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.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Gone to Mont-Tremblant

Mont-Tremblant (Photo by John MacDougall)

Tomorrow I depart for Mont-Tremblant to do some cycling. I’ll be gone a week. I’m taking the October 17 New Yorker with me. (The New Yorker is an excellent travel companion.) I’ll post my review when I return. À bientôt.  

Monday, October 17, 2016

On John Updike's "Creeper"

John Updike (Photo by Michael O'Neill)

As a result of reading Katie Roiphe’s The Violet Hour, I find myself thinking about the meaning of John Updike’s “Creeper,” the ninth in a ten-poem sequence called “Endpoint” that originally appeared in the March 16, 2009, New Yorker. The poem figures centrally in Roiphe’s portrait of Updike’s death. She calls it “a lovely, wishful expression of an accepting stance toward dying, a new, late iteration of stoicism.” But it seems to me that “Creeper” expresses more than just acceptance of death. It appears to treat death as “good”:

With what stoic delicacy does
Virginia creeper let go:
the feeblest tug brings down
a sheaf of leaves kite-high,
as if to say, To live is good
but not to live—to be pulled down
with scarce a ripping sound,
still flourishing, still
stretching toward the sun—
is good also, all photosynthesis
abandoned, quite quits. Next spring
the hairy rootlets left unpulled
snake out a leafy afterlife
up that same smooth-barked oak.

I love the image of the Virginia creeper “letting go” as a symbol of death. It captures life’s fragility. But I balk at the idea that it is “good” to be pulled down – “all photosynthesis / abandoned, quite quits.” That is going beyond stoical acceptance. Yes, death is part of life. But it’s also an extinguishment of life. There’s nothing good about it.

Friday, October 14, 2016

John Leonard's "Blowing His Nose in the Wind"

Bob Dylan (Illustration by Andy Friedman)
As an antidote to all the overwrought tributes to Bob Dylan posted on (see, for example, David Remnick’s “Let’s Celebrate the Bob Dylan Nobel Win”), check out John Leonard’s acidly brilliant “Blowing His Nose in the Wind” (included in Leonard’s posthumous 2012 essay collection Reading For My Life), in which he scorns Dylan for, among other things, his rotten treatment of Joan Baez (“Bob used Joan to get famous and then did everything he could think of to ridicule and degrade her, to which she responded with a love song, ‘Diamonds and Rust,’ that would have shamed any other cad this side of Dr. Kissinger’s princely narcissism”). Leonard writes,

So now ask yourself if Dylan’s notorious indifference to the niceties of cutting a record, to the relative merits of a multitude of sessions musicians, to the desires and opinions of his fans and audience, to whether he had any business on a stage, taking their money, when he was wired out of his skull, or in a recording studio, martyrizing thugs like Joey Gallo; combined with his disdain for former colleagues, ex-friends, and previous incarnations, contempt for other artists like Harry Belafonte and Theodore Bikel who cared about causes he could no longer use, like civil rights, and surliness unto Road Rage; even his unintelligible weirdness on such public occasions as his accepting the Tom Paine award from the Emergency Civil Liberties Union in November 1963 with a monologue that empathized with Lee Harvey Oswald – “But I got to stand up and say I saw things that he felt in me,” which must be what inspired Jerry Rubin, five years later, to proclaim that “Sirhan Sirhan is a Yippie!” – well, ask yourself if some of this might have owed as much to chemicals as it did to authenticity.

For tonic relief from The New Yorker’s hyperventilation over Mr. Tambourine Man’s Nobel win, I recommend John Leonard’s great “Blowing His Nose in the Wind.”

Thursday, October 13, 2016

October 10, 2016, Issue

James Wood’s superb “Male Gaze,” in this week’s issue, seems to praise David Szalay’s All That Man Is for the very practice that he (Wood), in his classic “Coetzee’s Disgrace,” criticized J. M. Coetzee for – use of shorthand description (“Thus at the simplest level, no one is ever adequately described as simply ‘tall and wiry … a thin goatee and an ear-ring … black leather jacket.’ This is only the beginning of description”). In “Male Gaze,” he says of Szalay’s novel,

Characters are lightly, but also terminally, blocked in, as they are in movie scripts: “He is short, blonde, with a moustache—Asterix, basically.” As the Russian oligarch moves through the London streets in his luxury Maybach, we get: “Sloane Street, its familiar shops—Hermès, Ermenegildo Zegna. Cheyne Walk.” In the same story, when Lars, Aleksandr’s lawyer, takes off his sunglasses, he is peremptorily dispatched. We’d been given a brisk inventory of his apparel; now we’re informed, “The understated tan sharpens the blue of his eyes. He is in his mid-forties: he looks younger.” And that’s it for Lars. We get no more physical description—just dialogue. Lars is up and running.

