What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Top Ten New Yorker Book Reviews, 1976 - 2011, #4: Janet Malcolm's "The Purloined Clinic"

I wonder what Janet Malcolm thinks of Geoff Dyer’s recent “An Academic Author’s Unintentional Masterpiece” (The New York Times, July 22, 2011), in which he says that Michael Fried’s Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (2008) contains “some of the most self-worshiping – or, more accurately, self-serving – prose ever written.” Malcolm, in her brilliant “The Purloined Clinic” (The New Yorker, October 5, 1987; included in her superb 1992 essay collection The Purloined Clinic), a review of Fried’s Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane (1987), praises Fried’s “energy of imagination and complexity of purpose,” and concludes:

Criticism as radical as this is rare, but only when criticism is radical does it stand a chance of being something more than a pale reflection of the work of art that is its subject. By disfiguring the work of art almost beyond recognition, Fried forces us to imagine it anew – not a bad achievement for a critic.

I was all set to name Malcolm’s “The Purloined Clinic” to my “Top Ten” book review list when Dyer’s piece appeared. “The Purloined Clinic” is one of the most memorable reviews I’ve ever read, not only because of that “only when criticism is radical does it stand a chance of being something more than a pale reflection” passage quoted above, but because of its amazing, unforgettable interpretation of Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” as an allegory of both psychoanalytic therapy and deconstructive critical theory. Malcolm says:

As the detective Dupin went straight for the most negligently obvious place that the government minister could have selected for the “concealment” of the compromising letter, so do the analyst and the deconstructionist know that the secrets of human nature and of works of art lie on the surface and in the margins, and that the metaphors of depth, delving, unearthing, plumbing, penetrating are irrelevant to their work.

I think Dyer’s critique of Fried would make Malcolm smile. If Dyer thinks his description of Fried’s “recessive deferral” and “cumulative flimflam” is a revelation, he should read “The Purloined Clinic.” Malcolm was twenty-four years ahead of him in her analysis of Fried’s “process.” For example, she says:

The critic of Realism, Writing, Disfiguration is never still; he is like a waiter rushing from table to table, with so much to do, so many orders to fill, that he is barely able to restrain himself from simply dumping food down on the table, instead of abiding by the proper waiter’s stately protocol. But the critic must – and does – restrain himself, because that’s the whole point, that’s what criticism is: a process, a progress over time, not a mere blurting out of conclusions.

In fairness to Dyer, he does acknowledge Fried’s “brilliance.” But for a fuller, much more elegant appreciation of that brilliance, I recommend Malcolm’s great “The Purloined Clinic.”

Credit: The above artwork is by Fido Nesti; it appears in The New Yorker, January 7, 2008, as an “On The Horizon” illustration for the event “Eat, Drink & Be Literary,” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

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