Janet Malcolm’s “Iphigenia in Forest Hills” in The New Yorker
In the erratic throes of new motherhood, I’ve been doing a lot of baby rocking while watching episode after episode of The Good Wife. In the process I’ve developed killer biceps and a fascination with the byzantine machinations of the legal system. It seems fateful, then, that in browsing through the endless “best of” lists culling favorites from the recently opened New Yorker archives, I clicked on Janet Malcolm’s “Iphigenia in Forest Hills.”
I’d heard of the piece in a number of places, including Vela’s Unlisted List, and knew it was a nonfiction classic but, embarrassingly, when I began I had no idea what it was about. In the end this made the reading experience that much more rewarding, like starting out assuming you’re getting vanilla soft serve and ending up with artisanal lychee sorbet. At first, I figured it was the standard story of a murder, narrating the crime and using it as a frame to explore this particular immigrant community and its struggles. Then I saw that I’d ignored the subtitle – “Anatomy of a murder trial” – which laid out the piece’s real intentions from the start.
“Iphegenia in Forest Hills” is, I realized, a much more critical, insightful, expository episode of The Good Wife. (Apologies to Janet Malcolm for this linking of high and low). It is the story of a story, with an ingenious and incredibly complex non-linear structure that aims to illustrate the way in which courtroom narrative is constructed, and the way in which cases are won or lost: ultimately, via carefully spun partial falsehoods, judge’s whims, prejudices, and the artificial and oversimplified rhetoric of lawyer-storytellers.
It is still a marvel to me how the piece could be so gripping while containing so much information, and so much meta-information. The thought of the amount of reporting that went into this, and then the crafting of mounds of documents and interviews and notes into such a coherent fluid narrative, makes my head explode. I understand now why this piece has found its way onto so many lists – it’s the best story I’ve ever read about the American legal system. —Sarah Menkedick
Rebecca Mead’s “The Scourge of ‘Relatability‘” in The New Yorker
It happens at the end of every school term. English teachers around the globe grade final papers and find amusing student malapropisms. Last term, one of my wittier colleagues said: “O, student, if only it were a ‘stream-of-conciseness.’” Meanwhile, I was reading papers on Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, where a student wrote, “Jane’s so relatable.” But was this a usage error? More than one person who sees herself as a serious user of the English language has noticed the entry into student-speak of the word “relatable,” especially into the vocabulary used to write about novels, poems, and films.
Rebecca Mead’s essay on relatability begins with how the word is used in twittersphere, and not by college freshman but by the titan of Public Radio, Ira Glass, who recently tweeted that Shakespeare was “not relatable.” Mead was aghast. She writes:
Perhaps that’s no surprise, because relatability—a logism so neo that it’s not even recognized by the 2008 iteration of Microsoft Word with which these words are being written—has become widely and unthinkingly accepted as a criterion of value, even by people who might be expected to have more sophisticated critical tools at their disposal.
I love a sentence written with precision and accuracy, but I’m not as much of a usage stickler as Mead. Language has always been flexible and organic. It changes over time. Still, Mead’s etymological digging is fascinating—and funny. “Relatable” in its new incarnation, meaning “to describe a character or a situation in which an ordinary person might see himself reflected,” slipped into American English through Rosie O’Donnell’s TV talk show. Now, it’s everywhere, even in the Washington Post.
Mead takes issue with not just the word’s new usage, but also what it implies about our culture. Demanding that something be “relatable” means that we believe a work of art has to be “accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her.”
Mead has a point. But the word could continue to evolve. Some of the deepest origins of “relate” imply change of context: Latin relat– means “brought back.” The word seems to have return and redefinition written into its linguistic DNA.
Kristen Cosby’s “Visions” in The Normal School
Before it does anything else, Kristen Cosby’s “Visions” promises us a drowning, one that hinges on the menacing figure of her father. He is, at the time, a boat builder who longs to return to the sea; a man for whom living 100 feet inland is too far from the water; a man who was once happy. It was his moment of distraction in which she almost drowned. She writes:
I am not yet two. I should have no remembrance of that afternoon: my father leading me to water, the pier, the periwinkles gleaming like pearls, his words to me, my pale new skin, the submerged ledge that gives way to the emerald world below. I am too young to package and seal these images as memories. My brain cannot yet synthesize the sensation of drowning and the concept of drowning to form an accessible remembrance: the livable world estranged by the surface’s wavering membrane, the dark silhouette of my father’s face rising like a moon at the rim of the sky. The light receding, vanishing upward, into itself.
This is the story he’s told me. My imagining of myself is dependent on his vision.
Slowly, he stood up and shuffled towards the shore, nauseous and weak. As the teller, he wants you to see his composure. He knew the river; he knew exactly where to find me. Even in the face of my demise, he coolly ambled to the water’s edge, a bit downstream from where he’d last seen me. He waded in and peered into the murk, the water lapping at the ankles of his jeans.
Because Cosby’s family lives most of their life on a boat, drowning lurks as a constant threat. The reminders are constant and often embedded in her father’s indifference. She writes, “My father has told me: ‘If you are alone on deck and you fall overboard, no one is coming back for you. At sea, you will be impossible to find. If you fall over, you take your knife and cut your throat beginning here.’ He points to the base of his ear and draws graceful crescent to his jugular.”
As the essay unfolds, we hear stories not only from her family, but of others nearly drowned or lost at sea. The picture that emerges shows not only something of this life, but of the realities her father carried about it. Despite the fact that Cosby collects stories of ultimate survival, her father’s stories have the greatest hold. They are often dark, unverifiable, and seemingly impossible to shake. —Katie Booth