There's a fact about magazine-reading that you rarely hear, mainly because its conditions are so incredibly rare: when it's good, The New Yorker is better than any other periodical in the world.
The reason you rarely hear that fact is because The New Yorker these days is, alas, almost never good. Oh, there are some reliable sources of quality - Anthony Lane seldom misfires, and other usual suspects - but far, far too often the magazine is a long, gray soup-line of broken-down shabby pieces of heavily-bestubbled pieces nobody gives a damn about. Week after week after week, The New Yorker seems determined to punish those of us who ever once upon a time liked it, or those of us who have the temerity to remember the days when it was sold in a brown paper wrapper - the days when every issue was a virtual song of perfection, when a critic could call it perhaps the greatest magazine in the history of magazines and not sound foolish or over-reaching.
In the post-Tina Brown era? Not hardly. The political reporting is too often choked with hyperbole and buzzwords (if I read another sentence in a national periodical that's followed by the single word "Really?" as though the author were a friggin teenage girl - or thought friggin teenage girls were something worth emulating - I'm going to cancel a whole LOT of subscriptions), the short satire pieces have everything going for them except the smallest shred of humor, the various 'quirky' profiles go on at lengths utterly unsupported by their idiotic, self-serving subjects, and their longer features soar to new heights of tedium (a recent two-part piece on Siberia was more torturous than actual exile to Siberia would have been). And that's not even taking into account the state of that New Yorker staple, the cartoon ...
But every once in a great while, all the tumblers will fall into place and The New Yorker will once again do that particular thing that was once its reliable specialty: it will fill you up. The great issues of this magazine used to tell you things you never knew, fascinate you about subjects you hadn't even heard about until you opened the issue, and show you old familiar topics in new and interesting lights (in addition to making you laugh, with the aforementioned cartoons) - it was like being a listening guest at some great salon of a party, and no matter where you turned or which room you entered, there was a fascinating conversation taking place, and when you left your head was buzzing with ideas.
The 31 August (oh, how wonderful to type that date!) New Yorker is just such an issue. From the wonderful, wistful "No Trespassing" cover by Istvan Banyai (which manages to be romantically touching despite the fact that it automatically summons to mind the open scene of Jaws) to the fascinating - if repellent - 'Talk of the Town' piece by Laura Secor on Iran's political show-trials (and a heartbreaking notice by Ian Frazier on the devastation done to Central Park's trees by a recent "microburst" storm), to the hilarious "Shouts & Murmurs" piece "For Immediate Release" by Paul Simms.
There's a fantastic, extremely alarming article by Steven Brill on the failed teachers in the New York public school system, people who've been taken out of their classes for one reason or another (drunkenness, it seems, or plain old incompetence) but, thanks to their union, still get paid, usually while sitting in a place they've dubbed "The Rubber Room." The fact that these people are getting paid not to teach instead of getting fired is bad enough, but toward the end of the article we get to the really scary part:
The Rubber Rooms house only a fraction of the 1.8 per cent who have been rated unsatisfactory. The rest still teach.
Then there's Burkhard Bilger's fun piece on Bob and Mike Bryan, twins who are also luminaries in the doubles-tennis circuit. Of course any piece on twins promises good old-fashioned freakshow fun, but in this case that payoff is overshadowed by the sad truth of Bilger's opening:
Few sports have evolved so dramatically in the past forty years, or been so utterly transformed by technology. Drop a young Pele onto a modern soccer field and he would still dribble circles around most players. A DiMaggio in his twenties could go on a hitting spree in the major leagues tomorrow. But even Rod Laver in his prime, when he twice won all four grand-slam tournaments in a calendar year, would be flummoxed by today's game: the giant carbon-fibre racquets, the synthetic strings that send every shot spinning and dipping over the court, and Andy Roddick at the baseline, blasting serves at one hundred and fifty miles per hour. It would seem less like tennis than like target practice.
