Discover more from Last Week's New Yorker Review
Last Week's New Yorker Review: August 28, 2023
The Irving Howe crowd, the whole Dissent masthead
Last Week’s New Yorker, week of August 28
I was featured in Bradley Tusk’s podcast Firewall this week — you can listen to my interview here. Hello to all new subscribers! I aim to make this newsletter self-explanatory; pieces are generally arranged from favorite to least-favorite, and you can subscribe for access to the Cartoon & Poem Supplement. Hope you enjoy.
“A Neighborhood, Authored” - Jonathan Lethem reads an old New Yorker, and finds a new perspective on his childhood neighborhood, Boerum Hill. Multifaceted, spellbinding, frustrating, troubling. That describes this piece, but it also describes gentrification itself, a complex process that’s often misapprehended. Lethem tries to look at it square on — not the theoretical idea but the practical process — and goes a bit mad in doing so. He surveys the “white people on Dean Street” who coveted gorgeous “Victorian” Brownstones with “six working fireplaces,” and the Black New Yorker writer Jervis Anderson who wrote about them.
The sections on Anderson are both fascinating and a bit disingenuous — Lethem keeps pointing out how Anderson’s writing leaves implications “for his reader to unpack,” and imagines a conversation where he can be made “more legible” — more politically forthright, I guess, about his take on “displacement” (the era’s codeword, though it’s better than today’s.) But that style isn’t some quirk of Anderson, it’s essentially the house style invented by this magazine, and the way it seems to leave the ultimate judgement up to the reader is its greatest asset. A close reader can still find glimpses of the author’s hand, and Lethem does, but still imagines Anderson could be “cajole[d]… into telling me what he thought about” the gentrifiers. Weirdly, Lethem never seeks out the most obvious source of that viewpoint — poor Black or Hispanic neighborhood residents from the period chronicled — perhaps judging them outside the scope, yet straining very hard against the obvious choice to include them, even ending on the opinion of the adopted Black daughters of one “classist” gentrifier (who was also, apparently, an incisive writer, though more quotes would help sell this case.) Where are the kids living in the projects across the way? Presumably, they grew up, too; they haven’t literally disappeared, and their presence would go a long way toward selling or disproving Lethem’s ultimate thesis about those who, presented with “a critique of [their] privilege, jump calamitously the wrong way.”
Elsewhere, the piece is better able to wrangle its arguments and points of view, as in the biography of Helen Buckler, a vivacious and wildly complex character, for whom Lethem’s fondness is obvious. The slowly fading differentiation between “preservationists” and “predatory… urban renewal” types is well-drawn — the “contradictions that gnawed at the liberal renovators’ good intentions.” All this works well. But in a piece that ends with a glimpse into madness, it’s the sticky bits, the bits that don’t quite work, that really drew me in, here. One starts to wonder — when someone reads this piece in fifty years, what might they feel Lethem had elided?
“Hive Mind” - Sam Knight hears the buzz around natural beekeeping, which might just be(e) better. Full of delightful characterization in service of a story that was entirely new to me — I’d heard the “canary in the coal mine” narrative surrounding bees, plus the counter-narrative that their collapse might be overstated, but I didn’t have any deep understanding of either. Knight corrects that by speaking to those on all sides of the beekeeping fight — asking “four beekeepers” and getting “five opinions.” The gorgeous descriptions of the natural hives (“guards stationed at the entrance, apparently checking the bright-yellow beads of pollen that arrived on their yellow-bees’ knees, like bag searchers at a museum… The hive thrummed”) can’t help but tip his hand toward the naturalists; he never quite gets a coherent counterargument from the industrialists, whose “narrow thinking” and very human attempts to “improve the bees” aren’t exactly skewered, but are nudged. I could have used even more on the broader environmental picture; focusing too much on the minutiae of beekeeping techniques can feel like ignoring the metaphorical question: “Why are we still building coal mines at all?”
“Blank Space” - Clare Sestanovich adds a little breathing room with a new novel about “female agency.” Finds space in a small package — time enough for plot summation, block quotes, even comparison to a few recent “zeitgeist successes.” Most interesting regarding the “bewitched space” of narrative itself, as when it decodes Terrace Story, the novel at hand, as a sort of “fable, with… stretchy moral lessons,” that gives “a slim work legend-like scope… [it] enourages us to peer into the space between… one narrative and the next.” And María Medem’s deceptively simple illustration is the perfect opening.
