Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

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Before it moved to The New Yorker:
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Best of Emdashes: Hit Parade
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In which the editor picks out a few choice cuts from the previous week’s New Yorker.

There have been only a few instances that I can remember where I’ve blushed (hey, I’m a half-Canadian part-Midwestern Yankee Puritan) and turned the page rather than let my fellow squished subway-row-seatmate see the page of the New Yorker I’m reading. That was the case with Joan Acocella’s review of the Playboy centerfold book a year or so ago (some Playmates appeared, small but round, in the accompanying photo collage), and generally happens whenever I have a public-transportation encounter with a full-page, artfully composed photo of a gaggle of vamping dancers wearing only their sinews. I love those, by the way, especially when male nudity is equally represented (I said I was half a Canadian-Midwestern Puritan).

But the latest instance, and my pick of this issue, was Calvin Tomkins’s terrifically observed Profile of the painter John Currin (not online; buy the issue if you don’t subscribe). I loved it. This is a portrait of modern, bold, intelligent people at work and play—Currin, his wife, their children, Tomkins himself. By the way, the painting in question is unabashedly hot—inclusive and tender and, as such, fundamentally unrelated to mainstream pornography, not to mention amusing for reasons that Tompkins helps illuminate. (In a class with the brilliant Johanna Drucker at Columbia, I realized how hysterically funny a painting can be—specifically, Grant Wood’s Parson Weems’ Fable.)

Also superlative: the typically excellent essay by Jill Lepore on Benjamin Franklin’s naughty side (so much naughtiness in this issue, including romantic rule-breaking at a mental hospital! Not to mention naughty yet possibly groundbreaking medical philanthropy!). Lepore is a superb writer who’s always going down some riveting road or other. More Lepore, por favor. And although all I’ve read, here and there, about Les Murray led me to believe I wouldn’t like his poems much, I liked “Science Fiction” very much. So shame on me for having preconceived notions.

Because I expect this is going to be a theme till November, I’d just like to get it out of the way now and say that the coverage of the presidential election so far has been very good, and I appreciate the thoroughness and scope of the pieces, Talks and longer stories, on the candidates. A few more stories on specific voters and the scene at campaign headquarters in various states (and explorations of the candidates’ appeal beyond the PR blitzes, as in that revelatory 2004 piece about George Bush’s speech patterns by Philip Gourevitch) might be good to round things out, but George Packer, Hendrik Hertzberg, Ryan Lizza, and the rest are all reporting and writing extremely well. Moments like this, in Packer’s “The Choice” from the week in question, make the coverage here that much more superior to the boring and/or breathless crap that’s serving as analysis of the election in many other media sources:
Obama spoke for only twenty-five minutes and took no questions; he had figured out how to leave an audience at the peak of its emotion, craving more. As he was ending, I walked outside and found five hundred people standing on the sidewalk and the front steps of the opera house, listening to his last words in silence, as if news of victory in the Pacific were coming over the loudspeakers. Within minutes, I couldn’t recall a single thing that he had said, and the speech dissolved into pure feeling, which stayed with me for days.
This kind of frankness, a sense of the actual scene on the actual campaign trail, from the actual mind of the smart, trustworthy person who was there at the time, will keep the New Yorker reports from this unbearably endless election season actually fun to read, not to mention as rich with actual detail and perspective as the magazine’s coverage of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I applaud both series.

I liked John Kenney’s Shouts & Murmurs about the patient trying to end his therapy, too—it’s funny as a parody of adult conversation in general—and the illustration by The Heads of State in GOAT is powerfully symbolic and beautiful at once, like a Christoph Niemann drawing that simultaneously distills an idea and amplifies it, or, hmm, a Soviet poster.

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