Truth, memory, and stories

From Geoffrey O’Brien’s review of Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial by Janet Malcolm, in The New York Review of Books, 4/28/11:

A law court is not a bad vantage point for taking note of folly and charlatanry, but Malcolm does not exempt anyone from bias: “We go through life mishearing and mis-seeing and misunderstanding so that the stories we tell ourselves will add up.” Stories want to resolve themselves despite all obstacles; Malcolm’s peculiar mission, here as elsewhere, is to point out the cost of such resolutions, to zero in on those details that don’t fit the main story and are thus discarded, and in the process to make manifest the unreconcilable gap between an acceptable master narrative—the version that everyone must agree on in order to keep moving forward—and the specific qualities of what actually happens.

(Some postings of mine on memory and writing here and here. And on narratophilia — the love of, desire for, (satisfying) stories — here and here.)

… “The truth is messy, incoherent, aimless, boring, absurd,” Malcolm has written elsewhere. “The truth does not make a good story; that’s why we have art.” [Janet Malcolm, The Crime of Sheila McGough (Knopf, 1999), p. 26] The paradox of Malcolm’s writing is that all her art is deployed to reveal the seams and interstices of the art-making process, to lay bare the details fudged or blurred or condensed, the inconvenient incongruities and confusions regularized or omitted, the bias by which certain details are foregrounded and others tossed aside. “Art” here would be the art of narration practiced by lawyers and journalists equally as much as novelists and screenwriters. Such ploys and devices are survival tactics, necessary acknowledgments of natural limits, and to focus relentlessly on them might at moments seem an exercise in relativism or equivocation.

“The art of narration practiced by lawyers and journalists equally as much as novelists and screenwriters.” And, indeed, the art of narration practiced by everyone in telling the stories of their lives.

[Full disclosure: I’ve long been an admirer of Janet Malcolm’s writing. And got to spend an evening talking with her, nearly 30 years ago — at dinner at the house of some mutual friends in Marin, just after the publication of her Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (1981), which is both informative and funny, and while she was working on In the Freud Archives (1984), which led her into a decade of legal wrangling with Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson.]

3 Responses to “Truth, memory, and stories”

  1. The Chink files « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] is better than a dull one, even if the dull one’s the truth (some postings here, here, and here). The story about slit-eyed or slant-eyed people vs. round-eyed people (note folk anatomy here) is […]

  2. Judith Wallerstein « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] 1980 and Bob and I were fellows in 1981-82. The couple put in a stealth appearance in this blog in a posting on Janet Malcolm: I’ve long been an admirer of Janet Malcolm’s writing. And got to spend […]

  3. Terminological precedence « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] posting here, and then one on […]

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