Last Week's New Yorker Review: May 29, 2023
he experimentally cycles through different keys, speedily trying them on and discarding them like the acquisitive dandy he was
Last Week’s New Yorker, week of May 29, 2023
“The Mozart Effect” - James Wood reacts to the great composer, and compares his notes to those of Patrick Mackie in Mozart in Motion. This certainly functions as a book review, but at its best moments it’s a kind of personal history of ideas prompted by Mozart’s “seductive” tones. Mackie’s book is cultural criticism spurred by music; Wood manages musical criticism spurred by a deep reading of culture. The thesis that Mozart’s music has a profound “failure of containment” in which “the seductions of the music” mean even his most melancholy work “sublimates sadness into its opposite” is only made manifest at the end, but Wood’s final line, “We smile in tears, something it has taken me a lifetime to learn,” suddenly reveals that thesis’ subcutaneous presence in the deceptively simple anecdote at the beginning.
Wood misses one trick in his examination of the way Mozart’s music would have been heard in his time, as when he asks, “was anyone actually listening, and what did people comprehend, anyway?” Really, the sense of “hushed devotion” which supposedly pervades our era is only true of classical-music appreciators; everyone else has gone from not paying full attention to not paying attention at all. Mozart said that while some passages could only be fully appreciated by a connoisseur, “the common listener will find them satisfying as well, although without knowing why.” Is that still true? Maybe: The complex codes Mozart drew upon, what music YouTuber Adam Neely memorably calls “the harmonic style of 18th Century European musicians,” are still taught as “music theory” writ large in many schools. But popular music now is both more global and largely more formulaic in its sentiment, leaving less room for difference of interpretation, the lifeblood of critical analysis. Wood’s prose is gorgeous on the “secret instability” of Mozart’s music, how his operas “flagrantly wobble between pleasing the audience and challenging it, between disruption and the satisfactions of closure.” Ultimately, the limits of his perspective only add to the piece; they force the engaged reader to take his arguments more personally, to map them onto their own ways of thinking about art. As for the disengaged reader: They are free to chat and flirt, eat and play cards.
“Underworld” - Luke Mogelson takes cover in Ukraine, where “the burden of sacrifice has fallen increasingly on the underprivileged,” including the 28th Battalion of infantrymen, at the frontline of the war. A triumph of war reporting; Mogelson is unsurpassed in his combination of distinct and ferocious specificity and an eye for the bigger picture. There’s just a taste of the latter: "The scope of the conflict has shrunk even as its brutality has escalated, meaning that a smaller segment of the citizenry has been asked to suffer more for objectives that are increasingly less self-evident." That’s nearly all the exposition that’s given; otherwise, the focus is on constant, brutal vignettes. Kaban and his subordinate and sorta-foster-son Cadet are perhaps the strongest characters here, trapped in a bizarre simulacrum of their outside lives reflected through the torturous lens of the conflict. (“Dondyuk, the photographer, asked [Kaban] whether he’d imparted any lessons to Cadet. ‘There’s no point,’ Kaban said. ‘He’ll be dead soon.’ Cadet laughed, but Kaban didn’t.) Everything here works nearly as well, and Mogelson’s careful calibration of structure keeps brutal tedium from ever making tedious reading. Brutal is another matter, though; if the details of boots-on-the-ground trench warfare are too heavy, this should probably be skipped, as it stays thoroughly in that lane. Mogelson says everything he’s trying to say in just two lines: "Everybody looked haggard and sleep-deprived. Exhaustion bred complacency, but so did habituation." The rest of the piece is meticulous, bloodcurdling reiteration.
“Words Fail” - Rachel Aviv dissects the stories of Alice Sebold, who made a career writing about her rape, and Anthony Broadwater, who was falsely accused and imprisoned for it. The early sections, which cut between Sebold’s story and Broadwater’s, manage to emphasize certain emotional similarities without equating their traumas. Still, since the story is about Sebold’s trauma, and not really about the traumas Broadwater endured in prison, the balance can feel slightly off. Aviv, as always, brings an empathy and sense of understanding, but her portrait of Sebold doesn’t quite feel full; perhaps Sebold’s guilt, which is clearly deep and not totally processed, kept her from voicing more fully some of her feelings. The piece is at its most compelling when it points toward a broader thesis, that holding too close to trauma narratives can hinder recovery, by not allowing for the truth of the past’s multivalence, and memory’s slipperiness. This story is almost too resonant with that thesis, though, which takes away from its broad applicability; the point is not just that writing a book about a defining trauma is not a great idea, but that even imagining your story as a book can hurt you. I wonder if Broadwater again gets lost a bit, too, in mapping that worthy thesis, which ultimately focuses on Sebold’s story, onto a narrative that, at first, tries to split its sympathies. These are, to be clear, very minor structural critiques of a compelling and nuanced tale, one whose complexity (both writerly Wolff brothers are involved) never daunts Aviv.
