Now this is a different kettle of fish. I just wrote a non-review for Malcolm’s The Purloined Clinic: Selected Writings in which I said I didn’t understand a word of her dense essays, all psychoanalysis and people I’d never heard of. This collection of Malcolm’s work, by contrast, has some kind of entrée. For one thing, she writes about famously reclusive artists like Salinger (“Salinger’s Cigarettes”) and Arbus (“Good Pictures”), and although she may go on a bit long (IMHO), her unique point of view and piercing intelligence makes us see something anew.
Even the Introduction by fellow New Yorker writer Ian Frazier has insights that tweak our imaginations: when discussing her interview and subsequent piece about Thomas Struth [photographer of the Queen], Frazier tells us Ms. Malcolm stood by her decision to include a minor exchange which made Struth look slightly ridiculous and seemed unfair because “at the level of fabulousness where Struth operates there’s a risk of everything becoming so wonderful and nice that meaninglessness sets in.”
This, perhaps, is where I did not give her enough credit in her earlier book. There is something to be said for people who can operate at the level of “the best we have” and retain their balance. Perhaps psychoanalysis is an absolute prerequisite at that level. When I proclaimed archly that her then-audience “aren’t educated that way anymore,” I meant “the best we have” now have to run the gantlet of not-particularly-well-educated public opinion rather than the considered opinion of an educated few. In the end, perhaps “the best we have” is now judged by different criterion, overlapping only partially with that category circa 1990 and earlier.
That having been said, were one conversant with some of the figures she speaks of, this would be a delicious, gossipy, and yes, insightful read. “Girl of the Zeitgeist” outlines Rosalind Krauss, formerly (at the time this piece came out in 1986) of the Artforum board.
“Rosalind Krauss’s loft, on Greene Street, is one of the most beautiful living places in New York. Its beauty has a dark, forceful, willful character. Each piece of furniture and every object of use for decoration has evidently had to pass a severe test before being admitted into this disdainfully interesting room…No one can leave this loft without feeling a little rebuked…Similarly, Rosalind Krauss’s personality—she is quick, sharp, cross, tense, bracingly derisive, fearlessly uncharitable—makes one’s own ‘niceness’ seem somehow dreary and anachronistic.”It is possible to endlessly quote Janet Malcolm’s incisive views of her subjects. So, yes, okay, I get Janet Malcolm’s special skill. At her peak production, it must have been something…to know her and/or to enjoy her pieces.
But I think the world has changed now. No point in being sad about that. And Helen Garner has nothing to be embarrassed about in her own writing. She is as clear as fast-flowing ice melt, and is bridging this changing world.
You can buy this book here: Tweet