NOBODY’S LOOKING AT YOU By Janet Malcolm
It will seem perverse, but it can’t be helped: To understand how Janet Malcolm has become one of the most distinctive American writers, you must ignore the 2,823 pages of her dozen books — even the one that occasions this review, “Nobody’s Looking at You” — and focus on her single book of photographs. Published in 2008, “Burdock” is so apparently peripheral to her corpus that Malcolm’s Wikipedia page doesn’t include it in an otherwise exhaustive bibliography. The book’s 28 color plates are images Malcolm took of the large green leaves of the burdock. Why this plant? “Burdock is a rank weed,” she writes, “that grows along roadsides and in waste places and around derelict buildings. It has a rough, harsh atmosphere. Writers have used it to denote ruin and desolation; Chekhov, for example, has burdock growing outside the unspeakable hospital of his story ‘Ward No. 6,’ and Hawthorne marks the decline of his house of seven gables with ‘an enormous fertility of burdocks’ nestled in its angles. … It is a tall, unruly ensemble of oversized lower leaves and thrusting stems of smaller leaves, culminating in spires of thistle-like magenta flowers that turn into burrs. In nature the lower leaves — the leaves that I collect — have a messy droopingness; they seem to be crawling along the ground. In my attic studio, stuck in bottles filled with reviving water, they come to attention and into their own. No associations of gloom and roughness adhere to them. Even before the camera completes the task, my act of plunder has given them aesthetic clout. Each leaf assumes its own pose and exhibits, almost flaunts, its individuality.”
The passage I quote showcases a number of characteristic Malcolm gestures. There is above all the precision of usage: “rank” (which means growing too thickly and having a foul smell, but first meant proud and then luxuriant and then, in its abundance, a pest, a history of meaning hidden in Malcolm’s monosyllable); “atmosphere” (this seems precisely the wrong word to describe a weed, but in Malcolm’s use it suggests that the plant’s abundance has a weather of its own); “ensemble” (a group of musicians, making the weed not a random mess but a harmonious whole); “spires” (invoking the contradictory architecture of this dissolute thing); or … I’ll stop there (though one pines to argue for “unspeakable,” “unruly” and, of course, “plunder”). All that verbal care delivers news from Malcolm’s well-stocked mind. Chekhov and Hawthorne used the weed as a symbol in their fiction, Malcolm’s knowledge showcasing not her smarts but the contrast the paragraph is built to deliver: the gloom that has, in another wonderful Malcolm word, adhered to the plant — its reduction to symbolism in literature; its misrepresentation as uninterestingly ugly — which is, to Malcolm, an error, a wrong. She wants to show us, through her photographs, a way we might see things differently.
Seeing things differently is the essence of what sets Malcolm apart. Few writers pay attention with the precision, acuity and patience she has exhibited during her career of telling stories about other rank weeds: the faces people show the world. Her work was hybrid before hybrid was a thing: It balances her skills as a reporter (avid, nosy attention) with those of a scholar (writing about anything, it’s clear she’s read everything), a literary critic (tuned to how language, written or spoken, foregrounds its maker’s gifts and faults) and, above all, a storyteller. She is uncommonly concerned with finding a form that delivers the force of the story she is telling.
Malcolm has been a magazine journalist for half a century — writing for The New Yorker for 55 years — and to say that she has been formally innovative is, broadly speaking, against journalistic type. Journalists depend on pre-existing forms to ensure they get deadline work done, the storytelling wheel not reinvented just turned around again and again. The “profile,” for example, what Malcolm has called “the lax genre of personality journalism,” has a familiar rotation: A first section situates us in the subject’s compelling company; a second summarizes the work that sets the subject apart; a third charts their biographical path; a fourth puts us with them excitingly again. I know this structure in my bones: I make a living executing it. To read Malcolm remaking the profile is both a lesson for readers (I am learning so much!) and a tacit reproach to fellow practitioners (I am wasting my life!).
Consider “Forty-One False Starts,” Malcolm’s 1994 profile of the painter David Salle. Each of Malcolm’s 41 numbered sections starts as if the piece had begun again: “All during my encounter with the artist David Salle. …”; “In the winter of 1992, I began a series of interviews with the artist David Salle”; “When I was interviewing the artist David Salle. …” Some of these false starts accumulate into mini-essays on microtopics relating to Salle (the fickleness of the art world; Salle’s sense of being misunderstood; Thomas Bernhard’s fiction), while others peter out (Malcolm’s biographical section on Salle is one exhausted sentence). What does this amount to? The Salle who emerges is both vain and un-self-conscious, talented and slipshod, fascinating and pedestrian. A journalist might see in this inconsistency a series of failed ledes; an art aficionado might see an attempt at mimesis, with Malcolm embodying in the form of her piece the fractured sensibility of Salle’s own paintings, their disarray. But the reader experiences them as a performance of the limits inherent in knowing anyone: Most people don’t add up. While the aim of many profiles is to assemble a clear, and not infrequently flattering, view of a person, Malcolm is willing to acknowledge imperfection — her subject’s; her own — and to deliver doubt.
