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 Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins 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, October 3, 2016

Minna Zallman Proctor on Janet Malcolm's "Iphigenia in Forest Hills"

Minna Zallman Proctor, in her “The Law of Uncertainty” (Bookforum, Summer 2016), quotes Janet Malcolm’s great Iphigenia in Forest Hills [“If any profession (apart from the novelist’s) is in the business of making things up, it is the profession of the trial lawyer”] and says, “The justice system will operate under the auspices of competing fabrications and decidedly will not provide the truth equation for the crime.” Proctor appears to accept Malcolm’s theory that “a trial is a contest between competing narratives” (Iphigenia in Forest Hills). This is a very literary way of looking at trials. Another way – more realistic, in my opinion – is to view the trial as a matter of proof. If the prosecution is able to prove all the elements of the alleged offense beyond a reasonable doubt, the accused will be found guilty. In other words, narrative, schmarrative.

Proctor is on firmer ground when she writes,

Throughout her investigative work, from one villainous bramble to the next, Malcolm is brilliant and irresistibly vexing. For her, observable truth lies not in the collection and skillful organization of facts but in the reliable complexity and inexplicableness of human behavior.

I agree. As Malcolm memorably says of Borukhova in Iphigenia in Forest Hills, “She couldn’t have done it and she must’ve done it.”

Postscript: A portion of Iphigenia in Forest Hills was originally published in the May 3, 2010, New Yorker (see here).

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