abbottabad compound ISI guards were posted around the clock to keep watch over bin Laden and his wives and children. They were under orders to leave as soon as they heard the rotors of the US helicopters.”

Schmidle’s account doesn’t indicate any CIA-ISI cooperation. On the contrary, it reports, “Obama decided against informing or working with Pakistan. ‘There was a real lack of confidence that the Pakistanis could keep this secret for more than a nanosecond,’ a senior adviser to the President told me.”

3. Hersh claims that, except for the bullet that struck one of bin Laden’s wives in the knee, and the bullets that killed bin Laden, “no other shots were fired.”

In contrast, Schmidle’s “Getting bin Laden” describes the killing of four people in addition to bin Laden:

(1) Three SEALs in front broke off to clear the guesthouse as the remaining nine blasted through another gate and entered an inner courtyard, which faced the main house. When the smaller unit rounded the corner to face the doors of the guesthouse, they spotted Kuwaiti running inside to warn his wife and children. The Americans’ night-vision goggles cast the scene in pixellated shades of emerald green. Kuwaiti, wearing a white shalwar kameez, had grabbed a weapon and was coming back outside when the SEALs opened fire and killed him.

(2) The nine other seals, including Mark, formed three-man units for clearing the inner courtyard. The Americans suspected that several more men were in the house: Kuwaiti’s thirty-three-year-old brother, Abrar; bin Laden’s sons Hamza and Khalid; and bin Laden himself. One SEAL unit had no sooner trod on the paved patio at the house’s front entrance when Abrar—a stocky, mustachioed man in a cream-colored shalwar kameez—appeared with an AK-47. He was shot in the chest and killed, as was his wife, Bushra, who was standing, unarmed, beside him.

(3) After blasting through the gate with C-4 charges, three seals marched up the stairs. Midway up, they saw bin Laden’s twenty-three-year-old son, Khalid, craning his neck around the corner. He then appeared at the top of the staircase with an AK-47. Khalid, who wore a white T-shirt with an overstretched neckline and had short hair and a clipped beard, fired down at the Americans. (The counterterrorism official claims that Khalid was unarmed, though still a threat worth taking seriously. “You have an adult male, late at night, in the dark, coming down the stairs at you in an Al Qaeda house—your assumption is that you’re encountering a hostile.”) At least two of the seals shot back and killed Khalid.

It should be noted that in a passage that precedes the above description of Khalid’s death, Schmidle says,

Until this moment, the operation had been monitored by dozens of defense, intelligence, and Administration officials watching the drone’s video feed. The SEALs were not wearing helmet cams, contrary to a widely cited report by CBS. None of them had any previous knowledge of the house’s floor plan, and they were further jostled by the awareness that they were possibly minutes away from ending the costliest manhunt in American history; as a result, some of their recollections—on which this account is based—may be imprecise and, thus, subject to dispute.

4. Hersh reports that bin Laden’s body was not buried at sea, that “the remains, including his head, which had only a few bullet holes in it, were thrown into a body bag and, during the helicopter flight back to Jalalabad, some body parts were tossed out over the Hindu Kush mountains – or so the Seals claimed.”

Schmidle says that the SEALs brought bin Laden’s body back to Jalalabad. From there it was taken to Bagram, and then it was flown to the U.S. aircraft carrier Carl Vinson where it was “washed, wrapped in a white burial shroud, weighted, and then slipped inside a bag.” Schmidle writes,

The process was done “in strict conformance with Islamic precepts and practices,” Brennan [John Brennan, Obama’s counterterrorism advisor] later told reporters. The JSOC liaison, the military-police contingent, and several sailors placed the shrouded body on an open-air elevator, and rode down with it to the lower level, which functions as a hangar for airplanes. From a height of between twenty and twenty-five feet above the waves, they heaved the corpse into the water.

