Discover more from Last Week's New Yorker Review
Last Week's New Yorker Review: September 11, 2023
This is a prime example of the authorial license to justify any effect you like, as long as it involves a billionaire.
Last Week’s New Yorker, week of September 11
“The Coup” - Jonathan Dee reads a new work of autofiction by a cultural advisor to Salvador Allende with a long artistic career. Wonderfully, subtly weird, with funny sidebars about billionaires and apoplectic fathers. A great model of how to fit a review into a summary, instead of dispensing with the summary and then moving on to the review. Dee’s final points on science and facticity are genuinely destabilizing and provocative, unlike so much counterfeit “cultural conversation” on those subjects of late. And these points don’t come from nowhere, but emerge naturally out of his reading of the novel. Compact, snappy, jolting: Dee’s been away from the magazine for two and a half years,1 and it’s a pleasure to have him back.
“Talk to Me” - Elizabeth Kolbert clicks into place alongside sperm whales. The supposed hook of ChatGPT-for-whales is never especially believable (it’s an overblown interpretation of the actual science being done,) and the interruptions for reverse Moby Dick are more “ponderous” than Kolbert seems to think. But Kolbert brings her prose A-game to the amazing scenes on the boat, of scientists trying to attach recording devices and, later, witnessing an astonishing and inexplicable scene of nature doing what nature does: Bewildering us humans in ways that are not so easy to translate. Even simple scene-setting is handled with casual grace: “…a tropical storm had raked the region with gusty winds and heavy rain, and Dominica’s volcanic peaks were still wreathed in clouds. The sea was a series of white-fringed swells.” The natural science is also vivid; sperm whales are intensely fascinating creatures and Kolbert hones in on their notched tails, codas, and “huge, eerily faceless heads” in ways that bring them close. (The gorgeous woodcut illustration by Sophy Hollington helps, too.)
“You’ve Been Served” - Sarah Larson believes it’s not butter with food-label lawyer Spencer Sheehan. Good fun, even if it’s essentially the same joke over and over: “[Sheehan] shook his head at a box of milk-chocolate-covered Dove ice-cream bars. ‘These should say “milk chocolate and fat or vegetable-oil coating,”’ he said.” But Sheehan is the sort of smart-aleck-with-a-point that’s worth listening to; as Michael Pollan says, “It’s fallen to lawyers like this to offer any kind of accountability… I don’t think it’s the ideal way to do it. But it’s the way the government has left us to do it.” Larson doesn’t oversell the humor or undercut its importance; you get what you expect. Unlike, perhaps, with those Hint of Lime Tostitos.
“Holy Matrimony” - James Wood considers the marriages of George Eliot. The product of Wood’s major, roving intelligence working feverishly to come up with as many separate interesting things to say on the general topic of Eliot + marriage as possible. This is essentially successful, but it does lack a solid form, a bit; practically every paragraph develops or introduces an idea, which leaves the slightly dense reader unmoored — and this newsletter, if it isn’t obvious, is written by a slightly dense reader. In the absence of a hook, there’s lots of Wood saying things like “Eliot’s marriage was a kind of public religion, and the religion of her marriage demanded… growing happiness and ideal love as the best advertisement for her decision to defy the rules of propriety.” Probably true, and certainly well-put, but barely unpacked, and so intricate a statement it’s hard to assess. Certainly stay, though, for the last paragraph’s quoted epigraph, which is “tender” and profound.
“The Great Indoors” - Jackson Arn finds himself alone in Matthew Wong’s painted forest. Surprisingly convincing as to the merits of Wong, whose work, when I’ve seen it, has been far from my cup of tea. Arn points out the necessity of the rougher points: “he was never great at conveying weight, but that’s half the reason the painting works… the more you stare, the less solid it all looks.” He admits to the mood being “humorless to the bone” with a “bonus whiff of anxiety,” probably what turns me off. But he rescues the most tender details: A painting “flatters loneliness with beauty… all grand introspection and dazzling vistas.” If the “magnetic current” that snakes him along doesn’t quite attract me, that’s also a function of my reading the review alongside tiny digital reproductions and not the actual paintings at hand. Then again, that’s how the art world discovered Wong’s work, too.
“Dangerous Designs” - Dana Goodyear chronicles the rogue researcher who made genetically modified babies. Mostly gripping, but very oddly structured, leading with the entire story in summary, starting from the beginning while delving in much deeper (and justifying the initially harsh-seeming rebukes from the scientific world, e.g. “I am prepared to say that he’s not a fellow-scientist”)… and then finding the end of the narrative runway with three sections left to go, which get filled with anecdotal reporting that seems out of a different piece entirely. Goodyear inseminates eggs and meets with the family of a girl with a genetic disorder… it’s all rather human-interest and skirts serious interrogation of the philosophical questions at the heart of the matter. The question of whether CRISPR modification will be ethical when it’s reasonably safe is one which Goodyear repeatedly gestures at, but merely getting the opinions of scientists isn’t enough when reckoning with decisions with major implications for the rest of us. The voices of ethicists and philosophers are missing, which is ironic, since those same voices, if empowered, might have kept JK from making a horrific mistake. That main narrative is a fairly straightforward, but still queasily fascinating, slow-burn character study of a kind of entrepreneurial science monster in the general vein of Elizabeth Holmes. You can skip the first section and the two before the last, and you’ll get the crux of his rise, fall, and rise.
“The Mail” - Four solid and informative letters this week.
“Graves and Golf Balls” (Talk of the Town) - Robert Sullivan visits an historic Black burial site near Trump’s golf course in New Jersey. An astoundingly bleak and violent middle totally throws off the beginning and end (not to mention the whole rest of Talk) but is still powerful and, a hundred and fifty years later, somehow shocking. It’s a vital lesson.
Skip Without Guilt:
“The Greatest Showman” - Alex Ross Liszt-ens close. Undercut, even more than a lot of the magazine’s music coverage, by a lack of hyperlinks to the musical passages and performances being referenced. I have to imagine this is a fixable issue; passages on how the whole-tone scale “runs through all Liszt’s output; in the ‘Dante Symphony’ it casts an unearthly light on a setting of the Magnificat,” are badly undercut by the five minutes it took me to find a recording of the symphony and scrub through to try to hear the relevant moment, then shrug in confusion when the task proves beyond my ability. Similar issues recurred throughout, and the piece is especially reliant on these passages, since its biography of Liszt the man is, unfortunately, spotty and shallow. Ross’ interest clearly lies in Liszt the musical figure, so why delve into his shortcomings as a parent? The best bits are where Ross’ prose and my ability to Google align, as in Yunchan Lim’s performance of ‘Mazeppa,’ in which he “gives the impression of an overtaxed soul pummelling the keyboard in a frenzy.” But even there, the video makes more of an impression than the words do.
“Higher Calling” - Inkoo Kang watches two scammer documentaries. Consists almost entirely of plot synopsis of the two shows under review. (Then again, one could argue that this week’s Must Read does, too. The devil’s in the details.) Still reasonably entertaining, especially if you haven’t read other coverage of the shows. Kang might have relied more on connections between the shows, which both end up in resigned states with a “lack of closure,” or, maybe, lack of narrative punishment for the villains. That’s the point where a comparative essay might start.
Since last week was the archival issue, makes sense there’s not much in the mailbag. But Susan did comment on Ariel Levy’s profile from a few weeks ago: “I am still chuckling over Yuskavage’s description of Renaissance religious paintings as ‘Jesus and his friends.’ Never going to be able to visit The Met without thinking about that.”
This week’s thing you’re helping me pay for: A dog stroller. That’s right, a dog stroller. No further questions.