Review: April Bernard on Janet Malcolm

Janet Malcolm. Photo Nina Subin

Janet Malcolm’s brilliance, as a reporter and prose stylist, is inextricable from her idiosyncrasies—those sharp, amusing aperçus and that candid immersion of herself in the story which usually involves defining a conflict and then taking sides. When one agrees with her side, this seems just fine; when one disagrees, it seems deplorable. What is clear is that she has long practiced an elegant version of “new journalism,” and that her lack of objectivity, which she has often asserted is an inevitability in all reporting, is very much the point.

Her wit and grace of mind are everywhere on display in her new collection of magazine pieces—although it must be said of the recent writing for The New Yorker that the stakes can seem awfully low. Memories of past triumphs—when Malcolm explored the Freud archive, or picked apart Joe McGinniss’s writing on the murder case of Jeffrey MacDonald, or went deep into the never-ending speculation on the poetry cage-match marriage of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes—make these profiles of designer Eileen Fisher and celebrity pianist Yuja Wang seem slight. It is, to use the old analogy, like watching a racehorse pull a milk wagon.

On the other hand, the columns and shorter essays written for The New York Review of Books remind us that Malcolm can still apply her forensic skills to bracing effect. Reviewing Sarah Palin’s Alaska, Malcolm characteristically turns her attention to a minor character—in this case, TV celebrity Kate Gosselin, who has been roped into a Palin-family camping trip for one episode of Palin’s show. In pouring rain, Gosselin balks.

What follows is like a scene in a dream—or piece of experimental theater—where disconnected things happen all at once, very fast and slow (such is the character of this genre), and anxiety covers everything like a sticky paste. As rain pelts the lake and the forest, Gosselin finds shelter under a small canopy, and begins a mesmerizing aria:

I’m freezing to the bone … I’ve been bitten about two hundred times already. This is horrible. It just kills me that people like willingly do this …

Palin, in a yellow oilskin slicker and rain-spattered glasses, gestures toward the mist-shrouded mountains. “Look at how gorgeous this place is … This is the beauty of Alaska.”

Gosselin, unmoved by the Sublime, continues her bitter lament:

This is cruel and unusual punishment.

This essay, called “Special Needs,” ends up being about (glancingly, subtly) Palin as the mother of a child with Down syndrome—a subject Malcolm addresses with a strange combination of empathy and disdain. And although this is only tangentially a “political” piece, the larger sense of who Palin is, and might have become, saturates the more domestic aspects of the story.

Similarly, in my favorite piece in the book, “The Art of Testifying,” which considers Senate Supreme Court confirmation hearings, the details of political theater that Malcolm notes always implicate the larger matters at stake. Of John Roberts’s confirmation hearing in 2005, she writes:

Watching Roberts on television was like watching one of the radiantly wholesome heroes that Jimmy Stewart, Joel McCrea, and Henry Fonda rendered so incisively in the films of Capra, Lubitsch, and Sturges … Roberts had all their anachronistic attributes: the grace, charm, and humor of a special American sort in which decency and kindness are heavily implicated, and from which sexuality is entirely absent. It was out of the question that such a man be denied a place on the Supreme Court.

About the event the following year:

The Democrats came home from the hearing for Samuel Alito as if they had been beaten up by a rival gang in a bar … 

Throughout the hearing, in answer to almost every question, Alito said, in effect, that he had come here on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad—and thus defeated every attempt to engage with him in dialogue.       

At one point in the Roberts hearing, Joe Biden pushed Roberts so hard—indeed was so fresh to him—that Specter had to intervene and say, “Let him finish his answer, Joe.” But when questioning Alito, Joe practically tugged his forelock. “Presumptuous of me to say this,” “You’d know better than I, Judge,” “I don’t mean to suggest I’m correcting you” … are among the examples of Biden’s nervous servility. (In the second round of questioning, in a gesture of propitiation that can only be called deranged, Biden put on a Princeton cap.)

I would give anything for Malcolm to write about last autumn’s Kavanaugh hearings, confident that she could still tell us many things, both funny and dreadful, that we did not already know. 

The reader may also relish a couple of idiosyncratic takes on feminist controversies (“Women at War: A Case of Sexual Harassment” and “It Happened in Milwaukee”), written well before our current pious moment, and likely to annoy all sides. Two pieces on literary politics made especially pungent reading for me. One is her careful, devastating attack on the recent colonization of Russian literature by the translation team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, in an essay called “Socks.” Another is her contrarian admiration for the “lucid and vital” prose and self-deprecating humor of Norman Podhoretz’s memoir Making It, first published in 1967 to general uproar and derision. But Malcolm notes that when the book was reissued in 2017, “the literary world—perhaps because it no longer exists—remained calm.”

She is right, of course; there is no “literary world” left—except what we find, in our far-flung corners, by reading such work as this lucid and vital writer (along with a handful of others, old and young) still produce for us to read.


April Bernard’s most recent books are, Miss Fuller (a novel) and Brawl & Jag (a book of poems).

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