Author, Book review, essays, Janet Malcolm, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020, Text, USA

‘Nobody’s Looking at You: Essays’ by Janet Malcolm

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Text Publishing; 304 pages; 2019.

Janet Malcolm is a respected American journalist who writes in a narrative non-fiction style. I regard her most notable work, The Journalist and The Murderer, first published in 1990, as one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read. It’s the quintessential work by which I measure all other narrative non-fiction work.

Nobody’s Looking at You: Essays, which was published by Text last year, brings together a variety of her shorter essays, which were originally published in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. As such they are fairly divergent in theme, if not style, and they cover everything from detailed profile pieces to long-form book reviews. (The title comes from her profile of American fashion designer Eileen Fisher, whose Catholic mother often said to her “nobody’s looking at you” as a way of stamping out any tendency towards self-absorption.)

This eclectic collection is divided into three parts: long-form journalistic profiles of famous people; shorter pieces on topics ranging from pop culture to politics; and articles about books and literature. Admittedly, I found the first part much better than the second and third, perhaps because the pieces were long enough to give Malcolm’s writing the chance to breathe — and to showcase what she really does best, bringing people to life with a simple flourish of her pen.

Profile pieces

In Part I of Nobody’s Looking at You: Essays there are several standout features, but the one that made the biggest impression on me was about Yuja Wang, a Chinese classical pianist who is renowned for wearing stilettos and outrageous little dresses on stage. I had never heard of her before, but reading Malcolm’s essay “Performance Artist” really made me feel as if I knew her personally. I found myself feeling quite defensive of her!

In this piece, Malcolm shows how Yuga’s preference for “extremely short and tight dresses that ride up as she plays” has almost eclipsed the music, as journalists and critics get sidetracked by her fashion sense.

The New Criterion critic Jay Nordlinger characterized the “shorter-than-short red dress, barely covering her rear” that Yuja wore for a Carnegie Hall recital as “stripper-wear.” Never has the relationship between what we see at a concert and what we hear come under such perplexing scrutiny.

Spending time with the young musician, Malcolm finds herself wondering if it might not just be easier for Yuja to ditch the risque outfits for something more sombre.

In 2014, when an interviewer from the London Telegraph asked Yuja about “her fondness for riskily short, clingy dresses,” she gave a flippant reply: “I am 26 years old, so I dress for 26. I can dress in long skirts when I am 40.” But in fact Yuja’s penchant for the riskily short and clingy has less to do with allegiance to the dress code of her generation than with an awareness of her own “super-smallness,” as she calls it. She knows that small, tight clothes bring out her beauty and large, loose garments don’t. But she is not just a woman who knows how to dress. She is a woman who is constantly experimenting with how to dress when she is playing on a concert stage. She is keenly aware—as many soloists affect not to be—that she is being looked at as well as listened to.

Malcolm gains further insight into her subject when the pair get ready to attend a meeting. Yuja spends an inordinate amount of time deciding whether to wear a flamboyant dress or stay in her casual attire:

Should she wear one of them or stay in the shorts? I asked what the issue was—was she interested in comfort or in how she looked? She stared at me as if I were crazy. What weird world was I living in where comfort could even be thought of? She wiggled into one of the bandage dresses, added her high heels, and we walked the three blocks to Lincoln Center at a brisk clip.

It’s these kinds of observations that distinguishes Malcolm’s work from the usual run-of-the-mill magazine features we might normally read. She spends a lot of time with her subjects on multiple occasions, which allows her to get a feel for the person she’s profiling.

Putting in the hours

In her essay “Three Sisters”, which is about three sisters in their 70s who run Argosy Bookshop on East Fifty-Ninth Street in New York, she actually works behind the till to allow her to understand how the business works.

“One day,” she writes, “I sat with Adina at the cash register as spurts of arriving customers alternated with lulls when the shop was almost empty.” She then charts every exchange, every customer’s weird and wonderful requests, and in doing so shows the inner-most working of a secondhand bookstore via the clientele it attracts. It’s this kind of journalistic research that can only be done face-to-face, by putting the hours in, as it were, that makes the pieces come alive.

That said, I found her essays on politics a little wearisome, perhaps because they were outdated — “The Art of Testifying”, for instance, is about the Senate Judiciary Committee’s machinations in 1990 and everything she states about the process has been somewhat eclipsed by Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination last year. Her essay “Special Needs”, on Sarah Palin’s nine-part documentary series, which was published in the New York Review of Books in 2011 seems similarly irrelevant.

