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Third-Act Stumbling in the Penny Press!

By (February 5, 2013) No Comment

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It was a decidedly non-literary day at Ye Olde PO Box: no Arion, no TLS, no London Review of Books, no New York Review of Books … not even the New York Times Book Review to further the ongoing necessary inquiry. Instead, almost as a warning of the lower elevations head, there was a new issue of Details, one of those nearly content-free lad mags that are a periodical sweet-tooth of mine. This issue had promising young actor Garrett Hedlund on the cover, looking soulful and by some miracle not in the act of smoking, as he has been in every other cover-shoot he’s done so far in his entire career (he’s smoking inside the issue, but for the cover he just looks vaguely puppyish). The interior of the issue had precious few depths (Jonathan Miles’ actual interview with Hedlund being one of them) – a quickie article on the 6 million Americans who suffer from panic attack “disorder,” yet another made-up (and therefore billable) quack-medical ‘conditions’ designed to pathologize an ordinary life-detail (in this case, simple nervousness), another quickie feature on the current flu epidemic that has the country in its, um, grip (speed at which mucus is hurled from the body during an average sneeze? 100 mph!), but precious little else to alleviate all the clothing ads.

details-1But non-literary needn’t mean non-intelligent, and the rest of today’s periodical haul amply proved that out. The latest Time had a chilling article on drone technology by the great Lev Grossman (“A drone isn’t a tool; when you use it, you see and act through it – you inhabit it. It expands the reach of your body and senses in much the same way that the Internet expands your mind”). And the latest Weekly Standard had a lovely little piece by Sara Lodge on Prince Henry, the dream-boat eldest son of King James I.

And then there were the main events, both in the New Yorker. First was an essay called “The Toll” by Ian Frazier that starts off being a very effective look at Hurricane Sandy and the devastation it wrought on Staten Island and in New Jersey. True, Frazier surrenders too often to his tendency for purple prose (“If there were a typographic equivalent of a moment of silence, I would put it here” being the most absurd example), but he’s a mighty strong writer, and any reader could start the piece hoping for one of the first great considered examinations of October’s great disaster. But no: in the third act, the piece bizarrely detours to talk about invasive species of coastal weeds and about the groundhog-handler at the Staten Island Zoo, and apparently no editor was on hand to veer the whole thing back on course. It’s new yorkerfrustrating – in fact, it almost felt disrespectful, to start a piece about people losing their homes and their lives and end it meandering about beach-combers using metal-detectors.

Fortunately, the best piece in the issue doesn’t stumble nearly so badly. The always-reliable Adam Gopnik turns in another superlative essay, this one on Galileo titled (ridiculously, but hey, you can’t win ‘em all) “Moon Man.” The framework of the piece is a handful of new books on Galileo, but Gopnik spares them very little attention before beginning to expound on his subject, and the result is a string of quotable passages as long as your arm:

But the painters and poets could look at the world, safely, through the lens of religious subjects; Galileo, looking through his lens, saw the religious non-subject. They looked at people and saw angels; he looked at the heavens, and didn’t.

It’s hard to overstate how important the telescope was to Galileo’s image. It was his emblem and icon, the first next big thing, the ancestor to Edison’s light bulb and Steve Jobs’s iPhone.

Evolution is not an alternative to intelligent design; it is intelligent design, seen from the point of view of a truly intelligent designer.

It’s only at the piece’s very end that this aphoristic instinct misfires:

The best reason we have to believe in miracles is the miracle that people are prepared to die for them. But the best reason that we have to believe in the moons of Jupiter is that no one has to be prepared to die for them in order for them to be real.

But that fortune-cookie fumble only happens late in the third act of an otherwise wonderful essay. In a week without explicitly literary guidance (and with ample pictorial evidence of a talented young actor doing his best to give himself lung cancer), that’s certainly good enough.