Back to the New Yorker in the Penny Press!

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After the 2016 US Presidential election, the landscape of my subscription to the Penny Press underwent a seismic upheaval. I saw an endless parade of 'think pieces' on every hiccup of the kleptocratic new regime, a slow-motion carnival of the normalization of the insanely vicious and corrupt, and I just decided to opt out of the whole process. I allowed subscriptions on magazines I'd been reading for decades to lapse without renewal, and the most painful collateral damage was the loss of those omnivorously-curious mainstream magazines that always brought me such delight. Harper's, The Atlantic, the New Republic, New Yorker … all these former favorites had to go, because in addition to their great general-interest contents, they'd also inevitably have long, irritating examinations of the racist, sexist, fascist, lying moron in the Oval Office and all of his made creatures.

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By far the most venerable of these in my own personal library was the New Yorker, to which I've subscribed for virtually my entire life (absent only years of travel, when I had to make do with tattered year-old copies found at random in hotel lobbies). Letting the New Yorker go dormant was a genuine strain – and not just for me: I got a pointedly curious note from somebody in the subscription department.

I stayed away for a long time (any weakness in my resolve was shored up by the fact that a single issue of the New Yorker on the newsstand costs a completely outrageous $9). But the news from Washington kept impinging on my bookish world nonetheless, and when one segment of that bookish world started offering me money to write about the news from Washington, my mental steps began turning back toward the world I'd left. I no longer just immediately tossed away the daily offers in the mail to re-subscribe at discounted rates. Eventually I started writing out the checks.

My return issue of the New Yorker arrived just the other day, their middle-of-summer double issue, with cover dates July 9-16, and I put it on a side table, fixed myself a sandwich, and then settled in to a reading experience I hadn't had in years.

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I was reminded instantly that the main reason I always treasured the New Yorker was that it pleases me without abstaining from infuriating me. In this case, the infuriating happened right on the cover, a piece called “Downtime” by Mark Ulriksen that shows a dog sleeping on an inner tube floating on rippling blue water. Only the tube isn't floating on the water – it's floating just above the water; the dog's front right leg isn't distorted as it would be if it were underwater, and the ripple-patterns of light on the pool's surface run unbroken underneath the float. Which would be just fine if the artist had intended to make some no doubt post-modern point, but I'm 100% certain the answer isn't innovation but rather simple ineptitude – I'd be willing to bet my last Boston Creme Pie that if you asked Ulriksen, he'd say the inner tube is indeed floating on the water, even though that's not what he actually drew.

That same see-saw between joy and irritation held true on the inside of the magazine as well. The issue opens with Jeffrey Toobin guessing what the retirement of Justice Kennedy will mean for the new Supreme Court and the nature of life in 21st century America:

It will overrule Roe v. Wade, allowing states to ban abortions and to criminally prosecute any physicians and nurses who perform them. It will allow shopkeepers, restauranteurs, and hotel owners to refuse service to gay customers on religious grounds. It will guarantee that fewer African-Americans and Latino students attend elite universities. It will approve laws designed to hinter voting rights. It will sanction execution by grotesque means. It will invoke the Second Amendment to prohibit states from engaging in gun control, including the regulation of machine guns and bump stocks.

… which, although cogent (and conservative – Toobin's list could have been much longer), is exactly the kind of thing I'd been hoping to avoid by avoiding the New Yorker completely. No such luck, but the magazine's signature brilliant long-form reporting was also in strong form in this issue. Adrian Chen writes the issue's standout such feature, “No More Secrets,” about live-vlogger Paul Denino and the vast amounts of inconvenience and destruction (and, although not yet, certainly inevitably death) that he leaves in his wake as he dementedly live-films his every waking moment for an audience of hundreds of thousands of followers who consider him their private property. Denino makes money hand over fist by thus serially violating his own privacy, and although he doesn't seem to have thought out the process in the long-term (the article makes it clear that he thinks he can stop doing this thing and still remain an online citizen of the United States, when nothing could be further from the truth), he's as canny as any other “big” YouTube star about who and what to alienate under his nom de video “Ice Poseidon”:

In the Ice Poseidon community, “KFC and Watermelon” is a popular phrase to apply to black people; viewers have devised about a million different ways of getting around YouTube's ban on the N-word. Denino writes this off as an unavoidable facet of edgy online culture – or as the work of handful of malcontents trying to give him and his community a bad reputation – but he does little to actively discourage racist speech, and sometimes he seems to tacitly endorse it.

The issue's other superb piece was “Tunnel Vision” by William Finnegan, all about the New York City Transit Authority's new president, Andy Byford, who's voluntarily taken upon himself the unenviable task of fixing New York's disastrously broken subway system. Finnegan's profile of Byford makes him seem extremely smart and charismatic, but the piece is also infuriating, because it has a pair of villains as clearly marked as if they were wearing black top-hats: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose long-standing and entirely personal feud is at the heart of 90 percent of the MTA's immediate problems. Reading the piece, I was left with the strong impression that if two different people were in charge, Byford's job would be a hell of a lot easier.

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The “back” of this issue continued to thrill and irk in almost equal measure. I read Ariel Levy's profile of author Ottessa Moshfegh with growing admiration – how daring, I thought, for a freelancer to take an author as hysterically venerated as Moshfegh and write such a withering hit-piece for an audience like the New Yorker's! Then I realized: the long profile wasn't written as a hit piece … it just failed to cover up sufficiently how vapid and repulsive Moshfegh actually is in real life. Likewise the issue's short story, “Under the Wave” by the hysterically venerated Lauren Groff, which openly starts off with ostentatiously awful prose and just dares the reader to say anything other than “Groff is such a genius!”:

It came up through the ground in the night. The worst things never wait for sunrise.

She had soothed the bad dream from her little son until he breathed smoothly in the dark and then crossed the floors to the bed and climbed in without brushing the same from her feet. The house sat alone in the marsh. They couldn't afford the beach a mile away, and so their consolation was the birds. The great herons, the cormorants, the lit candles of ibis. As she drifted off, she thought of the birds sleeping out in their nests, although by then they were no longer there; they'd already fled.

She was almost asleep when she felt a great tongue licking the edges of her body, and she opened her eyes to see a bloom of black, her husband's face in a silent shout already moving away, under water.

And all was stripped from her and all she was was wildness and pain and her lungs bursting in the cage of her chest and her body battered by a hundred invisibilities and the terrible swirl.

On a more literary front (a less literary front would be difficult to imagine), Benjamin Moser turns in a long and very good appreciation of Machado de Assis, whose collected short stories have just been translated into English courtesy of WW Norton in a big, delectable hardcover edition. And New Yorker movie critic Anthony Lane, who recently wrote a piece about masturbating to a children's animated movie, reviews “Sicario 2: Soldado” and “Custody” – I didn't read it, because I'm not interested in reading Lane write about masturbating, so I as yet don't know how much and to what extent he writes about masturbating in this review. 

In all, I finished this issue of my return to the New Yorker feeling mostly happy that I'd made my way back at last. I was very much aided in this by happy timing: aside from Toobin's sideways glance, this issue had nothing at all in it about the Trump White House, nothing about trade wars with allies, nothing about being easily hoodwinked by the idiot dictator of North Korea, nothing about the endless scandal of collaborating with a hostile foreign power to subvert the US electoral system, nothing about the latest racist, sexist tweet or rally comment.

Instead, this was just a classic issue of the New Yorker, to let me ease back in.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is