Janet Malcolm's books and dispatches for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books poked and prodded at reportorial and biographical convention, gesturing toward the artifice that underpins both public and private selves. In Still Pictures, she turns her gimlet eye on her own life.
Superb ... How could a writer so famously, effectively skeptical of subjective stories write an autobiography? Malcolm solves the problem with characteristic elegance: Nearly every short chapter of Still Pictures is headed by a grainy black-and-white photograph, whose calls to memory she heeds, repels and bargains with in turn by subtle turn. Her comfort with incompleteness becomes a virtue ... Most of this memoir consists of appreciative and often very dryly funny memories of her devoted, literate family ... Still Pictures has the clarity and brevity of a book by a writer who knows that time is short, and that there’s much to say, much to convey, which will otherwise be lost forever ... A lot gets lost in that transition, Malcolm argues in this final, splendid, most personal work of her long career. A lot — but not everything.
[Malcolm's] choice to turn to autobiography in her last book, Still Pictures, is so intriguing. From the moment you open it, the book does not present itself as a conventional memoir ... It feels as if she is almost tricking herself into it, as if writing a memoir is something that sort of happened to her while cleaning out a shelf or an attic ... Somehow, without a reader even quite realizing it, Malcolm’s memoir slips into being a commentary on memoir ... For Malcolm obsessives, of whom there are many, these are intriguing glimpses of her life, but they are only glimpses ... Ending with a photograph that means nothing to her, or means something because it means nothing, is the final subversion of her profound and mischievous scrapbook ... One is still left with a mystery, though. Why did Malcolm write an autobiography when the form vexed and repelled her? ... She was not one to resist a challenge. She liked inventing or remaking forms. She thrived on the meticulous solving of aesthetic problems.
A characteristically Malcolmian work, reflecting on and resisting the conventions of the form in which she writes. It is built around a series of photographs ... The approach feels deceptively simple, even obvious. But it cleverly allows her to avoid imposing a singular narrative on her life ... She contemplates the difficulties of memoir-writing, of making a narrative from uncertain recollections. In short, her story is—as always—the construction of the story. Malcolm’s trick is to undo the knots in a narrative by discussing them directly. The knots then become her subject, and they are inevitably interesting ... Malcolm was always present in her writing, but she remained a slightly mysterious presence. Part of the pleasure of this memoir is simply in getting to know her a little bit more ... The other part is in reading new sentences by Janet Malcolm. They land like the opening lines of classic novels—hard, shining, immovable truths.