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Janet Malcolm’s article for the May 3, 2010 issue of The New Yorker is entitled “Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial,” although the dust jacket opts for the subtitle alone.  This makes sense: it’s catchier, and the actual title, were it so heavily endorsed on the cover, would likely give rise to more quizzical responses – Who’s Iphigenia?  What are Forest Hills? – than the editors, evidently eager to package the piece as something of a true-life potboiler, would be willing to put up with.   The description given on the cover reads: “The shooting of Daniel Malakov in front of his four-year-old daughter stunned a tight-knit Queens community.  But when his wife stood trial for ordering the hit, the courtroom didn’t hear about the shocking injustice behind the crime.”  The article’s readers, for that matter, don’t hear much about this tight-knit Queens community, nor do they hear much about what this injustice precisely is – the article is riddled with injustices, within and without the courtroom, and while the title’s invocation of Iphigenia lends some clues – it would seem to be posturing the defendant in the murder trial, a woman named Mazoltuv Borukhova, who is the “wife” of the jacket’s description, as nobly sacrificed or sacrificing in some manner – it is a bit too opaque for such easy allusion-making: Is Borukhova Iphigenia, or is her four-year-old daughter Iphigenia?  The reference neither stands up to the various narratives of the case nor to Malcolm’s article: how do any of the “players” in the murder trial – the murdered father, the indicted mother, the bereaved and bewildered daughter caught in this horrible affair – relate to the tale?  Nowhere in here do I find anything noble, nowhere does anything seem quietly sacrificed.  Medea might have made more sense, although this too would have been trite, oversimplified, and entirely unnecessary.  If anything, the events responsible for and played out during the trial most resemble in spirit Euripedes’ account of Orestes, in that it’s all just a horrible, miserable, unpleasant, convoluted mess.

Fortunately, Malcolm’s article is better than her title, and far better than it’s jacket description.  It’s neither quite the potboiler that the description promises nor the allusion-riddled faux-haut-literary analysis that the title warns of; and it’s more pathology than anatomy.   Her interests lie less in diagnosis than examination, hence the difficulty in locating which injustice, of the great many that the article relates, is the one intended to be referred to by the jacket description.  The essential point of her article – although its points make stabs at a great many things, and it’s really more of an effort of essayistic narrative journalism – is that trials are a venue for storytelling, and that the side whose case is validated by the judge is the side that provided, essentially, the better story.  She is wary of oversimplifying the case – that is, her case – and makes numerous considered efforts at reaching some sort of ur-litigious approximation of the truth behind the case – that is, the case up for trial –, which is variously hedged, obscured, and reduced by everyone seeking some sort of strictly legal objectification of considerably messier events.  Her case is most explicitly laid out several pages in: “We go through life mishearing and mis-seeing and misunderstanding so that the stories we tell ourselves will add up.  Trial lawyers push this human tendency to a higher level.  They are playing for higher stakes than we are playing for when we tinker with actuality in order to transform the tale told by an idiot into an orderly, self-serving narrative.”  This other clunky allusion notwithstanding, it is a point well- and pithily-made.  Of course, journalists utilize this human tendency as well: more often than not, they want to tell a story that makes sense, too – they need to, and are expected to by their readership.  Malcolm is not unaware of this, but she cannily clues the reader into her awareness with more tact and nuance than she does the rest of her assertions.  This is what makes her article sneakier than it first seems, and what makes it worth reading, even if the essential points aren’t particularly novel.  Her article, like the cases presented by the trial lawyers, also has a point, even if it’s not as immediately self-serving as are those by the trial lawyers: they want to tell a story that will convince a jury; she wants to tell a story that will convince her readers.  While hers incorporates and lends some credence to more opposing viewpoints than do any of the trial lawyers’, it is essentially as fixed and orderly as theirs are.  Nuance does not necessarily make a story more truthful, but it does make it more interesting, and it makes it seem more truthful.  But Malcolm, too, is just telling a story, one that is likely as discordant with other journalists’ recollections and recreations of the trial as are the lawyers’ recreations of the events that led up to it.  To use Malcolm’s allusion: life may be a tale told by an idiot, and it may signify nothing, but people are not idiots, and we want our tales to signify something.

