Last Week’s New Yorker Review: February 12 & 19, 2024
"I was also friendly with a plainspoken girl jock who covered her notebooks with Magic Marker drawings of rearing, running horses; she was different, in a good way, but we had little in common."
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After another solid week, we're 9 paid subscribers away from unlocking my reviews of the online-only "Weekend Essay." You can subscribe at this link, which, by the way, wasn't actually linking to the thing for the past many weeks. Sorry about that. It works now. I've decided that instead of starting fiction this week, since it's a double issue, I'll make next week's edition of the newsletter a fiction extravaganza & review the last five or six stories.
"The Friendship Challenge" - Mary Gaitskill has a brilliant friend. Gaitskill is so good at writing prose which has style (competition is a "protean imp," a girl's disregard for norms is her "most galvanic ingredient") but remains compulsively readable – I kept trying to find quotes for this blurb and ending up rereading entire sections, caught in Gaitskill's flow. As someone with friendship baggage, the topic is fascinating to me, and Gaitskill shows remarkable self-awareness but also humility regarding her own ever-changing understanding of past situations. This piece is deceptively simple in the manner of the best personal histories; its craft reads as flow, its deliberate structure has the looseness of a meandering thought. Yes, the topic calls up Ferrante and Yiyun Li's wonderful The Book of Goose, but all three of these works end up in different places, finding different threads to pull through the rich and strange tapestry of young teenage friendship. We don't have to steal it – Gaitskill grants us the gift.
"No Joke" - Louisa Thomas can't pass up Nikola Jokić. Look: I worship at the altar of Jokić. For my money, he is the coolest person alive. So as long as this got his story basically correct, I was going to enjoy it. But it goes a lot further, delivering what is essentially "Nikola Jokić Doesn't Have a Cold" – a story that uses a lack of access to reveal more than access could have allowed, but in this case revealing an authentic guy who despises the trappings of fame, instead of Sinatra's fame-thirsty slickness (as rendered by Talese.) The quotes Thomas gets are essential to this endeavor – they often reveal more about the person speaking than about Jokić, as if he's an elephant being caressed. His agent: "HE HAS BIGGEST TALENT IN FINGERS THAT I HAVE EVER SEEN." Noted literalist Magic Johnson: "I think that we dominate with our mind." "Basketball romantic" Bill Walton: "He’s like the Arkansas River coming down off Independence Pass!"
But Thomas' descriptions are fantastic too, sparkling with humor and insight. Jokić scores in an "inimitable, gape-mouthed way," "his shooting form is more sea lion than Steph Curry," at one point he has a defender "both pinned and used as a lever," then shoots the ball "as if waving it in off his fingertips." And of course there are great quotes from Jokić, too, whose unaffected clock-in-and-clock-out attitude toward basketball, combined with his obvious enthusiasm for cart-racing horses (you must click that link) makes him truly novel. Plenty of major figures have hated their sports for taking over their lives, far fewer have staunchly refused to let that happen. But there he is: On public attention ("it just feels sad,") on having a great summer (It was less fun the year they won the championship "because we played two and a half extra months,") on losing the M.V.P. award [^1] (to suggest he was better than the winner was "mean.") Thomas declines to draw a too-obvious metaphor between his play style and his personal style, but when his coach Michael Malone says it's key that "he doesn't fight the game," it's easy to see the many arenas in which he manages the improbable through self-aware passivity.
I ought to read Thomas' regular Sporting Scene column online more than I do. And you ought to, too.
"What Goes Around" - Alexandra Schwartz knows there's nothing like a mad woman. This is an excellent piece in a strong issue; many other weeks it'd be a must-read. Female violence is an impossibly big topic, and it's smart of Schwartz not to make broad-strokes arguments but to focus on recapping the books at hand, one at a time and in mostly linear order, slipping bits and pieces of summation and examination in throughout. What do ancient visions of "justice in female form" have to offer women today? When the reality of violence crashes up against the ideal of justice, Schwartz says, egotism can be mistaken for feminism. Plenty here is hard to read; Schwartz doesn't shy away from brutal realities, though nothing is indulgent. Ultimately, Schwartz expertly claims a dialectical position which allows for both the praise of women's stories as healing and the rejection of vengeance narratives as "an expression of agency."
