There’s an absolutely perfect New Yorker cover this week by Adrian Tomine. A group of tourists atop a Gray Line double-decker red bus are taking pictures of Radio City Music Hall, while a slightly sullen-looking teenage girl sits in the back, almost pointedly ignoring her surroundings as she reads.
The entire genius of the cover is captured in a single detail: her choice of book. Tomine draws it about half an inch high, with only a few short lines to suggest some black text on a white cover, and perhaps a small triangle of something in one corner. It would be easy enough to read it as being merely a generic “book,” but it’s not just some book. She’s reading the Little, Brown edition of Catcher in the Rye.
That single detail requires us to start our ‘reading’ of the picture almost from scratch. Radio City, of course, appears repeatedly in Catcher in the Rye: Sally and Holden go ice skating there and Holden watches a bad movie there to kill time. Most significantly, though, the three women that Holden meets in a hotel lounge, crass tourists from Seattle who are trying to spot celebrities and ultimately stick Holden with the bill, are excited about seeing a show at Radio City Music Hall. I wonder whether that’s the passage that the girl is reading as the others around gawp and take their photos.
I absolutely love art in which a tiny piece holds the key to the meaning of the whole. Surprise movie endings can be cheesy, but there’s a pleasure involved in watching a trick-ending flick the second time, paying attention to how every detail has a double meaning. The same is true, in a different fashion, for fugues and passacaglias that build an entire musical work from a single phrase. It’s rarer to see visual art successfully pull off this effect, but when it works, wow.
The absolute best part is that the drawing would have been a heavy-handed failure if it had been obvious what she was reading.