The tale that Malcolm tells is fascinating.  Her prose is often not quite up to The New Yorkers’ typical standards, and she succumbs both to artless moments of theatrical Brechtian curtain-raising – “It is time to introduce a subject known as The Judge’s Vacation” – and clumsy attempts at lyricism – “He looked at me without surprise or even interest, as characters in dreams do” – but it doesn’t really matter, as the piece is more driven by diegesis than style.  That the story she tells – the story of the trial and the events leading up to it – is truly incredible, filled with so many outsized characters and prurient events, suits her purpose perfectly: while she does not recount the events in the style of a potboiler, per se, the potboiler elements are always there, raising the salacious interests of her readers enough to leave them unsure as to what story, precisely, they are listening to: that of what really happened, or that of what makes the most compelling story.  It is the latter, of course, but Malcolm, like the trial lawyers, dares not admit this – not fully, at least.  Instead she creates her own prosecutorial narrative of intent – an eminently reasonable one, one that I would even dare call true, but its argumentative thrust is ultimately akin in spirit to those of the trial lawyers.  Her indictment is that trial lawyers create stories, the intent being to win a trial – she says as much in what is essentially her thesis statement: trial lawyers “push this tendency” to create stories “to a higher level,” and they do so to “transform the tale told by an idiot” – the infinitely messy, real narrative of life, full, of course, of sound and fury – “into an orderly, self-serving narrative.”  Malcolm is not hedging here: a lawyer’s narrative serves him- or herself as much as it does his or her client – and, if this sentence is any indication, Malcolm might even say it serves the lawyer more than it does the client.

Is the natural inference to make here that all stories serve the storyteller more than the audience, then?  Not necessarily, and I wouldn’t know how to quantify that, anyway.  As the article progresses, however, Malcolm becomes increasingly noticeable as merely another storyteller among everyone else; that everyone else is sketched in as characters of almost Dickensian incredibility – although I’m hesitant to say that she excised or heightened any elements of her fellow courtroom-watchers’ personalities: it seems she really was just surrounded by an unusual number of thoroughly and unexpectedly eccentric people – suggests Malcolm’s implicit acknowledgement of this.  The satisfying “proof” of this comes toward the end of the article, when Malcolm sees, in person, the four-year-old daughter of the accused and the deceased: after hearing from family members about how happy she now is, despite having no consistent relationship with either of her parents, Malcolm runs into her – with, certainly, almost novelistic timing – in the street.  She describes her as a “child on a tricycle, pedaling vigorously and laughing in a forced and exaggerated manner”; after expressing regret that she hadn’t stayed longer at the house of the four-year-old’s extended family, so as to be able to observe her in “the heart of her feared father’s family,” she consoles herself: “But perhaps my glimpse of her face distorted by mirthless laughter sufficed for my journalist’s purpose.  I thought I got the message.”  Whether it’s that she got the message or invented her own is unclear: readers may either buy this part of the story – that the daughter projects a superficial approximation of happiness to conceal her disaffection – or not; whether or not they do depends upon how well Malcolm tells her story.

What is implicit in all of this is an essential fragment of the basis of much poststructuralist literary discourse: that there is no objective truth that any story may effectively portray – everything, regardless of whether an objective truth even exists, is obscured and distorted by words, and the best storytellers – whether they are trial lawyers or journalists – take advantage of this.  Unfortunately, much of this discourse has been hijacked by intentionally obtuse treatises that revel in their duplicities and ambiguities, taking their delicate tasks of attempting to more acutely reveal the nature of language and life with little reverence or deference for its importance.  Malcolm’s immensely readable article is welcome antidote to this, even as it offers nothing new to the conversation; indeed, its primary argument will likely read as tired and tiresome by those who have long been clued-in to the fundamental aspects of poststructuralist literary theory.  That makes it no less effective or valuable, as the points it raises in this vein might well bring people who have long felt excluded by the forbidding jargon of Derrida, Kristeva, Baudrillard, and, to a less forbidding extent, the loveable Barthes.  That The New Yorker dedicated so much space to this article – it is the longest to be published in the magazine in some time – is hopefully indicative of their willingness to address such fundamental and consequential terms in as unpretentious and accessible a manner as Malcolm here has done.

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The New Yorker
Janet Malcolm