"The Oligarch's Son" - Patrick Radden Keefe says forget it, Zac, it's Londontown. A patient drip, drip, drip of tense detail that gathers till it's almost unbearable. Keefe is a master of the reported neo-noir, and he's especially patient here – maybe too patient for some readers, as this piece is a longer-than-longread, almost novella length. Keefe takes advantage of that space, fleshing out characters and detailing the facts of the matter, and those who like true crime stories less for their lurid tinge than for the surprises they manage within a procedurally rigid form will find much to love here. Perhaps a trimmed version wouldn't lose momentum in its final third, as this does; still, a lot of depth would be sacrificed. Some of Keefe's most telling details might be the first to go, like the "white pleasure boat" Abdul Shamji rented to a film about a "London crime boss" in the '80s, or his student-theater role as a swindler named "Honest Achmed." On the other hand, Keefe's usually tight prose does slip toward the purple here and there – say, when prosecutors "greeted [Shamji's] pattern of unabashed prevarication with an existential shrug."
Keefe is especially strong, though, on London as a place, a "capital of pristine façades" where the "dominant aesthetic is literally whitewash," where a "glitzy, mercenary aspirational culture" pervades the air, and where inept or corrupt policework lets Russian-adjacent mafiosos get away with... alleged murder. And the section-ending CCTV-footage first act climax is more chilling than any crime drama cut-to-commercial could manage. Those who love impostor stories should make time for this.
"Pucker Up" - Hannah Goldfield catches a few flies with vinegar. A charming mini-profile of vinegar artisan Chris Crawford, this feels most like an extended Tables for Two from the Covid years, when Goldfield's constraints bred creativity in the form of various peeks into odd corners of the culinary world. (There's even a mention of the lockdown contributing to vinegar's trendiness.) It's plain fun; there's even a cameo from Ira Glass. Not at all weighty, and really not a 'review' in any meaningful sense – but bubbly and bright.
"Lush Life" - Vinson Cunningham sobers up. Both reviews could use more formal dissection; Cunningham is always very good on lighting, but uses that aspect as a segue here in a way that blunts its impact. Also, if you read closely, the whole arc of Days of Wine is given away. But Cunningham's prose is excellent on the "companionate charm" of blurred neon, the "city-ready" wit of a new transplant, or a character's "vault-tight father." It's a pleasure to spend a page with him.
"Last Resort" - Margaret Talbot and photographer Maggie Shannon go inside a late-term abortion clinic. A worthy subject, and the written blurb tugs at the heartstrings. I'm not sure the frequent magazine style of high-contrast, shadow-filled black-and-white is the best fit for the subject matter; none of the photos really wowed me or took me by surprise, and they have a frozen, bleak quality that might inadvertently play into the stigma of abortion care as miserable.
Skip Without Guilt:
"Burn Book" - Inkoo Kang says Capote vs. the Swans is water-foul. Very convincing as to the awfulness of the new show, so if you like offense more than defense, you'll find plenty of scored points here. You can already guess my critiques: no overall thesis beyond the show's unworthiness, not enough formal analysis, a few inapt coinages (not sure about 'tragi-camp.') But a dunk this forceful is always entertaining.
"The Art of Change" - Calvin Tomkins cuts the ribbon on Thelma Golden's new Studio Museum building. Caught in an awkward place: Clearly, the peg of the piece to the new building's opening has been spoiled by the harassment charges against its architect David Adjaye, whose first appearance here is almost a jump-scare. But Tomkins' choice to instead focus on Golden herself means the piece has an oddly elegaic feeling; it's all about how great the things she once did were. There's a sense of "why now?" This is furthered by the fact Golden was already profiled in the magazine twenty years ago; that piece has a more natural narrative: This person says they're going to do something incredible! Whereas this piece is more like: This person did incredible things twenty years ago. The bigger problem is that Golden is merely a tremendously kind, thoughtful, diplomatic, and clever person – she's not actually interesting. She freely admits that she has always wanted to do what she ended up doing; the piece even ends on that note. There's no tension resolved, just the tremendous luck and skill of an autodidactic striver.
There is something fascinating in Golden's project, but it's something Tomkins never really gets into. Her self-sacrifice in the name of a Black collective project looks an awful lot like W.E.B. DuBois' call for a "talented tenth" to lead the Black community – but, paradoxically, Golden's collective project is to enable artists "concerned with Black artistic individuality," what Golden controversially called "post-Black" art – obviously, a rejection of the "talented tenth" mindset. In general, Tomkins is oddly shy about really probing racial questions like these with Golden. The piece finds it necessary to remind the reader that the Harlem Renaissance was "an explosion of innovation in the arts which established Harlem as the creative center of Black culture" – evidence of a shallowness that is indirectly apparent elsewhere. Art curation is much harder to write about than art-making, and Tomkins' too-laudatory, too-neat portrait left me craving a little splatter.
