In his introduction to this new collection of essays by Janet Malcolm, Ian Frazier writes generously, if generically, that the book “brings together a wide range of pieces that display her unique skills.” By the time we have finished reading Forty-one False Starts, however, Frazier’s praise rings hollow. Malcolm’s books are another matter; whatever else there is to be said about The Journalist and the Murderer or The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, they certainly display her versatility. But the 16 pieces collected here (most of which were first published in the New Yorker or the New York Review of Books) have a monotonous lack of variety.
On the surface, of course, Frazier’s assertion is accurate: The book surveys a number of disciplines, including painting (David Salle), photography (Diane Arbus), literature (Edith Wharton), and even magazine editing (William Shawn). But as we work our way through the essays, and we start to see what makes Malcolm tick, her perspective becomes predictable. In her otherwise spirited defense of J. D. Salinger, for example, she reaches the unsurprising conclusion that, as Salinger sees it, most adults “cannot be counted on, will ultimately fail the child in the test of disinterest. The young must stick together; only they can save each other.” This sentiment is bland enough when applied to Salinger, whose work cries out for a more contrarian interpretation; but the full force of its mushiness becomes apparent when echoed in a later piece on Cecily von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl novels: “What makes classic children’s literature so appealing (to all ages) is its undeviating loyalty to the world of the child.”
Never mind that Gossip Girl is not a classic of any sort; but when Malcolm further explains that “in the best children’s books, parents never share the limelight with their children,” we immediately begin summoning examples to disprove her. Surely she would not claim that, say, Harper Lee means to sideline Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird? What’s more, by the time we reach the piece on Gossip Girl, we have already trudged through an exhaustingly thorough study of the works of Gene Stratton-Porter, giving us our fill of subpar young-adult literature for the day.
That these pieces share space with appreciations of more deserving figures presents a problem. How can we trust Janet Malcolm on J. D. Salinger or Edith Wharton when that same Janet Malcolm solemnly describes Cecily von Ziegesar as tackling “the indecencies of consumer society”? Frazier observes that “simply, and sensibly, Ms. Malcolm favors hewing to the subject’s own words and surviving documents.” Perhaps this explains her decision to invest such care and detail in her accounts of von Ziegesar and Stratton-Porter, but it does not explain her decision to write about them at such length. A quote from critic Barbara Rose (from an interesting but too-long piece on the former Artforum editor Ingrid Sischy) seems unintentionally relevant: “We felt that we had to make a distinction between Mickey Mouse and Henry James. There’s a generation now that feels you don’t have to make that distinction.”
There is an insular quality to much of Forty-one False Starts. After all, how many books include, in succession, a review of a book by the son of the author’s former editor, and an obituary of that same former editor? The editor is the New Yorker’s William Shawn, and her tribute, while heartfelt, includes these sentences: “He was an enchanting person and an Enchanter. He was our Mr. Chips and our Prospero. We have missed him and we will always miss him.” Would her meaning be any less clear if she had compared Shawn only to Mr. Chips, and not to Prospero? In fairness, her review of Allen Shawn’s memoir, Wish I Could Be There, is well-argued and incisive—but also self-revealing, as when she refers to the younger Shawn’s “obsessive returns to already dealt with subjects.” We know the feeling. Following her studies of the Shawns is a third effusive piece on a New Yorker writer, Joseph Mitchell, to whom—along with A. J. Liebling, Truman Capote, and John McPhee (points for anyone who can guess to which magazine these writers frequently contributed)—Frazier has already compared Malcolm.
That the best essays here concern the visual arts is undercut by the complete absence of plates. It would have been nice, for example, to see a few of Diane Arbus’s Family Albums portraits to go along with Malcolm’s precise, elegant, and enthusiastic descriptions. On the other hand, her title essay, about the painter David Salle, starkly illustrates the frustrations of Malcolm’s approach of sticking closely to her subjects. Frazier explains that Malcolm, inspired by Salle’s collages, “chooses a similarly nervous and impatient approach to describing him and his work, progressing by repetition, revision, erasure, and stopping whenever she feels she is heading into an area that might be sort of dead.”
In other words, Janet Malcolm has written a series of prospective beginnings. But instead of evoking Salle’s work—none of which we actually see, of course—we are left feeling cheated of a real piece. When is a false start also a dead end?
Peter Tonguette is the author, most recently, of The Films of James Bridges.