In 'Nobody's Looking At You,' Janet Malcolm Finds Herself In The Spotlight The title essay reveals just how far New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm has evolved from the unassuming reporter who might once have reassured herself before an important interview.
At a certain point in her new collection Nobody's Looking at You, pulling together previously uncompiled essays, Janet Malcolm fails — and it's fascinating.
It happens in a profile of Rachel Maddow. During one conversation with Maddow, New Yorker writer Malcolm recounts, she learned the host "marks up the text that she will read from a teleprompter with cues for gestures, pauses, smiles, laughs, frowns — all the body language that goes into her performance of the Rachel figure." Malcolm asked if she could see one of Maddow's marked-up scripts. "She consented, but then thought better of it."
It's a perfect Malcolm moment, simultaneously illustrating the tension in the journalist-subject relationship and provoking that subject into an act of helpless self-exposure. We couldn't possibly have learned more about the famously straight-talking Maddow from her scripts than we do from her decision to withhold them. Malcolm realizes this, and so an incident most reporters would count as a loss becomes the pivot point of the story.
That's only to be expected, though. A remorseless philosopher of journalism, Malcolm knows her job is, at bottom, to slash her subjects' protective carapaces down to the bone. And in an age beset by flashy, clumsy scimitars, her weapon of choice remains the stiletto. For decades, her self-deprecating manner has lured egocentric subjects within reach of her steel — at which point, usually, they've skewered themselves.
Or they used to, anyway. Today Malcolm's targets see her coming, and their parries aren't always as self-lacerating as Maddow's. That may be why the deliciously, operatically deluded characters populating Malcolm's previous work are missing here. Take "A Very Sadistic Man," in which Malcolm (who wrote about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes in 1994's The Silent Woman) reviews Jonathan Bate's biography of Hughes. Alas, Ted's sister Olwyn Hughes — the controlling harpy who was so fun to hate in The Silent Woman — is present only as a memory. Bate's jejune screw-ups are no compensation.
Even Sarah Palin, whose reality show Malcolm reviews, doesn't get a really satisfying comeuppance. Palin's foibles, like those of fellow subjects Norman Podhoretz and Jane Gallop, are simply too well-established; there's nothing left for Malcolm to do. The closest we come to a classically Malcolmian figure is designer Eileen Fisher, in the titular essay. And her only sin is banishing one of her cats to live outside in the cold.
In fact, the cat story looms large over the rest of the collection, and not because — as testy Fisher fans claimed in one online forum — it's petty or extraneous. It's a vivid little drama that's as psychologically revelatory as Malcolm's notorious accounts of Ingrid Sischy chopping tomatoes and Joe McGinniss making crabmeat pie. Fisher, having ousted the cat for fighting and peeing everywhere (eliminating it from her home as ruthlessly as she pares away extraneous trimmings from her clothes), then twists herself into a pretzel trying to justify her decision. But that's not all she does: She also notices Malcolm noticing. The next time Malcolm meets with Fisher and her two handlers, they've realized Malcolm might write about the cat, and all four women are embarrassed. "We all laughed, perhaps a little too loudly and heartily," Malcolm recalls. Suddenly, she's sharing the spotlight with her subjects.
The Fisher story reveals just how far Malcolm has evolved from the unassuming reporter who might once have reassured herself before an important interview, "Nobody's looking at you." Now, the people she profiles are on their guard (and bring along handlers). Maybe that's why she's written more literary criticism in recent years. Her analyses of Anna Karenina, the Bloomsbury group and Joseph Mitchell are as elegant and acute as her journalism. But when she turns her attention to a controversy over Tolstoy translations, you realize how much you've been missing her stiletto. Simply by comparing rival versions of different passages, she allows a couple of newbie translators whom "the critical establishment [has] embraced" to damn themselves.
Hankering for these sorts of takedowns may be petty — even, perhaps, the kind of moral failing that marks so many of Malcolm's characters out for judgment. So let it be said: Nobody's Looking At You is brimful of all the eloquence, erudition and insight a thoughtful reader could want. Now, if it had just a touch more steel...
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Times and other publications. She tweets at @EtelkaL.