Nobody's Looking at You

"Nobody's Looking at You: Essays," by Janet Malcolm

NOBODY’S LOOKING AT YOU: Essays. By Janet Malcolm. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 289 pages. $27.

The glorious Janet Malcolm has been plying her craft at “The New Yorker” for more than 55 years, first as a “woman’s writer” who focused on decor, and then as a specialist in the journalistic profile. Malcolm deals in the stories of others. She extracts them and makes no pretense of being a discreet or tender caretaker once they’re in her possession.

Her specialty is the discrepancy between self-image and reality, but she doesn’t watch only to pounce. Malcolm also can be a sincere praise-singer and is happy to admire. “Nobody’s Looking at You,” her new book, features 18 pieces, all of them first published either in “The New Yorker” or the “New York Review of Books.”

Over the years, Malcolm has had much to say about the role of the journalist. In the Afterword to her most famous book, “The Journalist and the Murderer,” she writes, “The ‘I’ is an overreliable narrator, an ad hoc creation, like the chorus of a Greek tragedy.” The journalist, she continues, is a trickster, posing as a dispassionate observer.

Malcolm has often written about “the moral problem of journalism,” which she traces to the unbalanced relationship between writers and their subjects. Every narrative, she contends, is shaped by its narrator’s biases. As she told her Paris Review interviewer in 2011, journalism is “not a helping profession.” She continues, “If we help anyone, it is ourselves, to what our subjects don’t realize they are letting us take.”

The first two pieces of “Nobody’s Looking at You,” profiles of Eileen Fisher and Yuja Wang, showcase Malcolm’s range and method. The Fisher piece is a study of resistance.

Fisher’s is a gauzy personality, all soft edges and good intentions. Clearly, Malcolm finds something cloying about Eileen Fisher and her style of leadership. She attends a corporate meeting of 10 or 12 women in a circle, talking about transparency and agenda building. To end the meeting, a leader rings two bells and pronounces, “I ring the bells to remind us of timelessness.” Then the women pass around a gilded gourd.

Still, there is no real dirt to find. Fisher shares profits with her employees; she promotes a benign corporate culture. Fisher’s revelations feel rehearsed, yet Malcolm’s attempts to penetrate deeper only reveal more layers of swaddling. She does locate one “betraying” detail, mentioned twice: Eileen Fisher has one bad cat that she expelled from the house when her housekeeper threatened to quit. While the other cats live inside, the bad cat lives outside, even in the iciest, windiest weather.

Malcolm follows the Fisher article with one on clothes: the short and tight dresses that pianist Yuja Wang wears when she performs. Yuja left her native Bejing to study in Canada, and eventually made her way to the Curtis Institute, and from there to the world’s main stages.

Malcolm does not scorn surfaces. She assumes that we all live in a world of appearances and that the look of things — a room, an outfit — is of interest.

Most definitely, Yuja's presentation interests her, especially the coordination between her petite costumed self and the music that she performs. In our first glimpse of her at the piano, she is playing Beethoven’s difficult “Hammerklavier” sonata: “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 heels. Take that, and that, Beethoven!”

Yuja is magnificent in every way that Malcolm shows us. Her heart is big, her passions fiery, her art virtuosic, her mind reflective and original. She is also unashamedly a young woman. Her apartment looks like a college dorm room. When a reporter asks about her clothing choices, she points out that she wears the clothes of a 26-year old. When she’s 40, she’ll wear long dresses. She plays Mozart, remembering that he was young, too, so funny and a “party animal” to boot.

Malcolm is famous for her takedowns, but “Nobody’s Looking at You” is equally stocked with appreciation pieces. In “Three Sisters,” she visits the sisters who inherited the Argosy book store on 59th Street from their father. The Argosy stands as a remnant of old New York, a wildflower in a crack of city pavement.

When Malcolm and the sisters reminisce about growing up in New York, they have to admit that they don’t count anymore: “It is the avid people from somewhere else who fan the city’s extravagant flame.”

She saves some of her highest praise for another of the old-timers, her New Yorker magazine friend, Joseph Mitchell.

In spite of her famous statements about the treachery of journalists, Malcolm is fair, and excellent company. “Nobody’s Looking at You” is a thrilling book, studded with sharp perceptions and images. I’ll close with a couple, from “The Art of Testifying,” an essay about Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

Malcolm knows she’s taking on a serious subject, but she can’t help sketching in the characters with serious wit.

Here is John Roberts’ “exquisitely responsive” face on the stand: “The constant play of expression on his features put one in mind of 19th-century primers of acting in which emotions — pleasure, agreement, dismay, uncertainty, hope, fear — are illustrated on the face of a model.”

When it’s Sen. Diane Feinstein’s turn to question Roberts, she enters the page as a 1930s movie character in her own right, "with her Mary Astor loveliness, and air of just having arrived with a lot of suitcases." It’s hard not to smile.

Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.

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