Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Holy Wow

Those who have followed this blog for any amount of time probably remember me mentioning The New Yorker every once in a while, in particular the fact that I have followed the magazine religiously for many years. Well, that remains true despite the occasional bit of bloated self-mythologizing or rancid upper-class scrambling. They may not be anywhere near as hip as they pretend to be, but that is mostly irrelevant to the magazine's real strength, which is the quality of its writing. So if you're going to take it seriously you need to learn to ignore the holier-than-thou mewlings of the petit-bohemian classes and focus in on the writing, which remains, despite the occasional clunker, stronger across the boards than either of its immediate peers, Harpers and The Atlantic. Both of these magazines are filled to the brim with interesting writing on current affairs, history, the arts and any number of smaller but no less interesting fields, in addition to the occasional piece of personal memoir and fiction (sadly absent from The Atlantic's now, exiled to a summer annual which is not sent to subscribers such as myself). But neither of them can manage more than a monthly or every-six-weeks schedule, whereas The New Yorker comes to my mailbox every week of the year, with the exceptions of a few double issues strategically dispatched across the calender to cover staff vacations.

While it is sometimes true that not every article in the magazine is equally interesting (Tuscan butchers? Really, seven pages on how to slaughter a God-damned pig is a bit of overkill), the boring articles are almost always outweighed by the genuinely interesting. In the most recent issue, for instance, the oddly placed Tuscan butcher feature was offset with an engrossing twelve-page narrative feature on the recent trial of two Mafia-affiliated cops in New York City, as well as a masterful overview of the new Philip Roth novel -- in the latter case, something I am definitely interested in, and in the former, something I did not know to be interested in, but which I was very glad to have learned about.

But every once in a great while they sneak in a piece of writing that manages to be not simply entertaining or informative, but legitimately stunning. Every few months or so they run a piece that distinguishes itself not merely in the context of the magazine but as something larger and more significant -- one of those rare essays that manages to stick in your head as more than merely the sum of the information imparted, as a piece of genuinely beautiful writing. The magazine's frequent personal memoirs are not usually highlights -- often they are merely the rather fatuous mumblings of retired staff members going through their metaphysical back pages, part of the self-mythology that calcifies around the magazine's worst impulses. Even a good writer, when given carte blanche to communicate his innermost secrets, usually flounders on anecdote and self-congratulation -- Calvin Trillan's recent extended obituary for his dead wife is a great example of a good writer unmoored by sentiment. The current vogue for memoir notwithstanding, writing about your own life and the people you have known is hard work, usually as much so for the reader as the writer.

Which is why the recent issue (dated May 1, 2006), contained a genuine surprise. Tucked quietly into the middle of the magazine there was a memoir written by a young Chicago-based essayist, on the subject of him and his wife's inability to conceive, punctuated by both an early-term miscarriage and a harrowing, almost unbelievable stillborn birth, the child delivered four days after its death. Usually a story like this would be -- either despite or because of the overwhelming subject matter -- unbearable to read, either maudlin and sentimental or a Hemingway-esque exercise in stoic detachment. Neither approach would have worked.

Writing about personal tragedy, as I have discovered, is one of the most difficult challenges a writer can face. Anyone can list a catalog of tragedies and create a sympathetic effect in a reader -- readers are human, they understand tragedy because they can relate to the sensation of loss and grief in their own lives. But that's cheap. To wring literary meaning out of tragedy (the phrase seems slightly obscene, as if you're capitalizing on grief in order to produce a marketable effect) requires more than merely inviting the reader to remember their own grief through a numbing reiteration of memory and ceremony, it requires the writer to invite the audience into their own heads, not merely to experience sorrow vicariously but to fully inhabit their distinctive personal sadness. That is the difference, in a nutshell, between so much good writing and bad: a bad writer presents the facts (or fictions) and lazily allows the reader to bridge the mental and emotional gaps with their own experience, while a good writer can invite the reader to experience these sensations fully and completely in the context of the page.