Perhaps these old essays might have benefited from a short introduction putting things into context —  or at least the initial date of publication could have been listed at the top of the essay (instead of at the end) to act as a helpful signpost for the reader.

All up, I really only liked a third of this essay collection. I hazard to say it is probably one for completists only.

This is my 5th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought it on Kindle late last year.

 

Author, Book review, Janet Malcolm, New York, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime, Yale University Press

‘Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial’ by Janet Malcolm

Iphigenia-in-forest-hills

Non-fiction – hardcover; Yale University Press; 155 pages; 2011.

I do like a good narrative non-fiction book that looks at the darker side of humanity — and Janet Malcolm‘s Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial is one of those books that could best be described as my cup of tea.

The book’s title has its roots in Greek mythology. Depending on which version of the myth you hear — and there are several — Iphigenia was the innocent daughter that Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces at Troy, had to sacrifice to appease Artemis, whom he had offended. Iphigenia’s mother, Clytemnestra, was so upset by her daughter’s death that she kills her husband as an act of vengeance.

But in Malcolm’s true-life tale, “Iphigenia” is a four-year-old child that is “sacrificed” as part of a divorce settlement. The father, having won custody, is later killed — by a hit man. The book does not focus on the finer details of the custody dispute, but on the abhorrent murder which happened following it and then the machinations of the subsequent trial.

The case goes something like this. A 34-year-old mother and physician, Mazoltuv Borukhova, is accused of hiring an assassin to kill her estranged husband, Daniel Malakov, a well respected orthodontist. The “hit” occurred in broad daylight, at the gates of a playground in the Queens district of New York, within feet of the couple’s four-year-old daughter, Michelle. The motivation for the crime is claimed to be vengeance: a month earlier Malakov had been granted custody of Michelle, despite claims by Dr Borukhova that her husband sexually abused their daughter.

This is a murky case — Malcolm describes it as an enigma, because Dr Borukhova “couldn’t have done it and she must have done it” — but the author’s focus is not so much on the events leading up to it, nor the motivations, but the way in which justice is played out in the courtroom.

Most of us understand the adversarial system of justice in which the prosecution presents the evidence and the defence disputes it. But few of us have seen it in action firsthand. Malcolm gives us a ringside seat as Borukhova and her hitman, Mikhail Mallayev, are put on trial at Queens Supreme Court in 2009 and dissects what is happening with rare insight.

“A trial is a contest between competing narratives”, she writes.

If any profession (apart from the novelist’s) is in the business of making things up, it is the profession of the trial lawyer. The “evidence” in trials is the thread out of which lawyers spin their tales of guilt or innocence.

This evidence, she suggests, is often highly malleable. The likelihood of a successful prosecution also rests on jury selection — which isn’t always impartial — and which judge presides over the case. In this instance, the trial judge, Robert Hanophy, had such a long track record of rarely acquitting anyone on the stand that he had been nicknamed “Hang ’em Hanophy” (Malcolm’s portrait of him is not particularly flattering, and she even goes so far as to call him a “petty tyrant”.)

Of course, how the jury — and the media — perceive the accused has a role to play, too. Here’s Malcolm’s description of Borukhova:

She was a small, thin woman of arresting appearance. Her features were delicate, and her skin had a gray pallor. At the hearings, she was dressed in a mannish black jacket and a floor-length black skirt, and she wore her long, dark, tightly curled hair hanging down her back, bound by a red cord. She looked rather like a nineteenth-century woman-student revolutionary. For the trial proper (perhaps on advice), she changed her appearance. She put her hair up and wore light-coloured jackets and patterned long skirts. She looked pretty and charming, if undernourished.

What makes this book so readable is Malcolm’s narrative. This is not a dry, coolly distant analysis: it’s raw and immediate and feels all the more compelling for it.

Reporting the case for the New Yorker, where Malcolm is a staff writer, she includes her own views and reactions to the events happening in the court room. At at one point she even inserts herself in the story — “something I have never done before as a journalist” — by alerting the prosecution to the fact that Michelle’s court-appointed guardian, David Schnall, had admitted some rather kooky ideas in an interview he granted her (one of his ideas was the the world was a “place of hidden evil under the control of a Communist-like system” among other rants).

Malcolm also puts her journalistic skills to good use by befriending Borukhova’s family, not an easy thing to do given they belong to a rather closed, insular community of Bukharan Jews living in Forest Hills, New York. (Her visits with them are highly reminiscent of Helen Garner’s visits with Jo Cinque’s family in Joe Cinque’s Consolation — once she wins their trust, they reveal a lot of pain, confusion, anger and bitterness.)