“Man of Steel” - Werner Herzog is briefly adopted in Pittsburgh. Has the digressive, rambling affect of a good post-film Q&A session; Herzog’s not in philosophical-gloom mode but in a dryly goofy anecdotal mode that’s also familiar. He has no particular point to make (the piece is excerpted from an upcoming memoir) which means there’s no narrative momentum, but you won’t miss it if you’re even a little compelled by Herzog as a figure — or even just a voice. This excerpt is a slightly strange one, mostly irrelevant to the major Herzogian landmarks — the main filmic reference is the fairly obscure Stroszek, from 1977. Probably it’s chosen as his first trip to America (the subtitle refers to his “finding material,” which is barely true,) but these anecdotes are interesting mostly because they have so little to do with his work.
“A Staten Island Lap” (Talk of the Town) - Daniel Shailer circumnavigates the forgotten borough with Leslie Hamilton. Winningly disgusting.
“The Biggest Loser” - Adam Gopnik rereads the Bible. Short and dense, which should please fans of concentrated Gopnik. I wasn’t persuaded by many of his sidelines, especially not the repeated Civil War references, and I had to slow down and reread lines like “…for instance, Aaron the priest is interpolated latterly as Moses’ brother in order to align the priestly court-bound southern caste with the charismatic northern one.” But regarding the central thread of the Book and its people, Gopnik makes plenty of compelling points, especially around the nature of defeat in the consciousness of Judaism and other religions, and regarding how one should parse pluralist arguments concerning ancient regimes.
Skip Without Guilt:
“Elon Musk’s Shadow Rule” - Ronan Farrow surveys the many pies Elon Musk has a finger in. Opens strong, with the one example where it’s clear Farrow’s thesis — that the “nature and scope” of Musk’s meddling is not “widely understood,” and may have national security implications — actually applies. That’s SpaceX’s Starlink service, which is crucial to Ukraine’s war efforts, and which, chillingly, Musk can shut down on a whim. If you haven’t already read the Times’ recent coverage of this, read the first two sections, they’re well-reported. Everything after that just rehashes past Musk news cycles, one after another. The government’s reliance on Musk is hardly even emphasized in the SpaceX sections, which mostly focus on safety; everything else has absolutely nothing to do with the thesis. If you’ve been conspicuously avoiding everything Musk in the hopes that one big story will come along covering the necessary points,1 today’s your lucky day. For everyone else, there’s nothing here to surprise or enliven a tale you’ve already heard, and no details tucked away that will make you view the Musk issue as bigger or more dangerous than you already thought. It’s a bait-and-switch — then again, now that you know, you can get the bait and miss the switch.
“Altered States” - Anthony Lane revvs up to Gran Turismo and shifts down to Fremont. The first review lacks bite — despite bemoaning its “smooth absurdities,” Lane insists that it’s “onto something,” and therefore not worth savaging. The second review gets bogged down in plot, and builds to the lackluster description “suffused with… radiance and resignation.” So’s the Dunkin Donuts parking lot outside my window.
“Requiem for a Festival” - Alex Ross mourns the expiration of the Mostly Mozart fest at Lincoln Center. It’s exceedingly difficult to criticize the absence of programming instead of programming itself; one usually ends up, as Ross does here, vaguely bemoaning general cultural and economic forces — drilling down into specifics would require journalism, not criticism. As righteous as Ross’ battle is, journalism is probably what’s needed here; the aggrieved tone goes nowhere, and sinks toward mere nostalgia.
Regular correspondent Michael liked Zach Helfand’s piece on monster trucks more than I did: “It was a classic example of taking a topic I hadn't thought very deeply about and highlighting the odd particulars I'd never really consider… against a bigger-picture backdrop of the consolidation of the live events industry.”
Nothing else in the mailbag! What did you think of this week’s issue? It was a very close call for the “Must-Read” this week; should I have gone with the bees piece, or did I make the right choice?
Time to pay the piper:
and it will be written by twink Frank Sinatra