Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers — Janet Malcolm
The haphazard, somewhat thrown-together quality of the essays and profiles included in Forty-One False Starts keeps this collection from being a truly satisfying record of Malcolm’s writing on contemporary artists and writers. Several very brief pieces, including two near the end, should simply have been left out: they’re notebook jottings, not finished work; and Malcolm’s famous, long article on Ingrid Sischy, “Girl of the Zeitgeist” from 1986, has aged rather badly, perhaps because the petty, often incomprehensible art debates and feuds that Malcolm adumbrates in the piece have also aged so badly.
As she was more-or-less compelled to do in “Girl of the Zeitgeist,” Malcolm took quite seriously the quarrel over “Primitivism” that had played out earlier in the pages of Artforum between MOMA’s William Rubin and critic Thomas McEvilley, but at a distance of many decades later, the fact of the matter is that McEvilley was right and Rubin was wrong, and virtually every serious museum has reconsidered the way it shows “primitive” art. Mercifully, too, the kind of exhibition that prompted the fracas in the first place — in which “primitive” ritual and religious artifacts are juxtaposed with “modern” art to show … I don’t know what exactly; perhaps the whole point of that failed experiment was nothing more profound than the desire to argue (but who was arguing, really?) that the former could be considered art, too — has essentially disappeared. The same goes for the strange creatures that loomed so large in the late-1980s/early 1990s art world (the slightly reptilian critic René Ricard, for example, or the eternal art sharp, Julian Schnabel): their moments came and went and all the ruckus turns out to have been very small beer.
These cavils aside, the marvelous title piece, “Forty-One False Starts,” a profile stitched together of forty-one leads for an article about the artist, David Salle, is both illuminating and vibrant despite — or perhaps because of — its fragmentary nature. Malcolm turns out to be a spirited, articulate advocate for the much-maligned J.D. Salinger, and her “A House of One’s Own” is an intriguing reflection on the Bloomsbury mythology and its biographers, discontents and otherwise.
“Good Pictures,” from 2004, is a respectful, thoughtful consideration of Diane Arbus’s work more than three decades after the photographer’s suicide — as well as a measured but scathing impeachment of the damage that Arbus’s daughter, Doon, has done to her mother’s work and legacy by holding Arbus’s photographs and papers in a death grip for decades; Doon’s infamous refusal to cooperate with just about anybody who wanted to write about Arbus or show her photos, the result of a putative desire to “protect” her mother’s work, is more clearly seen in Malcolm’s telling for what it is: an exercise of control whose aims are wholly personal and blatantly neurotic.
Other pieces in Forty-One False Starts aren’t much fun unless the reader is familiar with the work in question; fun deserts the stage entirely in “Capitalist Pastorale,” Malcolm’s omnibus review of Gene Stratton-Porter’s series of minor romantic novels, all of which were published between 1903 and 1927. Malcolm and the New York Review of Books, where the review first appeared, must have struggled madly to turn obscurity into a virtue in this piece, but it didn’t really work. All that happens when the air gets that rarefied is that people are liable to start gasping for breath.
Malcolm is one of the last, great New Yorker writers left standing — not to mention the patron saint of genuine investigative reporting — and she’s one of the finest prose stylists ever to work in American English. Her body of work is not merely genius but daunting: Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (1981), In The Freud Archives (1984), The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes (1994), to name only a few. Forty-One False Starts doesn’t diminish her reputation in the least but, as Malcolm prepares to enter her ninth decade, neither is it the vitrine she deserves.