“American Flavor” - Dorothy Wickenden eats catfish and spaghetti with Stephen Satterfield, the host of Black food-history show High on the Hog. Satterfield is clearly a major talent with a compelling story, but his skills as a host are “humility and vulnerability,” and he retains something of his charming-stoner aura from high school. His chill vibes leave a narrative void Wickenden does little to fill. Mostly, she relies on recounting scenes from the show, but, oddly, she hasn’t scored an interview with Jessica B. Harris, the writer of the book on which the show is based, and a key guest. That’s a major omission, and her absence adds to a broader vacancy — the piece isn’t quite a High on the Hog making-of, like the excellent one on Couples Therapy, but it doesn’t fully work as a Satterfield profile, either. While it’s pleasant enough, the piece never puts the soul in its soul food.
Skip Without Guilt:
“Succession” - Maya Jasanoff is engrossed and grossed out by Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The World, which emphasizes “the resilience of dynastic power.” Your engagement will depend on your interest in entering the scattershot house of dynastic horrors Jasanoff presents, from Hapsburg inbreeding to Gladstone slave-trading to Achaemenid torture. The focus on these horrors isn’t totally arbitrary; the point, seemingly, is just that political families have done awful things. But certainly, politicians from no relevant lineage have, too? World War I was prompted by “an incestuous thicket of cousins,” sure, but World War II’s axis powers were controlled by the sons of a civil servant, a blacksmith, and a low-ranking Army officer. I assumed Jasanoff was building toward a broader theoretical point against dynastic systems; instead, she concludes that, basically, they’re surprisingly omnipresent. That’s not especially compelling, particularly when the counterpoints, places where dynastic rule was not the rule, are hardly touched upon. And it’s never clear why so much time is spent on torture, which is a feature not of dynastic politics, but of centralized politics in general.
“Root and Branch” - Jill Lepore asks us to think differently about trees. Lepore is going for a sort of arborescent eco-poeticism, but her strength is deep research, and only in those sections do her talents shine. The beginning oratorio is decent, though not as multivalent as Elizabeth Kolbert, for example, has managed on similar subjects in this magazine. A few paragraphs dealing with wood are compelling; some subsequent material on the conservation movement is rather dull. I knew enough about the many issues with tree-planting as conservation that Lepore’s gloss felt cursory. But the final section is where everything really collapses, Lepore suddenly starts quoting corny children’s books and, worse, Richard Power’s omnipresent and obnoxious (sorry!) novel The Overstory. Lepore has nothing to add or complicate, she simply heightens and reiterates the phony and overblown perspective of these works, transparently anthropomorphizing trees (“Like elephants— like humans— trees have friends, and lovers, and parents and children”) and justifying it with the incredibly weak argument that “after all, nothing else has worked” to conserve them. Lepore is not the Lorax; she would show more respect toward trees by not assuming she knows what they’re trying to say.
“Snippy” - Anthony Lane is unimpressed by two small-scale indie films. The review of Nicole Holofcener’s newest is genuinely depressing; Lane could at least have the respect to not openly grouse that he’d rather be watching a blockbuster (it’s no solace that, in his reviews of blockbusters, he often grouses that he’d rather be watching an intimate indie flick.) He has no perspective on the film, so why bother reviewing it? At least his take on Paul Schrader’s newest is better put, emphasizing the “curious want of urgency” that leaves the film “following the blueprint of a moral scheme.” But it’s still shallow; Lane never considers that the implausibility could be part of Schrader’s point.
Regular correspondents Michael and Caz both agreed with my dismissal of Naomi Fry’s profile of Philipp Plein, saying they “didn’t need that one” and that it was “not edifying.”
Once again, I’m somewhat annoyed there’s only one “cultural” review in the issue — I guess there aren’t many shows opening in early summer, so perhaps it’s vacation month; still, there’s always music, not to mention dance, which has been under-covered post-quarantine, especially weirder and more performance-art-adjacent stuff. I’m sure next issue will have tons of pieces, just in time for me to go out of town for a month and not be able to make it to any of the relevant attractions. Ah well. What did you think of this week’s issue? I imagine the excellent Mogelson or Aviv pieces might be seen as more obvious must-reads; ultimately, my inability to choose between them is probably why neither quite made it up there. (Following in the Tilly Minute’s stead, I have a hard cap of two must-reads per issue.)
That’ll be cash on the barrelhead, son.
Midway through the first section I literally thought, Uh oh, this feels like the kind of piece that might devolve into quoting The Overstory at length. I am not a happy prophet.