Janet Malcolm's writing on noted personalities is peerless when it comes to unraveling what makes people tick, and her new book, “Nobody’s Looking at You," is no exception.

Share story

Book review

Janet Malcolm, longtime essayist for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, is a portraitist so ruthlessly artful that anyone the least bit media-savvy would do well to exercise caution when becoming her subject — a dynamic Malcolm admits to candidly.

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” she once declared. “He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”

For readers safely on the sidelines, however, her magazine profiles of noted personalities are peerless when it comes to unraveling what makes people tick. She’ll deliver the factual goods with brisk efficiency, while happily leaving mysteries in place. And she’s completely frank about it when someone is a riddle to her — for instance, clothing designer Eileen Fisher, in the title essay of Malcom’s new book, “Nobody’s Looking at You.”

Fisher, after going on about “this kind of concept of facilitating leaders, which is that they’re actually doing the work, they’re not leading the work, but sort of like the way I’ve been leading from behind,” is pulled up short by the expression on Malcolm’s face.

“You’re looking at me like I’m crazy,” she says.

Malcolm’s response: “I admitted that I had no idea what she was talking about.”

That candor has its comic side — but it also means the essays are as much about the strategies Malcolm employs as the information she extracts from her subjects. Malcolm doesn’t set out to do hatchet jobs. Instead, she pursues subjects whose accomplishments she deeply admires. In “Nobody’s Looking at You,” that includes Fisher, pianist Yuja Wang and MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow.

In Fisher’s case, Malcolm loves the designer’s clothes but is repeatedly baffled by her company’s jargonistic corporate-speak. With Wang, Malcolm is fascinated by how wearing “bandage dresses” affects the 28-year-old pianist’s performances onstage.

Maddow is more elusive. Malcolm cites the bullet points of her personal life and professional career, and Maddow is frank about her battles with depression. But beyond that, Malcolm doesn’t get much out of her.

Where Malcolm does capture a rich psychological world is in “Three Sisters,” about the three sibling co-owners of midtown Manhattan’s Argosy Bookshop. The essay flirts with being a puff piece (Malcolm loves the bookstore), but this family business passed down from generation to generation offers rich fodder for analysis of relationship dynamics. Malcolm is especially droll on the sisters’ arguments over whose memories are more accurate (“I can’t believe that you are telling me what my experience was”). Familial aggravations, Malcolm observes, give way to mystifying restorations of harmony. “The fight went on,” Malcolm notes of one quarrel, “and then, as before, abruptly ended, without resolution and with no blood drawn.”

The moment, in its emotional logic, is as vivid as it is puzzling.

“Nobody’s Looking at You” includes more general reportage (a strangely condescending take on the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in 2010, for instance) and some savvy literary think pieces, including her tricky take on why it doesn’t much matter that nonfiction writer Joseph Mitchell invented a good deal of his material.

The most intriguing note in “Nobody’s Looking at You” is sounded in “The Émigré,” about New York classical-music broadcaster George Jellinek, a Hungarian refugee from Hitler’s Europe. Shortly into it, Malcolm notes, “I come from a refugee family myself,” but doesn’t elaborate. This naturally will arouse curiosity in her readers — and frustration, too, given that Malcolm, in a 2010 piece titled “Thoughts on Autobiography from an Abandoned Autobiography,” insisted she was reluctant and even unqualified to write about herself.

The good news is that she finally took a stab at it in “Six Glimpses of the Past: On Photography and Memory,” published in The New Yorker late last year. It recounts her family’s escape from Nazi-era Czechoslovakia and subsequent arrival in New York in 1939. While it isn’t included in “Nobody’s Looking at You,” it’s available online and well worth seeking out.


“Nobody’s Looking at You: Essays” by Janet Malcolm; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 289 pp., $27