Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

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Tobias Wolff's short story "Awaiting Orders." But I always skip the fiction! you say. What? I can't hear you! The fiction's so good this time my ears are buzzing and I have melodies in my head! "Awaiting Orders" says everything about masculinity and warfare that ,Cormac McCarthy apparently—judging, at least, from the admirably civil James Wood's essay about the bad-blood-in-the-West-without-apostrophes novelist, which is all I think I need to read, and I had really been feeling wrong for not having tried him, till today&#8212cannot. Actually, I liked one passage of McCarthy's that Wood picks out, very much, in which a character refers to cows being led to slaughter as "beeves." That's funny! As for Mark Ulriksen's illustration of a head-tilting, competently craggy (see Talk) McCarthy con cactus, it's a little suggestively botanerotic (please supply correct term, fetishists), don't you think? So he comes and claims the West for his macho fantasies, and the West...what? Might prick him with an aggressive arm right where it counts? Unclear, but I must say, he does seem to be asking for it. Unless it's the usual stand-in...no, that I won't stand for. Well, I do reluctantly note the aptly placed boulders near the base of the neighboring (spindlier) cactus. And yet the rock formation (don't get enough nature to be able to name it) nearby is noticeably stumpy. Perhaps the semiotic elves will solve this for me in my sleep.

And lots more to say about Hilary Mantel, but I can't wait to read those books. I remember being excited when The Giant, O'Brien came out, but I had no idea how much more was on the shelf of grit and grisliness. Wow! ,Joan Acocella—who, by the way, has two reviews (three, really, or more if you count all the novels) back-to-back in this issue—does with Hilary Mantel what Margaret Talbot could not figure out how to do with Roald Dahl. This is real New Yorker writing, and much as I like James Wood, I would have been glad to see a page of his piece awarded to Acocella, who's really cooking here. But back to "Awaiting Orders" and its uneasy protagonist:

Moore had spent twenty of his thirty-nine years in the Army. He was not one of those who claimed to love it, but he belonged to it as to a tribe, bound to those around him by lines of unrefusable obligation, love being finally beside the point. He was a soldier, no longer able to imagine himself as a civilian—the formlessness of that life, the endless petty choices to be made.

Wolff lets us watch the story, transparent and labyrinthine as a water molecule, exactly as long as he needs to, leaving us with a pang as he gently pushes away the microscope. That it could also be the thoughts of a gay officer who doesn't overtly question either the war or the system—and Wolff never says "gay"; he doesn't have to—is freaking brilliant.

Speaking of the 7/25 issue, three cheers for Greg, who posted a "This Week in The New Yorker" for it. The large archive of his New Yorker TOCs is right here.

Soon: in honor of the martyred medicinal leeches who win our hearts by sucking so much, at least one new emdashes feature. Stay tuned.

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