Wood calls Szalay’s use of reduced language “startup mimesis” (“Szalay practices a kind of startup mimesis: in canny, broad strokes, full of intelligently managed detail, each story funds its new fictional enterprise, as if he were calling out, each time, ‘Where do you want to go? Poland? Copenhagen? Málaga? Berlin? I can do them all. Let’s go’”).

I’d like to hear more from Wood on why Szalay’s broad strokes are “canny,” whereas Coetzee’s are “sheerest conventionality.”

Similarly, there appears to be an inconsistency between Wood’s criticism of Emma Cline’s use of sentence fragments (see his “Making the Cut,” in which he says such usage “fetishizes detail and the rendering of detail”) and his seeming admiration for Szalay’s use of them (“The men in these stories, as if writing lyrics in their heads, express themselves in passionate stutters”).

Where Wood’s piece shines is in its comparison of Szalay’s book with Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. At one point, Wood brilliantly observes,

Reality is very sticky in both writers: brand names, objects, humdrum details of all kinds adhere to the text.

Later in his piece, he writes,

When Knausgaard talks about a VW Beetle, he seems obsessed by its tormenting VW-ness; for Szalay, a VW Passat is just a VW Passat, the detail doing its functional, reflexive duty.

That “tormenting VW-ness” is inspired! Wood’s “Male Gaze” is the second review of All That Man Is I’ve read. The first – also excellent – was Michael Hofmann’s “Muted Ragu Tones” (London Review of Books, April 21, 2016). Hofmann says of Szalay’s writing,

There is a cheerful and ghastly sordidness to everything, and Szalay’s prose with its ruthlessly banal dialogue, arm-twisting present tense, shard-like fragments, and every other page or so an irresistibly brilliant epithet or startlingly quotable phrase, lets nothing go to waste. Even if it’s something as simple as a man putting up an umbrella, to go out into the rain and try to talk down his unhappy mistress, it’s unforgettable: “It bangs into place above him, and immediately fills with sound.”

A writer who excites two of the world’s best literary critics is worth checking out. I don’t read much fiction. But I’m looking forward to reading David Szalay’s All That Man Is.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

October 3, 2016, Issue

Notes on this week’s issue:

1. Jon Lee Anderson’s “The Cuba Play” is one of 2016’s most absorbing reporting pieces. It tells the story of Obama’s Cuba project, beginning with a remarkable scene – Obama on stage at La Cerveceria, on Havana Harbor, speaking directly to the Cuban people about entrepreneurship – then cutting to Anderson’s interview with Obama (“A few weeks later, in the Oval Office, I asked Obama about the reaction”), then moving into a remarkable reconstruction of the string of events leading to the normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations, including the famous handshake between Obama and Raúl Castro at Nelson Mendela’s funeral (“Castro wore an expression of flustered delight”), secret negotiations in Ottawa, the transfer of a vial of sperm of a Cuban spy, and a covert letter from Pope Francis to Obama. Anderson has discussed some of these events before in his “News Desk” posts on But in “The Cuba Play,” he masterfully draws it all together, combining it with fascinating quotations from his personal interviews with Obama and other key players. If you consider the opening with Cuba one of Obama's major accomplishments, as I do, you’ll surely appreciate Anderson’s great “The Cuba Play.”

2.  I relish descriptions of scent. There are two dandies in this week’s issue: Jiayang Fan’s “Just then, the chocolate fondue arrived, halting the conversation with its exhalation of cinnamon and coconut” (“Tables For Two: Ladybird”), and Ian Frazier’s “He ordered a decaf espresso and asked the waiter to top it off with Sambuca. A smell of licorice rose” (“Don’t Tread On Me”).

3. I’m not crazy about pop music, but Hua Hsu’s “Word of Mouth,” on Bon Iver’s digitally manipulated sound, impinged my consciousness with this inspired line: “Speech synthesizers often make a song sound as though someone were running a leaky fluorescent highlighter across its lyrics.”

Monday, October 3, 2016

Minna Zallman Proctor on Janet Malcolm's "Iphigenia in Forest Hills"

Minna Zallman Proctor, in her “The Law of Uncertainty” (Bookforum, Summer 2016), quotes Janet Malcolm’s great Iphigenia in Forest Hills [“If any profession (apart from the novelist’s) is in the business of making things up, it is the profession of the trial lawyer”] and says, “The justice system will operate under the auspices of competing fabrications and decidedly will not provide the truth equation for the crime.” Proctor appears to accept Malcolm’s theory that “a trial is a contest between competing narratives” (Iphigenia in Forest Hills). This is a very literary way of looking at trials. Another way – more realistic, in my opinion – is to view the trial as a matter of proof. If the prosecution is able to prove all the elements of the alleged offense beyond a reasonable doubt, the accused will be found guilty. In other words, narrative, schmarrative.