Naturally, this is as true as it is tragic, and anybody who ever sat through the ode to boredom that was a Stefan Edberg match could have seen it coming. The problem isn't the racquets or the strings - the problem is that evil, money-grubbing parents have figured out that if they treat their promising children like livestock - get them up at dawn, give them the right feed, keep them focused 24 hours a day on their purpose on this Earth, and most of all work them, train them, practice them during every waking minute - they stand to cash in on some rather lucrative endorsement deals when their animal starts paying off. There are two inevitable results of this new program: first, the resulting creatures, although only able to perform one small fraction of the actual game of tennis (100 percent entirely power-games from the backcourt), are able to perform that fraction at superhuman, eugenically engineered levels. Roger Federer can hit a penny one inch from the baseline with a 120-mph shot, and he can do it over and over again, without ever missing, without ever pausing, for upwards of twenty straight hours, if his father/manager tells him he should. The noises that Rafael Nadal makes on the court (which would have got him peremptorily disqualified in Laver's day) can be heard a city block outside the arena, because what he's doing isn't tennis, it's weight-lifting. And second, the resulting creatures are entirely vacant animals which have no intellect, no ability to reflect or learn, and not even a small amount of self-control (their controls have, literally since birth, always been imposed on them by their manager/parents). When somebody asks Michael Phelps or Sidney Crosby a question about their sport, the usual pre-learned patter snaps automatically into place, "We were really looking forward to this game/match, it was really challenging, we gave it our all, it was a learning experience," etc. But if they're left alone and unsupervised at, say, a restaurant or party, they stare blankly, mouth slightly ajar, as clueless and overstimulated as a five-year-old. If a young woman walks by, they blurt out, "ME WANT RAPE!" - and somebody quickly cell-phones their manager/parents for a quick retrieval.
Fortunately, the article is redeemed throughout by Brill's great skill as a writer, and that skill is abundantly on hand elsewhere in the issue. In that rarest of rarities these days, the issue's short story is excellent: it's called "The Fountain House," and it's by an author I've never heard of (I'm pretty sure I would have remembered): Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. It's about a man who loses his daughter in a bus-bomb explosion - only maybe he doesn't - and it's wonderfully sparse and strong, even in its English translation.
James Wood turns in an unusually meaty review of Terry Eagleton's new attack on the "New Atheists" like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, and Wood's piece is good right from the start:
Nothing more clearly shows that atheism belongs to religious belief, as the candlesnuffer does to the candle, than the rise of the so-called "new atheism.
Of course, Wood still manages to write a few boneheaded things, as when he refers to A Brief Inquiry Into the Meaning of Sin & Faith "a posthumous publication" of the late, great John Rawls (it was nothing of the kind, being rather a particularly bothersome case of literary grave-robbing), or when he uncorks this little beauty:
The Christian God is personal - that is precisely the stumbling block for many of us who cannot persist in belief. And how does one go from the idolatry-hating God of the Old Testament to the fleshily incarnated God who died on the Cross? The bridge between the two seems not to stretch all the way across the river.
(Any intelligent Christian - not a heavily-populated subset, I admit - would tell Wood that he himself has supplied the answer to his own confusion: Jesus. The compassion, the frailty, the humanity of Jesus ... these things are the bridge across that river, and if your faith is true, they do indeed stretch the whole way).
The back of the issue is held down by two of The New Yorker's trustiest standbys: Alex Ross and Anthony Lane (although David Denby's magisterial take down of "Inglorious Basterds" last week was a tough act to follow). Ross writes an extremely interesting piece on the almost-lost art of classical improvisation:
Beethoven carried on the tradition - the darkly rumbling cadenza that he devised for Mozart's D-minor Piano Concerto is a fascinating case of one composer meditating on another - but he also helped to kill it. In the first movement of the "Emperor" Concerto, the soloist is told not to make a cadenza but to play "the following" - a fully notated solo. Performers gradually stopped working out their own cadenzas, instead turning to a repertory of written-out versions.
The issue features three poems by Richard Wilbur, and two of them I actually liked:
Sometimes, on waking, she would close her eyes
For a last look at that white house she knew
In sleep alone, and held no title to,
And had not entered yet, for all her sighs.
What did she tell me of that house of hers?
White gatepost; terrace; fanlight of the door;
A widow's walk above a bouldered shore;
Salt winds that ruffle the surrounding firs.
Is she now there, wherever there may be?
Only a foolish man would hope to find
That haven fashioned by her dreaming mind.
Night after night, my love, I put to sea.
- The House
Treetops are not so high,
Nor I so low
That I don't instinctively know
How it would be to fly.
Through gaps that the wind makes, when
The leaves arouse
And there is a lifting of boughs
That settle and lift again.
Whatever my kind may be,
It is not absurd
To confuse myself with a bird
For the space of a reverie:
My species never flew,
But I somehow know
It is something that long ago
I almost adapted to.
Of course, liking an issue of The New Yorker this much will make next week's inevitably crappy issue all the more bitterly disappointing. But for now, I can savor it all again here in the writing about it and imagine that the whole thing still cost $1.50 and came wrapped in brown paper to protect the front cover from wear and tear - and to make unveiling that cover all the more happy.