Discover more from Last Week's New Yorker Review
Last Week's New Yorker Review: September 18, 2023
Even Freaky Freddy Otash, rifling through her belongings, sniffs her sheets with only perfunctory enthusiasm.
Last Week’s New Yorker, week of September 18
“Hot and Bothered” - Parul Sehgal is on the case of James Ellroy, whose new book features Marilyn Monroe. Slyly structured as a mystery of its own: How will Ellroy confront Monroe (“postwar Hollywood’s brightest neon sign”), and why is he “determined to curtail her presence” in the novel? The answers come, but as in any spy mystery, they’re not the actual climax; that’s the spiraling descent into madness — in this case, the madness of bad, repetitive literature. Sehgal’s propulsive prose rivals Ellroy’s (with just a whiff of his ratatat styling) — one “tight, mean, and poised” sequence prompts “a flicker of hope” for the new novel — “perhaps this one has a chance?” — before the brutal shoe-drop: “It does not.” There’s a certain nihilism at play which trashes Ellroy on his own terms; the last line suggests his endless repetition is a consequence of an absence of freedom that feels inexorably human; each of us trapped in our eternal recurrences. But this is all handled with the dry humor of noir; it’s as though Sehgal is exhaling cigarette smoke before that last line, and maybe glancing at the camera.
“Close Encounters” - Kamran Javadizadeh is reënchanted by Ben Lerner’s new book of poems. Lerner’s writing is such a self-contained, self-referential thing that to review it is to risk over-enforcing it, unveiling a structure that wasn’t trying to hide. Javadizadeh sidesteps this, mostly, by quoting at length and carefully unfolding little threads of analysis, not proclaiming any particular thing to be the meaning, but just a meaning — in this case, the ever-shifting line between one world and another, the “familiar” and the “alien,” self and other, I and you. If you, like me, think Lerner is one of the best writers working, just the quotes on their own are enough to make the piece sing. Javadizadeh beckons out much more — an argument that viewership is a way of touching another world.
“The Catalyst” - Moria Donegan rallies with Betty Friedan and the National Organization for Women. Wisely limits its scope to a period of just a couple of years, which lets it focus on specific and vivid scenes: the drunken founding of NOW, the appearance of a “perfect poster child” in Patricia Burnett, the surprise general strike. Each of these serves to illuminate Friedan’s character while also providing narrative hooks into a history that can sometimes seem intellectual. Donegan manages to be fairly hard on Friedan’s moderate views, casting them not just as retrograde but as strategically “misguided” and politically harmful to the movement she sought to lead, while still retaining a compassion for Friedan that could easily be lost. I also appreciate how little the piece tries to turn history into lessons for the present; activists can draw their own conclusions if the story being told is truthful and specific. Certainly, this is one of those pieces that leans heavily on its source material; a book recap more than a book review. But keep things gripping and I don’t care.
“Glow in the Dark” - Casey Cep finds forgiveness with children’s author Kate DiCamillo. A very well-executed unpacking of DiCamillo’s core trauma and her associated growth as a person that tries hard to connect that trauma to her work as a writer, but doesn’t contain enough insight into her writing to quite succeed. The main concern of the piece, an extended therapeutic forgiveness session, is not nearly as sappy or overwrought as that description makes it sound. Cep learns the lesson from DiCamillo’s writing that simplicity and emotional forthrightness translate better than anything more flowery when dealing with the “sadness and loneliness and frustration and grief” to which DiCamillo’s work eternally returns. Cep doesn’t linger on the specifics of DiCamillo’s father’s brutality but on its emotional aftermath, and the healthy emotional world DiCamillo has spent a lifetime building out of its ruins. As with any artist, that emotional world is, certainly, central to her work. But whether, as a close friend says, it’s “the writing that saved her,” whether, in other words, her work has actually built the emotional world… that’s a much trickier thing to assert, especially when DiCamillo herself “credits therapy for her transformation.” I wished Cep would quote more from DiCamillo’s work, so as to both showcase more of her style, and as to either press that point or abandon it. The middle-ground can feel (very slightly) condescending, as if the work of a children’s writer must be considered directly related to childhood wounds, while the work of a more adult writer might float in a more intellectual, formally analyzable realm. Both readings should work for both figures, and DiCamillo has earned a formal analysis along with her psychological analysis.
