Cool, Yet Warm

Nancy Crampton
Janet Malcolm, New York City, 1981

In “Good Pictures,” an essay about Diane Arbus in Forty-One False Starts, Janet Malcolm’s latest collection, we witness a wonderful outburst of Malcolmian irritation. The prompt is Revelations, a giant volume of Arbus’s photographs, published to coincide with a retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Malcolm is appalled by the book. She believes it contains too many inferior photographs and too much text. Worst of all, she writes, it mingles text and photographs in such a way that there is no peaceful space in which to contemplate the photographs by themselves. Her indictment of the book’s bloated contents, lousy design, and sloppy editing continues at some length, before reaching its climax in a furious flight of metaphor:

The book reminds me of a porch I know with a lovely view of a valley, but where no one ever sits, because it is crammed from floor to ceiling with mattresses, broken chairs, TV sets, piles of dishes, cat carriers, baby strollers, farm implements, unfinished woodworking projects, cartons of back issues of Popular Mechanics, black plastic bags filled with who knows what.

Mess has always inspired fervent emotions in Janet Malcolm. It agitates her. It depresses her. She considers it her enemy. The job of a writer, she likes to remind us, is to vanquish mess—to wade onto the seething porch of actuality, pick out a few elements with which to make a story, and consign the rest to the garbage dump. Images of clutter and panic-inducing domestic chaos crop up frequently in her work, not just as metaphors for the failure or absence of art, but as advertisements for her own narrative discipline. This is what real life looks like, they tell us. This is the tedium and confusion that Malcolm’s elegant rendering of things has spared you.

But if literal messes appall Malcolm, they also fascinate and attract her. Notice how in the course of describing the porch in the Arbus essay, she starts to become interested in the junk it contains. Her official position is that everything here must go, but the mess waylays her, draws her in, until she seems perilously close to crouching down and starting to flip through back copies of Popular Mechanics. In The Silent Woman, her book about Sylvia Plath, a visit to the terrible, Collyer-like house of Plath’s former neighbor Trevor Thomas elicits horror—but also a wistful sort of admiration:

Before the magisterial mess of Trevor Thomas’s house, the orderly houses that most of us live in seem meagre and lifeless—as, in the same way, the narratives called biographies pale and shrink in the face of the disorderly actuality that is a life.

Malcolm has a secret, writerly sympathy for the hoarder. She understands the mad desire to hold on to every piece of accumulated material, the fear of throwing out…

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