Forty One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, by Janet Malcolm
Reviewed by Molly McCloskey
Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers
It has been 50 or so years since journalism began to wriggle free of its constraints to become a far more interesting form, one that continues to redefine and interrogate its boundaries. Among those who have raised the bar considerably in the genre is Janet Malcolm.
Malcolm was born in Prague in 1935 and came with her family to the US as a child. She began writing for the New Yorker in the 1960s, in what was then the “girls’ ghetto” of interior design and shopping. In the late 1970s, by which time she had married her second husband, the New Yorker editor Gardner Botsford, she began to write the kind of incisive long-form literary nonfiction for which she is now known. Her 12 books have treated such subjects as psychoanalysis, Chekhov and Sylvia Plath.
Malcolm’s most famous work is probably The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), which teases out the implications of the journalist-subject relationship through the “larger-than-life example” of the convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald and the author Joe McGinniss. MacDonald had contracted with McGinniss to write about his case, but when McGinniss became convinced, during the trial, of MacDonald’s guilt he continued, for the sake of the book, to pretend otherwise. When Fatal Vision came out MacDonald sued McGinniss for fraud and breach of contract.
The assertion with which Malcolm opens the book – “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” – has, she has since noted, come to seem so obvious as to be banal. More unsettling is her comparison of the regressive effect of the journalistic encounter to that of psychoanalysis: “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.”
For the reader there is a discomfiting, voyeuristic thrill in witnessing this flip – much in evidence in Malcolm’s In the Freud Archives, which preceded The Journalist and the Murderer. The Freud book tracks a feud within the psychoanalytic community, and led to Malcolm herself being sued. Jeffrey Masson, a young analyst, claimed, unsuccessfully, that Malcolm had libelled him. In the afterword to The Journalist Malcolm insists that the book is not “a thinly veiled account of her own experience of being sued by a subject”, but the two books can’t but comment on each other, and The Journalist functions – like a deconstructive artist’s statement – as a critique of the very activity in which Malcolm, and all journalists, are engaged.
Forty-one False Starts consists of previously published pieces on literature and visual art. The title essay covers conversations Malcolm held in 1992 and 1993 with postmodernist painter David Salle.
It opens in a tone of chill melancholy:
“There are places in New York where the city’s anarchic, unaccommodating spirit, its fundamental, irrepressible aimlessness and heedlessness have found especially firm footholds. Certain transfers between subway lines, passageways of almost transcendent sordidness; certain sites of torn-down buildings where parking lots have silently sprung up like fungi; certain intersections created by illogical confluences of streets – these express with particular force the city’s penchant for the provisional and its resistance to permanence, order, closure.”
Forty-one False Starts queries, refracts, is in dialogue with both Salle’s own work (“To write about the painter David Salle is to be forced into a kind of parody of his melancholy art of fragments, quotations, absences”) and the impossibility of doing anything like a straight portrait of someone for whom the interview is “another medium in which to (playfully) work”. Motifs and phrases repeat, a sense of eddying takes hold, all these “false starts” subjecting the reader to an ongoing experience of interruptus that, while depriving us of the (false) sense of narrative resolution we seem hard-wired to want, results in something greater than the sum of its parts.