"Realms of the Senses" - Anthony Lane is on the scent. I was wondering if Lane's impending departure from his long-occupied critic's seat would provoke in me some upswell of fondness. The first review instead had me gesturing toward the door, as Lane never manages to convey what he likes about the film (an undisclosed plot nugget seems key) or how it works formally, but certainly makes time for an X-Men groaner that ranks among his rankest. He doesn't really review the second movie, but uses it as an excuse for a lovely final paragraph that speaks of the ultimate film – the "joyful agony" of that which is unseen, projected in the mind's eye. That, Lane really feels.
"The Reticent Radical" - Adam Kirsch asks who knows'a Spinoza. There are two things going on here. One is a serviceable, interesting-enough summary of Spinoza's basic ideas, and the other is a review of Ian Buruma's new book on Spinoza as, basically, a model for wokeness-averse liberals who cling to free speech as the only relevant value. As you can imagine, I find the latter position both obnoxious and specious, and Kirsch doesn't do nearly enough to undermine Buruma's precepts; he treats them with the magazine's usual vaguely skeptical tone, sure, but he eventually lands in a place of agreement. The Spinoza narrative, meanwhile, is unfortunately undermined by Kirsch's constant need to look through Buruma's lens, leading to the awkward need to assert that Spinoza's understanding of freedom was very different from our own, and that, contra Buruma, his excommunication from Judaism, under which he could no longer "talk to or even go near" any of his relatives, was not quite the same as being cancelled on Twitter. It's remarkable that Buruma can claim intellectual honesty with a straight face, especially when the modern-day cancellation he's railing against is... his getting fired for publishing apologia by an alleged sexual harasser. It must be said that Buruma's book, a somewhat obscure biography released through a university press, is probably being covered because he's a contributor to the magazine. Which, come on: this isn't Buruma's New York Review of Each Other's Books.
Mark sends this tweet in, which points out that the illustration for the Tony Hawk Talk of the Town drew him in regular stance, when he is perhaps the world's foremost proprietor of goofy stance. The horror!
James Griffiths furthers my critique of Akash Kapur's piece praising India's Aadhaar system, which he says "has both privacy and authoritarian concerns, and also isn't as unique or groundbreaking as presented." But a deeper issue, he says, is how Kapur "skates over the fact India leads the world in terms of internet blackouts, cutting off parts of the country pretty much anytime there is civil unrest. In recent months there's also been a lot of reporting on how an Indian court order against Reuters has been used to suppress a story about an Indian hacking-for-hire company around the world; and there are longstanding concerns about how Hindutva trolls harass critical voices online both in Indian and beyond. It's right to be skeptical about Chinese proposals for internet governance due to Beijing's history of online censorship (and, disclosure, I wrote a book about Chinese internet policy and was quoted in the FT investigation Kapur cites) but for the same reason, I would turn an equally askance eye on any push to expand Indian policy beyond that country's borders as well." It is such an honor to receive thoughtful letters from experts like James.
John calls Public Obscenities, reviewed by Helen Shaw, "one of the best shows I saw in January and I saw the entirety of [out-there theater fest] Under the Radar!" That's impressive. It was, indeed, fantastic; plus I sat in front of Salman Rushdie, which is fun. Shoutout also to Open Mic Night, the other brilliant UtR show I made it out to. And while I'm recommending theater – when Stereophonic opens on Broadway in April, it's a must-see.
John goes on to recommend some groovy Amapiano albums, based on my mention of Tyla's Water. (I'll link through to the specific tracks he highlighted.) Ingoma by Azana, Africa to the World by Sun El Musician, Tugela Fairy by Simmy, and the works of Sho Madjozi. Groovy!
You can actually click here to subscribe now! Thanks to those who let me know the link previously lead nowhere. This week's edition is a day late because the issue was extra-long yet somehow the calendar didn't grow an extra day.
[^1] : The one area where the piece perhaps dwells too long. The Embiid vs. Jokić narrative is just so tired. Move on, find a new slant.