But as much as I enjoyed this book, it felt too short — the ending is especially abrupt — and there are some aspects that could have been fleshed out. Still, it’s a slightly unnerving read, and I came away from it, not quite sure whether justice had, indeed, been done. And I rather suspect that’s exactly how Malcolm feels about the case, too…

Author, Book review, Granta, Janet Malcolm, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime, USA

‘The Journalist and the Murderer’ by Janet Malcolm

JournalistandtheMurderer

Non-fiction – paperback; Granta Books; 163 pages; 2004.

Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer famously caused an outcry within the media when it was first published as a two-part article in The New Yorker in 1989. Its oft-quoted opening sentence — “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible” — seemed to lay down the gauntlet, calling the ethics of journalism into question.

But Janet Malcolm is a journalist herself and so the book must not be condemned on the basis of this first line, nor should it be viewed as summing up the author’s views. Indeed, it becomes clear upon reading The Journalist and the Murderer that Malcolm has mixed views about her profession, which I’m sure is true of most journalists today, myself included.

What this book really examines is the relationship between journalists and sources in the context of non-fiction books and the difficulties which face both parties. While the journalist must remain impartial in order to render the truth, he must do whatever he can to convince his subject to be frank and open with him. Meanwhile, the source must come to trust the journalist enough to share his or her most intimate secrets. Such unspoken rules are fraught with difficulty, because what happens if the journalist writes something that upsets the source but which he knows is correct and truthful? Most journalists would say that they are only doing their job – and that’s the view I take, too.

But what if the situation was slightly more complicated, and the journalist agreed to write a book about the source and was given unparalleled access to him and his closest family, friends and colleagues? The dynamic might change, a close friendship might result, but surely the journalist still has a job to do and is honour-bound to remain objective and to write events as he sees them? After all he’s not in the business of writing flattering, gratifying portraits (unless, of course, that’s the “truth”), because he’s not a publicist but a journalist.

Tricky, isn’t it? And even more so if the source doesn’t quite understand the rules of the game and mistakes the journalist’s so-called friendship for a genuine intimacy, when it’s essentially a means to an end: the journalist has wooed the source in order to extract information. Interestingly, Malcolm calls sources “victims” but she also points out that far too many “victims” are willing ones.

Something seems to happen to people when they meet a journalist, and what happens is exactly the opposite of what one would expect. One would think that extreme wariness and caution would be the order of the day, but in fact childish trust and impetuosity are far more common. The journalistic encounter seems to have the same negative effect on a subject as the psychoanalytic encounter. The subject becomes a kind of child of the writer, regarding him as a permissive, all-accepting, all-forgiving mother, and expecting that the book will be written by her. Of course the book is written by the strict, all-noticing, unforgiving father.

Malcolm really gets to the heart of this very thorny issue by examining the famous lawsuit between a convicted murderer, Jeffrey MacDonald, and a journalist, Joe McGinness, who wrote about the crime.

MacDonald, a United States Army doctor, was accused of murdering his pregnant wife and their two infant daughters in 1970. Before the case had come to trial, McGinness, a hugely successful non-fiction writer, had secured MacDonald’s co-operation in turning his story into a book on the condition that he would have complete editorial freedom. He also made arrangements to sit in on the trial, was given full access to McDonald’s legal team and even lived with defense counsel and the accused during proceedings.

The book was published under the title Fatal Vision in 1983 (admittedly I read it when I was in my late teens) and turned into a TV mini-series starring Karl Malden in 1984 (I think I probably watched that too, but I couldn’t be sure). MacDonald’s misguided belief that the book would exonerate him in the eyes of the public did not come to pass. Instead, Fatal Vision states that MacDonald’s guilty verdict is the correct outcome, describing him as a “womaniser” and “pathological narcissist”. It even goes so far as to purport a motive for the crime: MacDonald killed his family in a fit of psychotic rage caused by amphetamine use.

A writ claiming McGinness had breached his contract was duly served, and it is this case, later settled out of court following a mistrial, which Malcolm dissects using actual court transcripts and her own behind-the-scenes interviews in The Journalist and The Murderer. It is absolutely fascinating reading, if only to see the duplicit lengths that a journalist will go to to get his story. And it would seem that the “morally indefensible” act to which she refers in her opening sentence is not about journalism per se but to McGinness’s betrayal of his source: pretending that he believed MacDonald was innocent long after he became convinced of his guilt.