“Off the Street” - Jennifer Egan confronts homelessness with the residents of 90 Sands, a new apartment building for people with drug addictions and mental-illness issues. It’s always interesting to see a fiction writer try their hand at journalism1, and Egan has turned in a nuanced and empathetic piece that does, perhaps, sprawl more than might be allowed in other hands. I was most interested in the systems-portrait of a place, the interviews with workers at 90 Sands who face the grueling task of keeping things running. There’s some of this, but Egan indulges a bit too much in recounting the backgrounds of individual figures. These are often compelling (moreso in the article’s second half) but will be generally familiar to readers who’ve read portraits of homelessness before, with details chosen to provoke fellow-feeling and emphasize a sense of prolonged hardship. They aren’t lacking anything, but they don’t complicate the picture; if anything, they simplify it, saying, “This homeless person really is a person,” instead of “Here’s who this person, who’s struggled with homelessness, really is.” Egan’s political statement, when she makes it late in the piece, is made with strength, but it’s not unexpected, either: “How can we— the wealthiest nation in human history— tolerate these losses?” I wanted the piece to steer from the grievance toward the actual spokes of bureaucracy; from “how can we” to “how do we,” in practice: I wanted more on the underpaid social workers who are often the failure-point of the system, more on the process of building or leasing spaces for this purpose. I’m not wishing for a different piece; these issues are within Egan’s scope, she just touches on them, eager to get back to portraits. If you like heartfelt portraits, these are strong.
“The X-Man” - Jill Lepore puts cruelty first in her reading of Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Elon Musk. Best when it brings out the knives for Isaacson, less convincing when bringing out the knives for Musk. Certainly, Musk deserves the jabs, they’re just not anything new — he’s childlike, he’s a product of apartheid, he’s Zaphod Beeblebrox. But the piece is easily worth reading for the critique of Isaacson, who soft-pedals Elon’s monstrousness in service of “a core conviction of many executives: sometimes to get shit done you have to be a dick.” I could’ve used even more of that, but Lepore’s bounciness makes it a fun read regardless.
“The Believer” - Isaac Chotiner takes de-bait of Ross Douthat, Times Liberals’ favorite right-winger. This is not the forest-fire Chotining you may be hoping for, but is instead an even-handed profile which prods at Douthat without torching him. Chotiner sticks so closely to quotation the piece verges on oral history; he even gives the direst and most direct summation of Douthat's whole deal to Yalie co-teacher Samuel Moyn, who says “his role is in part the apologist and rationalizer of the actually existing right, even as he idealizes a version of it that he would rather have.” In other words, he takes existing right-wing stances and makes up elaborate theoretical justifications for them, which he then falls for. It’s a clownish act, and it’s admittedly fun to watch, even as it’s also embarrassing so many intelligent readers sincerely view Douthat as a conservative whisperer. He’s not a conservative whisperer, he’s standing next to Clever Hans and saying what a smart horse he is.2 You have to be quite a weirdo to have a psyche built for that, but Chotiner’s explanation is basically that Douthat’s mother was both a charismatic intellectual and almost exactly the same kind of weirdo, which is a bit of a letdown, though also believable. Otherwise, there’s the usual peanut’s gallery of disreputable political-media characters chiming in — the highlight (already Tabbed) is probably school-days pal Michael Barbaro doing chaos bisexual things and accidentally making Douthat extremely happy.
“Eurotrip” - Carrie Battan dances till the morning light to the xx member Romy’s solo debut. Finds a few clever angles on the album: It’s Eurodance-inflected (but “refined”), possibly a trend in the making; it’s queer; it reflects a move from “the bloodless” toward indulgent “pleasure.” These all seem noteworthy, though I wish Battan had more space to gush; her obvious enthusiasm for the record gets a bit buried by all the reframing.