Hersh’s piece raises interesting questions. Nevertheless, the events in Schmidle’s “Gettting bin Laden” are so exactly described, so immersively detailed, I find it hard to believe they're fabricated. It’s more likely, in my opinion, that Hersh, not Schmidle, is wrong. I find support for my view in Ahmed Rashid’s recent “Sy Hersh and Osama bin Laden: The Right and the Wrong” (The New York Review of Books, September 29, 2016), in which Rashid considers, among other things, Hersh’s argument that the Pakistani military collaborated in the Abbottabad raid. He concludes:

In view of the history of bad relations between the CIA and ISI during the period before the raid, it is inconceivable to me that the cooperation between them that Hersh describes could have taken place. That Hersh mentions none of these tensions and nothing at all about the state of CIA-ISA relations seems to me inexplicable. Moreover, in the aftermath of the Abbottabad raid, both the commanding general of the Pakistani army and senior ISI officers faced acute embarrassment and accusations from the civilian government, the parliament, the media, and the public. They were deemed incompetent for allowing US helicopters into Pakistani airspace. It is not plausible that military commanders would deliberately risk the kind of humiliation that Pakistan’s army then faced. Hersh does not nay of this fallout.

As well, I find it odd that Hersh omits any mention of Schmidle’s piece. An argument that fails to address the major case against it lacks credibility. “Getting bin Laden” is based, as Schmidle says, on the recollections of SEALs who carried out the raid. Surely, their account of what happened that night in Abbottabad is deserving of immense weight. If Hersh disbelieves Schmidle’s account, he should say so and give his reasons. His failure to refer to “Getting bin Laden” is, in my view, a major weakness of his piece.

Friday, November 18, 2016

November 14, 2016, Issue

Who knew that when Alex Ross wasn't covering the musical landscape, he was nosing around Death Valley, communing with lizards, wildflowers, and sculptural rock formations? His “Desert Bloom,” an account of his Death Valley explorations, in this week’s issue, is a delight. He describes Death Valley as “not so much a desert as a surreally varied mountain region with a desert at its heart.” He says, “I have gone back to Death Valley every so often, and this year I have made a series of visits, trying to better understand its allure.”

“Desert Bloom” brims with the kind of sentence – active, specific, first-person – that I devour. For example:

In early March, when the bloom was at its height, I drove from Los Angeles to Beatty, Nevada, northeast of the park, and checked in at a Motel 6.

I went through Daylight Pass, and the entire expanse of Death Valley sprang into view: the dark mountains, the white floor, the perpetual mirage of an ancient lake.

One weekend in April, I rented a Jeep Wrangler and toured the park with Darrel Cowan, a professor of geology at the University of Washington.

In March, I spent a few hours looking at wildflowers with Dianne Milliard, a ranger who had been dividing her time between Death Valley, in the winter, and McCarthy, Alaska, in the summer.

Last summer, I went to see Pauline Esteves, the elder of the Timbisha Shoshone.

I drove to Mahogany Flat, a campground just above eight thousand feet, where I spent the night in a tent.

I read these sentences and immediately sign on for the adventure, happy to be in Ross’s company. There’s no dramatic arc; the “action” is simply “I go here, I see this,” which I love. The piece abounds in thisness: “The dominant presence was desert gold, a sunflower that blossoms on a long, spindly stem”; “Vast slabs of rock descend into the earth at severe angles, like the Titanic making its fatal dive”; “Farther up the slope are bristlecone pines, with sinewy, almost humanoid trunks.”

I also relished the place names – Daylight Pass, Hells Gate, Badwater Basin, Grapevine Mountains, Furnace Creek, Mahogany Flat, Telescope Peak. There’s poetry in those names!

I love pieces that take me places, pieces like Elif Batuman’s “The Memory Kitchen” (Turkey), Geoff Dyer’s “Poles Apart” (New Mexico, Utah), D. T. Max’s “A Cave with a View” (Matera, Italy), Nick Paumgarten’s “Life Is Rescues” (Iceland), Laura Miller’s “Romancing the Stones” (Stonehenge), Keith Gessen’s “Nowheresville” (Kazakhstan). They’re almost pure travelogue – no agenda other than the deep experience of a particular place. Such a piece is Alex Ross’s wonderful “Desert Bloom.” I enjoyed it immensely.