Such it is with the essay in question from last week's New Yorker, plainly entitled "Vessels". While presenting the chronology of events in a fairly straightforward manner, the author also manages to fill a deceptively full history of his relationship with his wife, from their first date through to the present. Little gestures that can mean so little in the context of everyday life are offered up with full metaphorical fullness, not as dry Jamesian symbols but authentic mementoes of life and living, the kind of small hooks on which the memories and emotions of reminiscence are hung. The tone is conversational, almost intimate. Over the course of the essay themes are not developed and tone is not established, they are merely there, presented in an almost invisible manner that makes the process seem effortless. This is the type of brilliant essay that would be impossible to use in a composition class, because there is absolutely nothing teachable in the way the author manages to pack so much information into such a seemingly threadbare structure. This isn't exactly minimalism, it more resembles a magic act. As a writer myself I almost despair, seeing something done so masterfully and with such seeming lack of effort or pretense (of course, I at least know that the "seeming" lack of effort is a ruse, so there is some small satisfaction in that). You know you are in the presence of a master when the author manages to work in a reference to what is undoubtedly my favorite William Carlos Williams poem -- without seeming forced or trite he uses the allusion to build on previously established emotional terrain in just such a way that those who remember the poem are immediately shocked into sudden reminiscence, once-mysterious implications revealing themselves with matter-of-fact confidence. Those who have never read the poem (Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow", incidentally), will pass over the reference with little consequence for the essay, but those who remember will feel a slight and sudden twinge of vertiginous recognition.

Who, you may ask, is the author of this piece, the writer with such skill? Surely it must be some established figure, a recognized genius of letters, to be able to achieve such sophisticated and devastating effects with such seemingly simple tools. It is, in fact, a name that might be familiar to readers of this blog -- Mr. Daniel Raeburn.

Wha huh? Did I catch that right?

I did a double take myself. Sure enough, it is the same Daniel Raeburn who has long been a mainstay of the comics cogniscenti, publishing the irregularly-scheduled Imp, less a periodical than a series of captivating monographs on some of the most interesting cartoonists currently working, as well as Jack T. Chick, and, uh, Mexican pornographic comics. The Imp ceased publishing a while back after Raeburn reportedly lost his shirt printing his lovingly-researched but vaguely Quixotic tribute to the aforementioned Mexican porn books. His name showed up on the credits for a recent Chris Ware monograph produced by the Yale, the second full-length study Raeburn has devoted to Ware (following an issue of The Imp). Those who follow these things knew that he had been working on a book-length treatment of Ivan Brunetti's work that was eventually abandoned in the wake of the Mexican porn comics affair, and there were distant rumblings of some kind of book deal in the offing. (The name of the forthcoming book is, according to The New Yorker's contributors page, The Imp of the Perverse.)

It's not that I'm surprised to see that Raeburn is a good writer. The Imp was always well-done, and he remained probably the best comics writer (as in, writer on comics) to have escaped the orbit of either The Comics Journal or the nascent blogosphere. And let's be frank: up until very recently, calling someone a good comics' critic has been the equivalent of labelling them the world's tallest midget. It's a small field. We are lucky enough to have some very good writers working in and around the field -- Tom Spurgeon is probably the best right now, although he's said he has no pressing interest in pursuing another book-length treatment similar to his recent Stan Lee book with Jordan Raphael, which is a damn shame. Mark Evanier deserves to be mentioned as well, in the same breath as other infinitely knowledgeable and infinitely wise raconteurs such as R.C. Harvey and R. Fiore (although, obviously, Fiore is a bit more of a smartass than the first two). I personally have learned a great deal from reading Ng Suat Tong, and I regret that his work is not currently featured more regularly in the Journal. The blogosphere has also produced a few interesting voices, with Jog (AKA Joe McCulloch) being probably the most interesting writer on the subject of superheroes currently working. But still -- even if you're generous, even if you include mostly retired commentators such as Gary Groth and dilettante critics such as Eddie Campbell -- this is an incredibly small pond.

And it looks as if Raeburn has raised the stakes. The comics intelligentsia (chortle, snort) has always been a small clubhouse, not so much on the basis of any exclusivity but by the fact that there are only so many smart people writing and caring about comics at any given time. It's kind of like a club where the members get to take turns giving each other Tabasco sauce enemas, for all the prestige and acclaim we get (yes, I say "we" probably by default, with full awareness of the meager nature of my own contributions). And yet, maybe this strange isolated subculture has managed to produce some talent of note. It's long been accepted as conventional wisdom that if we want good writing about comics we need to produce it ourselves -- no one is going to do it for us. For better or for worse, those of us who write about comics on either a semi-pro or amateur basis (is there such a thing as a fully professional comics critic? do they live in a refrigerator box?) have the responsibility of presenting the medium in as full a light as possible. If Daniel Raeburn is producing work of this quality (even if this essay isn't related to comics, it speaks well for his future endeavors), then every single one of us needs to take a hard look at our game. It's intimidating to read a piece like "Vessels" and realize, "hey, this guy is one of us . . . he may be ten times the writer I am on my best day, but dammit, he got his start writing about Dan Clowes in a self-published zine." Maybe there's hope for us all.

Or, at the very least, if Raeburn can get in The New Yorker, maybe one day Swank* will publish one of my letters. I'd even settle for Club International. I'm not picky.

* Swank is the Black Tail of caucasian porn mags. You just knew I was going to end it on a classy note, right?

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