Proctor is on firmer ground when she writes,

Throughout her investigative work, from one villainous bramble to the next, Malcolm is brilliant and irresistibly vexing. For her, observable truth lies not in the collection and skillful organization of facts but in the reliable complexity and inexplicableness of human behavior.

I agree. As Malcolm memorably says of Borukhova in Iphigenia in Forest Hills, “She couldn’t have done it and she must’ve done it.”

Postscript: A portion of Iphigenia in Forest Hills was originally published in the May 3, 2010, New Yorker (see here).

Thursday, September 29, 2016

September 26, 2016, Issue

Rivka Galchen’s “Keeping It Off,” in this week’s issue, contains echoes of her great “Medical Meals” (The New Yorker, November 3, 2014), in which she recollects her first month of surgical training. The unit that she was assigned to did mostly bariatric procedures – weight-reduction surgeries. That’s what “Keeping It Off” is about, too – bariatric procedures. It follows a patient, Henry Roberts, who undergoes a sleeve gastrectomy. Galchen brilliantly describes the operation:

Large monitors were mounted above Roberts’s body, like sports-bar television screens. Inabnet and Taye Bellistri looked up at the monitors, rather than down at the patient, as they maneuvered the handles of tools threaded through the left and right incisions. On the screens, the image was so big and so clear that it was easy to read the tiny brand names—Covidien, Karl Storz—written on the slender surgical instruments. Roberts’s abdominal cavity looked like the inside of a mossy, yellow cave lit up by miners’ headlamps; vasculature appeared like streaks of mineral ore, the liver like a respiring troglobite.

Early in her piece, Galchen mentions two hospital vending machines: “Arriving early for Roberts’s surgery, I waited in a corner of the lobby by two vending machines, one that sold candies and chips and another that sold kosher food, mainly apples and bagels wrapped in cellophane.”

I smiled when I read that. It reminded me of “Medical Meals,” in which vending machines figure centrally:

The cafeteria would be closed, leaving only a corridor of six or seven vending machines. On illuminated display were pretzels, and chocolate bars, and potato chips that were baked, and potato chips that were made from superior root vegetables, and potato chips that were actually corn chips coated with a supernatural orange powder. There were bright-colored drinks full of “essential electrolytes,” which medical professionals knew basically just meant sugar and salt, but still. One machine was different. It hid its wares. Nothing was on display but a closed freezer unit and artistic renderings of ice-cream bars. The drawings recalled ice-cream trucks from a childhood before mine, with almond-like objects matted onto a chocolate-like substance, with a vanilla-like substance inside. The bars were a dollar and twenty-five cents, I believe, payable in quarters. Mike and I would listen to each coin fall. Then came a whirring sound as the freezer chest opened slowly, like a vampire’s coffin. A robot arm descended, suctioned up glycerides on a wooden stick, then released the treasure into the dispensing slot of the machine. “I’m so glad I’m here,” Mike would say. 

That “Then came a whirring sound as the freezer chest opened slowly, like a vampire’s coffin” is marvelously fine. Vending machines are to Galchen as sunflowers were to van Gogh.

Postscript: In addition to Galchen’s above-quoted surgery description, there are at least six other inspired passages in this week’s issue:

LVL UP sound-checks comfortably in the post-D.I.Y. nostalgia that has driven New York bands and their fans back toward the music that they heard at their first all-ages gig, but wistful thinking is the enemy of originality, especially when you’re sharing amps. “Night Life: LVL UP”

Robinson is a Manet of hot babes and a Morandi of McDonald’s French fries and Budweiser beer cans, magnetized by his subjects as he devotes his brush to generic painterly description.  – Peter Schjeldahl, “Reality Principle”

Ceramics are umber-glazed snarls of curled and twisted slabs. “Art: Lynda Benglis”

A first-time patron strolled in, looked around, and summed up the scene, rather approvingly: “Oh, so this is like a fake shithole, basically.” But, hey—it’s one with bathroom doors that consistently lock, if that’s worth anything to you. – Emma Allen, “Bar Tab: The Johnson’s”

When he arrived at Eyebeam, the immediate challenge was to center the logo of American Eagle Savings Bank on the cover of “Theories of Business Behavior,” by Joseph William McGuire (formerly in the collection of the Cloud County Junior College Library, of Concordia, Kansas). – Mark Singer, “Bank Shot”

As Eight Days a Week springs from color to black-and-white, and as frenzied action is intercut with stills, we get a delicious sense of doubleness. – Anthony Lane, “Come Together”