Here’s what’s great about Janet Malcolm’s piece this week about the murder trial of Mazultov Borukhova and Mikhail Mallayev in The New Yorker: It captures a truth about trials that is at once very hard to convey and obvious to anyone who has ever written about a case. It is the indifference of legal procedures to the way life is really lived, which makes even a well-run process feel like a brutal travesty. Where calm men in suits ask witnesses why they fought for their lives instead of calling 911, and juries never hear commonsense facts about the people they were judging, and the Mob lawyer insists with real passion that his client is just a plumbing salesman who liked to party.
Yet the piece also reads like a parody of a Janet Malcolm article. Will she be ruthless? Check: What Malcolm hears muttered to her by a fellow journalist, what she overhears on someone else’s phone call, what she despises about a lawyer’s manner or finds amusingly “off” about a reporter’s dress—it all goes into the article, and conventional decencies be damned.
Will she proclaim, as she has so many times before, that all journalists are like her? Check: Journalism, she tells us this time around, trades in human frailty. “Malice remains its animating impulse,” she writes. “A trial offers unique opportunities for journalistic heartlessness.” Will there be a Partisan Review tone of European high culture, as if this was still the New York City of 1948? Check: A “sidebar,” she aptly notes, is a conversation among judge and lawyers from which everyone else is excluded, like parents talking but “not in front of the children”—except to say “not in front of the children,” she switches to French. And before the expected peroration on the malice of journalists, Malcolm quotes Alexis de Tocqueville.
And, finally, will her narrative humility (proclaiming herself a member of this base and heartless guild, and describing how she hates to beg for interviews) be contradicted by vast condescension to her subjects—those sadsacks who have less money, taste and culture than she? Check: She gives us the “appealing scruffiness” of the courthouse press room, “furnished with beat-up unmatched office furniture and rusted metal file cabinets.” (Italics added.) I am a member of a sorry profession, she suggests, but these bozos (the tabloid reporters whose reports “had to take their modest place among the axe-murder and sex-scandal stories,” the Times writer who “whether to reflect the grandeur of the Times or in accordance with a personal code, dressed differently from the rest of us”) are even worse.
I wasn’t surprised or troubled by Malcolm’s proclamations of her own excellence. (Einstein’s description of Princeton—”a quaint and ceremonious village of puny demigods walking around on stilts”—applies well to American journalism.) What bothers me is her description of the nature of the work. It strikes me as false. I’ve worked in journalism for decades. With a few exceptions (like this post) I can say that malice is not my animating impulse to write about anyone (that’s one of the perks of writing about science). I have covered many trials, too. The “good mood” Malcolm describes of reporters at a trial, enjoying the “exquisite torture” of the witnesses? Doesn’t ring a bell. I mean, ceci n’est pas une pipe.
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, user B.gliwa.