Discover more from Last Week's New Yorker Review
Last Week's New Yorker Review: August 14, 2023
the girl next door from Cincinnati who drives around the city with the top down and shows up to high-school prom in a pink furry bikini with a thong hanging out of her denim skirt
Last Week’s New Yorker, week of August 14
What an excellent issue. If you have to pick one edition to take to the beach and read front-to-back… this is the one! Farmer’s-market cover, there’s your tip!
“The Mayor Talks a Good Game” - Ian Parker profiles Eric Adams, a liar’s liar. A madcap romp, possibly too funny for its own good — as with pre-presidency Trump, there is something charming about an open egomaniac that may help them gather more power than they otherwise might. A performer telegraphs the appearance of a lack of shame, and therefore a politician can succeed by genuinely lacking shame, since it somewhat paradoxically creates the appearance of a performance. In other words, they’re always accidentally doing crowd-work, because they actually think the crowd is there to see them; their narcissism looks like acted openness. (Evan Thies appears to be the man in charge of transforming Adam’s cop-grimace into a smile; when he says Adams has become “much more open,” and adds that running for office “can make you reveal things to yourself about yourself,” we’re left mainly with the impression that Adams is playing a character based in the idea of an appealing version of himself — which, I suppose, is just the opposite of what cops do on the job, playing authoritarian versions of themselves.) But if Adams comes across, in a certain sense, as our blowhard, Parker makes it clear that his liabilities are not merely character-based; he comes across as fairly hapless in the realm of policy, and so morally against delegation that fundamental jobs are going undone. Still, the piece isn’t especially interested in a line-item critique; mostly, it takes Eric Adams at face-value that he’s shaping the city in his image, and then asks, so, what image might that be?
This is also a feat of access, with Adams’ brothers giving not just quotes but telling quotes, and Parker finds a wealth of telling detail hidden in the margins: Keep an eye out for the fridge in the apartment listing, for example. It helps that Adams is so crudely theatrical that it’s easy to find moments where he’s acting like himself — that’s sort of his whole thing. But Parker doesn’t blow the hanging slider — he knocks it into Flushing Bay.
“High Strung” - Doreen St. Félix loops the violin with Sudan Archives. Subtly staggering in all that it manages to achieve. I’ve missed St. Félix’s style, which twists a variety of ideas concerning the subtleties of race and gender presentation, along with the many other positions that an artist or artwork assumes, like strands of hair around a finger… and then she pulls. What’s plucked out, in this case, is an analysis of Sudan that’s also a treatise on Black female stardom in general — something that sounds tedious and essayistic, but is instead impish, punky, feline.
What helps is that Félix sets a thesis early on, positing that “[Sudan] says: I’m a trickster because I’m like my predecessors, not in spite of them.” This basic idea (along with another about refusing “the shadow of respectability that always lurks”) then unfolds in a variety of directions, as prompted by anecdote. Critics confine her to an artsy, “alt” box that might have “turned off lovers of mainstream Black American style,” Félix counters that her “bad bitch” aesthetic is funk — “think of the sexual and musical authority of Betty Davis,” a trickster predecessor. Her father, a manic-depressive “charismatic preacher who had struggled with an addiction to crack cocaine” and relapsed, is another trickster predecessor, despite the damage he did: “‘The reason I’m such a good entertainer,’ Sudan said, ‘is because of his genetics.’” The piece’s best section, which takes place at a Korean beauty spa and includes the quote “We’re on an even playing field… now that we’ve seen each other’s titties,” gestures to two more kinds of predecessors: Both Western violinists (“She has called herself the Black Stravinsky,”) and those who reject Western influence (“Music theory is so white. Africans just play music.”)1 As Félix notes, “She speaks in absolutes in order to make up for not feeling, as she has said, at home with words… she maintains the contradiction by relying on emotional meaning that I recognize… Because she has not needed to shed a period of indoctrination, Sudan is different from the Black American artists who make work in reaction to the canon… [her] excess is the right of the virtuoso.” Pluck.
There’s also a wonderful, natural sexiness to this piece — it’s titties out. Sudan “is the violin’s domme… when she grasps it to play she treats it as an extension of her erotic self.” Maybe the keyboard is the extension of Félix’s erotic self: Just like how she describes Sudan, she has the “kink touch.”
“You Had to Be There” - Jackson Arn gives the slip to a new book proclaiming one lower-Manhattan street key to ‘50s art. Slow to get going — Arn’s strength isn’t summary but critique, and there’s none of that in the first two sections, which sag with so-so humor. But eventually, this opens into a rollicking ride, full of perceptive description (“This is a tactile book, but its sensations skew smooth and gentle”) and compelling argument (“…talent is as common as dirt. It’s taken a bleak state of affairs to stunt it now, and it took remarkably little for it to flourish then.”) Not to mention wonderful mini-bios of Agnes Martin,2 Robert Indiana and Ellsworth Kelly, and, best of all, James Rosenquist, whose “sublime tawdriness” and “midtown” nature is cleverly used as a counterpoint to some of author Prudence Peiffer’s contestations about the neighborhood. This is fun, and I’ll read anything that ends on the evergreen point that the rent is too damn high!