“Mother Tongue” - Judith Thurman tells Emily Wilson’s modern story for our complicated times. A fairly traditional profile of the "radically plainspoken" translator, moving between three modes: A Grecian travelogue, pretty, but overwrought in places ("The birds singing in this ruined choir might have told us its history, but there was no one to interpret their song") and never hugely relevant beyond justifying the travel budget; a recounting of the Illiadic narrative, with a few solid stops (but not enough, for my measure) to discuss Wilson’s style and its meanings (“her plainsong reveals the tragedy of their bravado”); and Wilson’s personal narrative, focusing mainly on her troubled childhood, all handled suitably, but which, for a front-to-back reader of this magazine, will bear an unignorable resemblance to Kate DiCamillo’s troubled childhood a few pieces earlier.3 Thurman’s task is tough, because every time she quotes from Wilson, the prose’s bare intensity overwhelms whatever comes before and after it. (After one block quote, Thurman gives up on a transition and smash-cuts to “After coffee, I went prospecting for gems.”) Mostly, I wanted a few more ideas to munch on.
Skip Without Guilt:
“Absence Africaine” - Julian Lucas reads a newly translated “literary mystery” about a disappearing African writer. This is a perfectly good review, written cleanly and with clever ideas but no excessive verve.4 Toward the end it starts to repeat a bit, as if the novel’s ideas about recurrence have gotten in Lucas’ head. Unfortunately, I probably need more context about contemporary African literature to totally grasp all of what Lucas is saying; despite its brevity, this was one I had to reread, and still felt overwhelmed by.
Susan says: “Don’t be too hard on Alex Ross and his one-line comments on singers - us opera nerds are enjoying them.” Point taken!
Meave Gallagher writes in with thoughts on Inkoo Kang’s combo Telemarketers / B.S. High review, saying it “fails by dint of its combining two reviews at all… The biggest thematic difference between BS High and Telemarketers… are the docs’ foci. The latter can’t, for many reasons, interview individual victims of telemarketing scams. Instead, one of the bigger lessons I took from it is that if you’re motivated — by outrage that you work(ed) for a scam company, that the company scammed you, too, that the scam company was your only job prospect because you had a criminal record, that only one of the parties guilty of perpetrating and benefiting from the scam was ever held even briefly liable for its actions — you can at least try to hold the guilty parties to account. The guys are just two South/Central Jersey schmoes (the accents, so aggravating and so familiar, but that’s a personal problem) who felt aggrieved and wanted to do something about it, and so they did. They tried hard, they dealt with a lot of setbacks, they had the nerve to attend a police union meeting and try to interview the union presidents! I never expected them to succeed, and the scenes with Sen. Blumenthal in particular were enraging & heartbreaking, but Adam and Phil just kept going as best they could. I found these two amateurs’ dedication — despite illness, distance, and time — to see the project through and expose the egregiously bad actors in their corner of telemarketing was honestly inspirational? I hope more people like them see it and try their hand at investigative journalism in their own backyards.
…BS High feels more professional, straightforward, its gestures toward moral ambiguity — again, the feeder high schools — coming late and feeling inadequate, but it’s hard to lack clarity when your main villain is so proud of his villainy. Telemarketers wasn’t meant to have the same gloss or easily followed narrative, which… lent some refreshing, I don’t know, realism? to its concept (which of course was intentional, I’m not naive! But it worked really well on me, maybe I’m just a sucker for east-of-Philly everymen.)”
This week’s thing you’re helping me pay for: A little jar of Furikake, that Japanese rice topping. No, it’s not expensive, but it is delicious.
Egan’s done it before, for the Times’ magazine, but not in over a decade…
Also, in this metaphor, the horse is extremely bigoted.
I don’t make anything of that, to be clear, beyond that it’s genuinely unignorable.
In many other issues, it probably would make “window-shop,” but it was narrowly my least favorite of the pieces in this issue, and recommending literally everything would defeat at least one point of this newsletter, I reckon.