“Nobody’s Looking at You” features essays written between 1996 and 2018. These 18 pieces are organized into three unnamed parts, but they conspire to form a meaningful whole. The first consists of five profiles; the second collects reportage that looks at the way we speak, variously defined, and how it reveals (often unpleasantly) our natures; the third, and longest, showcases Malcolm’s literary criticism. The book’s cunning title suggests its uniting theme: how rarely, when we look at or listen to or read someone’s work, we manage to see things clearly.
Malcolm’s title is salvaged from what is an otherwise frustrating profile of the clothing designer Eileen Fisher. Fisher proved an opaque subject for Malcolm. They spoke many times, and Malcolm was granted access to meetings in which she found herself marooned on the little island of Fisher’s executives, with its strange corporate patois. Malcolm was also baffled by some of what Fisher said, at one point remarking, “I had no idea what she was talking about.” Fisher insisted that the piece was about “Eileen Fisher,” the corporate entity, while Malcolm insisted that it was about Eileen Fisher, the real person. “When you say ‘It’s not about me’ and that you’re not interesting,” Malcolm observed, “that’s a very modest way of talking about yourself.” “I grew up Catholic,” Fisher replied. “You know, the ‘Nobody’s looking at you’ thing. … That’s what my mother said all the time. ‘Nobody’s looking at you.’ ... It was just safer to be invisible.”
While it’s fair to say that Malcolm’s desire to write about Fisher was effectively thwarted by her subject — we get an unrevealing tale of Fisher putting a cat out and a look at the way corporate minders try to keep executives blandly on point when doing publicity — Malcolm did come away with that phrase, which could be her battle cry. At the start of her landmark book, “The Journalist and the Murderer” — her consideration of the relationship between subjects and authors occasioned by Joe McGinniss’s nonfiction book about Jeffrey MacDonald, a doctor who killed his pregnant wife and two little daughters — Malcolm wrote: “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. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
Malcolm implicates herself in that immorality, and the essays in “Nobody’s Looking at You” might be understood, in their sequencing, as an amplification of that earlier book’s famous opening and frank project. For after the fraught Fisher piece sets the bar low on visibility, Malcolm gives us a feast of looking in the next profile, “Performance Artist,” about the young piano virtuosa Yuja Wang. As famous for her fiery playing as for her risqué outfits, Wang saw her onstage clothing described by one music critic, Malcolm tells us, as “stripper-wear.” Here is how Malcolm puts Wang before us for the first time: “Her back was bare, thin straps crossing it. She looked like a dominatrix or a lion tamer’s assistant. She had come to tame the beast of a piece, this half-naked woman in sadistic high heels.” If the piece on Fisher, a clothing designer, was about how we mask ourselves in what we wear, the Wang piece is about how an artist discloses herself through her performances, figuratively and literally. Watching and listening to Wang, Malcolm wonders, “Is the seeing part a distraction (Glenn Gould thought it was) or is it — can it be — a heightening of the musical experience?”B:
第107期新报跑狗图【接】【下】【来】【一】【段】【时】【日】，【褚】【红】【颜】【都】【在】【忙】【着】【录】【翻】【唱】【的】【事】【情】，【她】【每】【天】【早】【出】【晚】【归】，【倒】【是】【把】【顾】【千】【峻】【给】【冷】【落】【了】。 【顾】【千】【峻】【在】【公】【司】【一】【直】【看】【着】【手】【机】【发】【呆】，【明】【显】【有】【些】【心】【不】【在】【焉】，【他】【的】【女】【朋】【友】【如】【今】【比】【他】【还】【要】【忙】【碌】，【想】【和】【她】【打】【个】【电】【话】，【发】【个】【消】【息】【又】【怕】【打】【扰】【她】【工】【作】，【可】【他】【又】【十】【分】【想】【念】【褚】【红】【颜】 【他】【实】【在】【是】【太】【难】【了】 【褚】【红】【颜】【录】【完】【音】，【在】【公】
“【恋】【恋】【不】【忘】【不】【是】【你】【吗】？【五】【妹】，【我】【想】【知】【道】【恋】【恋】【不】【忘】【对】【你】【而】【言】【她】【是】【什】【么】【样】【子】【的】，【不】【过】【像】【你】【这】【样】【的】【吗】？” “【三】【姐】【姐】，【恋】【恋】【不】【忘】【是】【你】【这】【样】【的】，【我】【说】【错】【没】【有】。【不】【过】【三】【姐】【姐】【厉】【害】，【连】【恋】【恋】【不】【忘】【都】【知】【道】。” “【五】【妹】，【想】【要】【说】【什】【么】【就】【便】【说】【何】【必】【惺】【惺】【作】【态】【的】。” “【三】【姐】【姐】，【惺】【惺】【作】【态】【不】【是】【你】【吗】？【我】【看】【你】【是】【巴】【不】【成】【哪】【里】【想】【疯】【了】。”
“【是】【谁】？！”**【和】【朱】【姝】【几】【乎】【异】【口】【同】【声】。 【白】【幼】【薇】【微】【窘】：“……【你】【们】【好】【歹】【小】【点】【声】。” **【立】【刻】【跑】【去】【门】【口】，【打】【开】【房】【门】，【警】【觉】【的】【张】【望】【左】【右】，【然】【后】【回】【身】【比】【了】【一】【个】“OK”【的】【手】【势】。 ——【安】【全】！ 【朱】【姝】【急】【切】【的】【问】【白】【幼】【薇】：“【薇】【薇】，【到】【底】【是】【谁】【设】【的】【圈】【套】？” 【白】【幼】【薇】【在】202【和】402，【两】【个】【房】【间】【上】，【各】【画】【一】【个】【圈】【圈】
【出】【了】【医】【院】【大】【门】【的】【洛】【洛】，【打】【了】【辆】【出】【租】【车】【就】【赶】【去】【了】【学】【校】。【随】【之】【跟】【出】【来】【的】【苏】【景】【辰】【和】【慕】【白】【宥】【也】【跟】【着】【打】【了】【辆】【车】【跟】【了】【上】【去】。 【下】【了】【车】【洛】【洛】【便】【直】【接】【去】【了】【话】【剧】【社】【的】【排】【练】【厅】，【里】【面】【正】【在】【选】【拔】【的】【所】【有】【人】【都】【看】【向】【了】【洛】【洛】，【包】【括】【子】【琪】【可】【嘉】【以】【及】【齐】【鸣】。【可】【嘉】【最】【先】【反】【应】【了】【过】【来】【走】【到】【了】【她】【身】【边】：“【洛】【洛】，【你】【怎】【么】【过】【来】【了】？” 【洛】【洛】【看】【了】【看】【周】【围】“【所】【有】【人】【都】【出】第107期新报跑狗图【听】【了】【赵】【尚】【书】【这】【话】，【骆】【大】【都】【督】【坐】【下】【来】【不】【吭】【声】【了】。 【阴】【暗】【的】【地】【牢】，【打】【翻】【的】【食】【物】，【死】【去】【的】【老】【鼠】，【形】【成】【一】【幅】【可】【怖】【的】【画】【面】。 【赵】【尚】【书】【擦】【了】【擦】【额】【头】【冷】【汗】，【吩】【咐】【人】【去】【喊】【林】【腾】，【并】【匆】【匆】【离】【开】【地】【牢】。 【骆】【笙】【正】【等】【在】【牢】【房】【外】，【一】【见】【赵】【尚】【书】【出】【来】【就】【扑】【上】【去】，【哽】【咽】【道】：“【赵】【尚】【书】，【我】【父】【亲】【怎】【么】【样】【了】？【我】【想】【进】【去】【看】【看】，【这】【些】【人】【拦】【着】【不】【许】。”
【钟】【太】【后】【又】【把】【热】【乎】【乎】【的】【蜂】【蜜】【米】【糕】，【推】【到】【皇】【帝】【面】【前】，【两】【母】【子】【对】【大】【周】【一】【些】【重】【要】【事】【宜】，【都】【交】【换】【了】【意】【见】。 【守】【了】【一】【会】【岁】【之】【后】，【洪】【正】【帝】【还】【是】【先】【回】【御】【书】【房】【去】【休】【息】。 【送】【走】【了】【洪】【正】【帝】，【钟】【太】【后】【这】【才】【懈】【怠】【下】【来】，【歪】【靠】【在】【宝】【座】【上】，【闭】【目】【养】【神】。 【方】【嬷】【嬷】【挽】【起】【袖】【子】，【替】【钟】【太】【后】【拧】【水】【净】【面】，【笑】【道】：“【太】【后】【神】【机】【妙】【算】，【一】【切】【如】【您】【所】【愿】。【以】【后】【我】【们】