“The Gift” - Andrew Marantz spends like there’s a tomorrow with Leah Hunt-Hendrix, leftist heir to an oil fortune. Least compelling when waxing philosophical on the moral quandaries facing the principled rich. This general subject has been covered before in the magazine; a profile of Abigail Disney appeared late in 2019, and there’s just not much more to say. But this is quite good as a light culture-clash comedy in which Hunt-Hendrix wrestles with the realities of her bougie life while trying to make a difference. She’s a very charming narrator, and Marantz gets great quotes from her leftist pals. (“‘Someone pulled me aside and pointed and went, “You know that’s oil money right there,”’ Stamp recalled. ‘I went, “Leah? No way, that’s the homie.”’”)3 An anti-climactic discussion with “cousin Hunter” is weirdly thrilling, especially when Marantz brings, of all things, his Passover Haggadah into it.
“Most Wanted” - Anthony Lane sees two brutal, sex-filled flicks. This is Lane at his best, shocked into seriousness by the “desperate grapple” of Passages, a “painful… trip,” and agog at Franz Rogowski’s piscine performance. Lady Killer’s archival “revelation” is too compressed, but still sounds glorious, the “crisp diagonal shadows that slice across the sunlit squares and sidewalks” and all.
“Why So Serious?” - Inkoo Kang does cartwheels for a Harley Quinn cartoon that’s light on its feet. A good match, the show’s “chaotic ebullience” matching Kang’s own; she selects its best bits and presents them like a prop comic pulling out gags. My favorite: Her description of Poison Ivy as “Plant Daria, complete with the green jacket.”
“Youth Movement” - Azadeh Moaveni unveils the Iranian headscarf protests. Moaveni is mostly uninterested in any sort of deep political reporting; the piece is unclear or euphemistic when discussing, say, the forces that prompted Iran and Saudi Arabia to “reëstablish diplomatic ties,” or the relation of the Kurdish-separatist political movement to the protests. (I wanted more on the latter, especially.) The spotlight is kept on the schoolgirls and other women who took their headscarves off, and there, vivid scene-setting makes the story grounded and exciting. The stakes can fluctuate quickly from life-and-death (the campaign of poisoning) to childish (“some of the boys pulled out their phones, saying that they were going to document this… unveiling,”) — though I suppose that accurately reflects the ever-changing stakes of state-sanctioned misogyny.
Skip Without Guilt:
“Crazy Town” - Charles McGrath is turned end over end by Steven Millhauser’s new book of short stories. Bizarrely short on quotes or formal analysis; for an author who seems largely to write variations on the same story again and again, you’d think particular attention might be paid to the differences between tellings. Instead McGrath mostly focuses on what that singular story may mean; perhaps it’s Hawthornian allegory, or perhaps it owes more to the simple “pleasure” of “making things up.” I don’t need goofy narratives retold, I want insight into their telling.
I solicited your thoughts on the lengthy Gagosian piece; Heather loved it, “mostly for the gossip,” but wanted even more on “the myth of meritocracy in creative fields. Because the valuation of art is so clearly and in many ways inescapably subjective, it provides cover for nepotism and croneyism… Gagosian’s girlfriend and the discussion around the access their relationship has given her so early in her career brings this home. Of course dating him has helped her succeed. But access to Gagosian and others like him… however it comes about, will always be the reason an artist succeeds.”
Susan was more mixed, feeling that “every page told the same story as the page before,” and felt “the same seamy story” could have been told with “more of a punch.”
And Meave Gallagher wrote in with an extensive, fascinating sidenote: “For all the going-on about Larry being… one of The Guys who made the art market the way it is now, in the book quoted near the end of the profile — Ben Lewis’s The Last Leonardo (2018) — Lewis demonstrates that the art market has been Like This for centuries; it’s not at all an invention of Gagosian’s mentors that Larry took to extremes. Introducing that book without noting that it connects today’s port storage sickos, artwashing, etc, to the 17th century’s secondary art markets for the obscenely wealthy looking to burnish their reputations through mass-buying culture would have provided some valuable context, I think, and further undermined the view of Larry G. as the avaricious art genius.”
Fom our regular correspondents: Michael “had never heard that story of the Wagner/US confrontation in Syria,” and found it “both fascinating and terrifying,” while Caz found “Hidden Depths” “disturbing. I mean the millions of participants, not just the creator.”
What were your thoughts on this week’s issue? Do you agree with me that it was exceptionally strong? What was your favorite detail from the Eric Adams profile? I started to descend into litany writing that one, then remembered it was Thursday afternoon already, and I was tired, so I kept it relatively brief.
I might stop doing stupid wordplay here and just start listing things you’d be helping me pay for with a subscription. This week: Dental insurance!
Félix even manages to make Sudan’s spa habits more evidence of her nature: “She moved quickly” from room to room, “exhibiting a low tolerance for stasis; I found myself subtly chasing her around the spa.”
One of my favorite artists, whose life loosely inspired a favorite recent fiction piece of mine, from the magazine…
Sorry about the five consecutive quote marks. This is why one doesn’t review journalism.