Friday, May 17, 2013

The Quiet Contrarian

ISBN-10: 0374157693 ISBN-13: 9780374157692 Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 05/07/2013 Pages: 320 Language: English
On the occasion of the publication of Janet Malcolm's newest collection of nonfiction articles and essays, Slate posted an excellent feature about her body of work and its far-reaching influence. The subheading of the feature, written by Alice Gregory, says simply: "I'm in awe of her," and it's hard not to reach a similar conclusion after you've read one of Malcolm's slim books: The Silent Woman, In The Freud Archives, or Reading Chekhov, to name a few. Malcolm synthesizes literary criticism, biography, journalism, and just about every other discipline that comes to hand in a dazzling display that makes practically every other essayist look dim-witted in comparison. 

Malcolm's writing is somehow three-dimensional: she attacks her subject from every conceivable angle (and a few inconceivable ones as well), until the thorny question at the heart of each of her books seems to give way beneath her logical onslaught. Her arguments are bravely impersonal in an age of over-sharing-- there are a few exceptions, which are all the more fascination for their rarity-- and she is as unsparing in examination of her own profession as she is of any other. The Journalist and the Murderer famously opens with the line: "“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.” If I ever wrote anything half as good, I would probably put away my (metaphorical) pen and go (metaphorically) home. 

You may also intuit from that line that "Malcolm’s severity, her terrifying neutrality" somehow does not prevent her from having strong opinions. And indeed, she has gotten plenty of academicians, artists, journalists and everyday readers such as myself stirred up for what Errol Morris called, in an excellent interview on Slate, making an argument for "the relativity of truth." Their concerns are understandable and even, in some cases, shared by myself, but you can't say anything really compelling without ruffling a few feathers: witness every truly revolutionary author ever. Besides, I would argue that Malcolm makes a case for humanity's inability to perceive truth with absolute clarity rather than for the nonexistence of truth itself. After all, her books are often made compelling by her focus on alluring, if flawed, human beings such as Sylia Plath or Ted Hughes rather than dry rhetoric.

Errol Morris rather memorably attacks Malcolm in his interview by giving this description of a hypothetical encounter between her and a drowning man: "I’d like to help you, but you misunderstand the nature of our relationship. You see yourself as a drowning man and me as a woman with a life preserver, but there’s a meta-narrative here. I’m studying the relationship between a drowning man and a person with a life preserver, and for me to throw it would be to break the constraints of the meta-narrative.” Now, that's a rather pointed satirical jab that's probably a lot funnier to an English major who's read a ton of Malcolm, but the important thing to note is that, just a few sentences later, Morris declares her one of his heroes, and her writing "extraordinary." You just don't get reactions that complicated and beautifully articulated without digging deep into the core of things that matter. For that, if for no other reason, give one of Malcolm's books a try.

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