Saturday, September 12, 2009

In the Penny Press! The New Yorker, 14 September 2009

Several of you (all card-carrying members of the Silent Majority, alas) have written wondering why I haven't yet posted a third installment in my sudden resurgence of enthusiasm for The New Yorker, and believe me, I'd love it if the answer to that were, "Why, because this third issue was SO good I couldn't even bring myself to write about it!" But unfortunately, the real explanation is more mundane and more disappointing: the 14 September issue was right back to normal. Drastically uneven, only intermittently substantial ... a spotty reading experience, in other words. And the reason, at least this time around, is patently obvious:

It's their "Style Issue."

For the life of me, I don't understand why non-industry magazines run these pieces of crap. Nobody who cares about fashion reads these magazines (in fact, as I've come to learn through recent closer exposure to the industry, nobody who cares about fashion reads, period), and nobody who reads these magazines cares about fashion - at least, not to a great enough extent to justify the huge amounts of space lavished on the subject on a regular basis.

OK, OK, I do know the reason: money. The glossy full-page fashion ads no doubt turn a pretty little profit. But still! Didn't The New Yorker once published Hiroshima? What are they doing running a Style Issue no matter what the ads pay, for pete's sake? For those of us who read the magazine regularly, these things are like surprise potholes that need sudden, expert navigation to mostly avoid - and it's the 'mostly' that kills. I have no qualms at all about handing over $6 for a normal issue of The New Yorker, even if there's the chance it'll be maddeningly uneven. But it bugs the hell out of me to hand over $6 for an issue that's both maddeningly uneven and half-filled with deadweight dross about hemlines. Geez.

So it is with this "Style" issue: there's a long piece on shoes, a long piece on coats, a long piece on 'Chicago style' (an oxymoron if ever I saw one), a long piece on interior design, and so on for almost 50 pages of blah-blah-blather with not one word of substantial content.

Turning to the rest of the issue, we find disappointments (Anthony Lane is neither funny nor interesting this week, an extreme rarity) and the occasional gem. The always-enjoyable Nancy Franklin turns in a tart little appreciation of "Melrose Place" - the old show where Andrew Shue drew a regular paycheck despite openly professing to having no interest in acting (and where Heather Locklear so exquisitely chewed the scenery, a spectacle Franklin, bless her unpretentious soul, duly appreciates), and the new revamp of the show debuting this season on TV. Franklin comes up with the funniest quote of the issue when she dryly remarks, "....much as one hates to avert one's eyes from the TV, even for half a second, sometimes one simply must." Hee.

And Judith Thurman writes what is hands-down the issue's best piece, an essay on the life, disappearance, and subsequent immortality of pioneering aviatrix Amelia Earhart. "On July 2, 1937," Thurman writes, "she became the world's most famous missing person."

It's a warts-and-all but ultimately affectionate look at the life and fame of Earthart, both of which are about to experience a brief renaissance as a brace of movies premiere about her (no doubt prompting books in their turn, new and old)(though hopefully we'll all be spared the return of Earhart's own books, which weren't exactly West with the Night, despite lots of people hoping they might be). Thurman points out that the people who worked Earhart's publicity made much of the "Lady Lindy" version of her persona - a frank, raw-boned Midwesterner with an open smile, routinely stepping into the sky to do the impossible - but it bears emphasizing that before she was famous, Earhart had a profound effect on the lives of many, many young women - making them laugh (she was very funny, in an offbeat and utterly memorable way), challenging them, and assuring them over and over that it was entirely acceptable for them to dream of more. She did all this, she changed all these lives, while doing social work in South Boston, and as Thurman points out, we'll never know how long she might have found that fulfilling if fame hadn't called her away. Certainly Southie was once full of grandmothers who would choke up a little when they recalled the pretty, oddly otherworldly young woman who "helped them so much" when they were young girls.

Thurman mentions Jane Mendelsohn's wretched novel I Was Amelia Earhart (she calls the prose "torrid," which is letting Mendelsohn off rather easily, if you ask me), but there's one dramatic re-envisioning of Amelia Earhart she doesn't bring up: Sharon Lawrence's unexpectedly touching portrayal of the woman in the 1995 "Star Trek: Voyager" episode "The 37s." When the episode first aired, I wanted nothing more than for the writers to do more with the character - when she asks if she can take Voyager "for a spin," I, like thousands of other fans, wanted to cheer "Yes!"

Aside from Thurman and Franklin, there's a good poem, by Justin Quinn called "Seminar":

I carry America into these young heads,
at least some parts that haven't yet got there -
Hawthorne's Salem, Ellison's blacks and reds,
Bishop's lovely lines of late summer air.

The students take quick notes. They pause or dive
for dictionaries and laptops, or turn to ask
a friend as new words constantly arrive.
The more they do, the more complex the task.

They smoothly move from serious to blase
and back again. I love the way they sit
and use their bodies to nuance what they say.
I lean forward to catch the drift of it.

When it's ended, they'll switch back to Czech,
put on their coats and bags, shift wood and chrome,
and ready themselves for their daily trek
across a continent and ocean home.

And the fiction, you ask, that problematic staple of The New Yorker that's so surprisingly pleased you the last couple of times? It, too, has returned to its dolorous norm - this time in the form of a lazy, patronizing story by Paul Theroux (there are three kinds of New Yorker short stories that feature black people: the good ones by black writers, the lousy ones by black writers, and the disgustingly bloated, g & t-sloshing colonial condescensions tossed off by white writers)(the obvious potential fourth category has never, to my knowledge, appeared in the magazine).

And all the cartoons were dumb, and so was Bruce McCall's cover.

And that's why I didn't write about the issue. But hey - there's always next week, right?


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