Saturday, May 1, 2010

Marvelous Malcolm

Is Janet Malcolm the greatest American writer alive?

I sometimes think so.

No, I don't think Malcolm has ever produced anything as interesting as, say, My Life as a Man or American Pastoral. But if you look at Philip Roth's last three books, they look like a stab at former glory rather than something original and relevant. The themes seem slightly stale. The writing is a lot flabbier than it used to be.

The same could probably be said of Toni Morrison and E.L. Doctorow and many of our other great writers. It's not their fault; sometimes you've said what you needed to say.

But there are a few writers who seem to get better with age. And if you look at Malcolm's piece in the New Yorker this week (subscription required) about the trial of Mazoltuv Borukhova, you see a writer whose talents have not diminished at all. If anything, they've gotten stronger.

I realize, it's a little unfair bunching these writers in together. Fiction is a very different animal than journalism. But when the voice is as good as Malcolm's (when what she has to say feels so urgent and exciting) it's irresistible pairing the two.

The Borukhova trial, in case you haven't heard about it, was a case of a Queens doctor and Orthodox Bukharan Jew, who was accused of having her husband murdered in order to get custody of their four year old daughter.

After reading the piece, I still have no idea if the woman was innocent or guilty. I have no idea whether her husband was a monster or a saint. But I certainly think it's possible that she's innocent. It's very possible that she's guilty -- but her husband deserved it. And I can also see it as an instance in which every accusation leveled against Borukhova is correct, and that she's where she ought to be.

But whether she's innocent or guilty, it also seems obvious to me that she did not have a fair trial.

And the innocence or guilt in this case seem besides the point. What Malcolm does which is so remarkable is her unpacking of everything that happens in a trial; she goes through the motions of a trial -- its expectations, its theater, its players -- with such an eye for detail that she really makes you rethink everything. Every action deserves second guessing. Every actor is slightly different than you thought he or she was.

What Malcolm's doing is what a great artist like Roth or Morrison or Doctorow is supposed to do: She's offering a different perspective.

It really is a treat. Hats off to you, Miss Malcolm. I will always remain a devoted follower!