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Last Week's New Yorker Review: August 21, 2023
the strip sequence is dramaturgically unnecessary, but at least it's metaphorically telling
Last Week’s New Yorker, week of August 21
“Shark Bait” - Helen Shaw sees The Shark is Broken, a “dad play about a dad movie written for dad reasons.” Masterful: Shaw takes the “negative” review and wears its skin to English class — pun intended; her main frame is Shakespeare, but her secondary one is U.K. Fringe culture, which she presents as “thrift dusted with celebrity,” slyly revealing the shortcomings of Shark on Broadway without quite damning its origins. As for the former: Shaw Tempest-wraps us in a spell in which the whole theatre may be a “graveside ritual, in which we impersonate or digest our ancestors to defeat death,” in which we’re left with, in this case, “widening distances between this fallen world of glossy imitations and the movie’s grittier, brinier one… Certain kinds of reverence are corrosive.” After reading that, I feel positively metabolized — so absorbed I’ve been absorbed.
“Presence of Mind” - Parul Sehgal pockets blooms and thoughts with Freudian feminist Jacqueline Rose. More an extended montage than a traditional profile; there’s a quick paragraph of context (“she is singularly influential, both within and without the academy,”) and we’re off, surfing the invisible edge between personal and philosophical. It feels like the profile Rose wants; she clearly guides it (“‘You’ll want to tease this out,’ she would note, of a particular detail”) and Sehgal is happy to accept her “alternating opaque and transparent… pattern.” If you’re hoping to have a clear understanding of Rose’s work, and not a hazy, slightly mystical one, you might be disappointed. But if you can match your breathing to Sehgal’s tempo, you’ll fall under its spell.
“Say His Name” (Talk of the Town) - Ian Frazier attends the vigil for O’Shae Sibley, the vogue dancer killed in a New York hate crime. Frazier, the Shouts & Murmurs editor and “Greetings, Friends” writer, is a memorably odd choice for this assignment, but I liked the honesty and mixed emotions of his approach.
“You Name It” - Kathryn Schulz declassifies Carl Linnaeus. I have mixed feelings about the fairly common practice in this magazine of plucking all the good details from works of popular nonfiction before savaging those books. Schultz pulls that trick here, focusing on minutiae in the first third (Linnaeus “astonished his fellow-botanists by coaxing a banana tree into producing fruit well north of the fiftieth parallel,” he then sent the fruit to the Swedish royal family, who became “the only people to eat bananas there for almost two hundred years,”) a takedown of Gunnar Broberg’s new biography in the second third (“…his book never substantively strays from biography to intellectual history”) and an attempt to provide a bit of intellectual history in the final third, focusing on the “tension between intrinsic and imposed categories,” and then on Linnaeus’ contributions to scientific racism. That’s a lot of ground to cover, and Schulz compensates by refocusing on Linnaeus again and again, perhaps forgetting her own advice to ignore biographical detail when it’s not needed. She never quite manages to make Linnaeus the figure interesting, but his discoveries are interesting, and when the focus is on those, the piece succeeds.
“Alfresco” - Alex Ross sees opera outdoors in Santa Fe. Ross’ recent reports from around the country have felt almost as much travelogue as review. The report-from-abroad section here is lovely, chronicling the setting’s “spectacular” architecture, with “swooping roofs that have the weightlessness of wings.” I still have a hard time with the one-line singer performance blurbs that fill so much of the space in Ross’ opera reviews; rarely are they lovely enough as prose poetry to work without context virtually no reader will have.
Skip Without Guilt:
“There and Back Again” - David Owen returns to sender, and beyond. The beginning section suggests a few compelling directions — perhaps the piece will delve into the American psychology of returns, or their environmental impact. Instead, the piece mostly focuses on the businesses that have formed around processing returns, a topic that Owen is never able to make compelling — almost every parenthetical sideline suggested a story I’d rather be reading (about dishwasher-clogging coyote teeth, or scaring bears away with pressure washers.) The main company profiled, A.R.C, has a business model that’s basically what you’d expect — repair some, scrap much — and their nominal focus on gathering consumer info to improve products so they aren’t crappy is unfortunately undercut by the obvious fact that products are getting crappier all the time. This falls for the pitch, a bit.
“American Dirt” - Zach Helfand pays for the whole seat, but he only needs the edge. Reads like an overextended Talk of the Town — not a charmless one, but not one with an especially deep perspective on any of the things it chronicles, either. I wanted more on the meaning of monster trucks, and more on their negotiations with authenticity as they’re increasingly run as one arm of a live-events conglomerate. Instead, this is basically a big ad, like the flag with “giant lettering that read, ‘GREAT CLIPS.’” That quote is one of the few moments where the piece starts to evince a perspective that’s wider than whooping and cheering (and circling back, with diminishing returns, to the qualities of different kinds of dirt.) But it ends the section, and we move on to the next ring in the methanol-fueled American circus.
“Another Country” - Masha Gessen flees east with Ukrainian refugees. I’m not sure why this, of Gessen’s many reports from the war, is the one that made the physical magazine. The prose is drier than dry — the first line, “Busloads of people from the other side of the internationally recognized Ukranian border started arriving in Russian cities a few days before the full-scale invasion began,” sounds like a newscaster doing a lead-in. Gessen is probably aiming for a stony-eyed grittiness, but my eyes mostly glazed over. Clearly, there’s a broader project at stake for Gessen, who looks for places where wartime’s easy allegiances are complicated. That’s a relatively worthy project, but it bears proclaiming — I’d give Gessen more leeway if they gave the full picture of what they were going for. Instead we get colorless prose and horrifying stories, to unclear, possibly suspect ends.
Regular correspondent Michael has liked Jackson Arn’s recent rise as the magazine’s art critic, writing that he’s “definitely the regular critic at the magazine who has his knives out the most, something I can appreciate in this age of criticism getting so scarce that you only want to devote time to celebrating the good.” I’ve seen some criticism of Arn (especially his recent online-only piece critiquing Sarah Sze) as not an especially diverse pick for the position, plus perhaps a bit surface-level on certain subjects. I’ve liked his writing so far, though he’s certainly a rather unestablished presence to be given such a major post. In any case, I’m here for the drama!
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