The New Yorker is an excellent magazine; the articles are structured, the reviews informative, the cartoons most entertaining. Although somewhat predictable in its observational style – which can read like an extended Jerry Seinfeld stand-up – the point of view is always insightful and clear. Most impressive of all is the remarkable diligence demonstrated in research; every stone is rolled again and again.
And yet something is askew; there is a fly between the pages. In being so thorough, so driven for the infallible, the reporting can fail in timbre. With the details pulled apart, the thing is no longer itself; the butterfly no longer flits. Patrick Radden Keefe’s story A Loaded Gun in the February 11/13 issue is a good example of this. While there is much to recommend this investigative piece on convicted murderer Amy Bishop – an effective, albeit predictable narrative, a murder mystery with facts and statements cited at every turn – there are questions that won’t be answered because the dead don’t speak, nor will Ms. Bishop and her parents. However Mr. Keefe presses on, substituting these key elements with damning scenes from Ms. Bishop’s unpublished writing as psychological evidence of hidden acts. He specifically cites a scene of a brother accidentally killed by a rock. “He fell back like a toy soldier,” Amy writes. “He never knew what hit him.” Mr. Keefe’s mission was to find what needed finding, whatever it took to close the gaps, to make a good story, and like a good New Yorker writer, he did just that. However in this quest, the butterfly flies too much like a jet. In reflecting on what Mr. Keefe divulged from the prose of Ms. Bishop, I wondered what he would ascertain about me, indeed anyone, if he were to New Yorker another. As my mother dubiously commented upon reading the title of my first novel, “The Sacred Whore? Hmm. Where am I in that?” 25 years later, I have yet to figure that out. Maybe I’m in there too. I don’t know. But I do challenge the notion that another has the wherewithal to make that determination. No matter how hard the researchers might work, The New Yorker editors just have to accept that they, like anyone, do not always know best.