Perkins, Emily (2008), Novel About My Wife, Bloomsbury
Sometimes I am glad I persevere in reading a book that starts off awfully somehow. Novel About My Wife is one of those cases. New Zealand author Emily Perkins completely inhabits the voice of a self centered hack of mediocre talent. So completely, in fact, that it really starts to grate after about a dozen pages. I own (but have not yet read) a second novel of Perkins’ and had to look at its writing to reassure myself that what I was reading wasn’t horrible due to ineptness. And it’s not. Emily Perkins’ book is an almost perfectly executed text that is more gripping as a literary exercise than it is as a story. Perkins draws from a rich literary tradition of female madness and male callousness, and ties it up expertly with the style she chose to tell the novel in. The downside to this is that, as we become more aware of her sources and technique, we can anticipate the direction the novel is taking. It doesn’t end with a bang, it ends with a whimper, as we finish the book to see what we know is coming. And yet, after spending some time in the book’s world and voice we do read until the end, until the book disappoints us just a tiny bit, but this soggy ending befits a novel that really trades in the traditions of unpleasantness. And if you feel that this has been the least straightforward first paragraph of a review of mine in a long time, then you’ll have an idea of how I think of this book. I think this is an excellent book, extremely well executed, but also a book that is not always a joy to read. I don’t think I’ve read a book quite like this in a long time, and that’s certainly a good thing.
First things first. As you would expect from a book called Novel about my Wife, it’s not primary a novel “about” anyone’s wife. The pages of the book contain two different texts. One, written in regular type, and making up the main body of the book, is the story of Tom Stone and a time in his life when everything went bad. It is written from his point of view, and it’s a first draft kind of manuscript, with repetitions, corrections, and frequent reflections on the nature of the story and its truths. This part contains, as Stone says “the known knowns, as a politician might say”. Stone is the narrator of this book, but he is also its author. There is no immediate “outside” of the book except the book itself, with Perkins’ name printed on the cover. I explain this so thoroughly because it’s important to understand that Perkins has created a book that doesn’t just give us an unreliable narrator and his version of the truth. Except for the one passage I just quoted, it doesn’t really make the unreliability an issue. The biggest mystery of the book might well not be known to the narrator either. It’s not important whether he lies. That’s not at issue. What is, is the mere fact that this is a story narrated by a male “author”, who structures, historicizes, rationalizes his wife’s sad mental decline. And he does it in a style that is not just self absorbed, but also almost unbearably awful. Tom Stone is a terrible writer and we don’t need anybody telling us so – our own reading is evidence enough. And yet, for all his mediocrities and deficiencies, he is the one who gets to tell this story. In short – the novel “about” a wife is a novel about Tom Stone, his priorities, the workings of his mind and the society that produces his kind.
It’s also, of course, even though not primarily, the story of his wife Ann and what happens to her – both what has happened to her in the past and what happens to her in the novel’s narrative present. The present is there for Tom to sort out. Here he has his memories to guide him. As for the past, that’s more difficult. He explains to his implied reader: “What Ann thought. What Ann felt. What happened to her when I was not around. For this I need fiction.” This fiction, labeled “N.A.M.W.” -“Novel About My Wife” – turns up here and there in short, melodramatically phrased novelistic inserts. While Tom might just be flagged as an “unreliable narrator”, making my previous paragraph wordy and unnecessary, there’s more at work here. Perkins doesn’t hide things in his narrative, Tom doesn’t lie or deceive us. For all we know, his story is perfectly reliable. He admits to lying to his wife and opens up about many things that precipitate her mental deterioration, the worst of which, of course, hides in the novel-within-the-novel. She also doesn’t openly betray him by distorting his voice – the effect was subtle enough that I genuinely wondered whether this was just a badly written novel. Accumulative, however, we notice that this is a story written by a man to the backdrop of his wife’s anguish and despite being titled Novel about my Wife, it’s disconcertingly preoccupied with his own petty concerns. At one point, to alleviate some pressure, he calls up an ex-girlfriend of his, and it works, he was “swept with relief” as “[a]n enormous weight, the burden of fidelity, lifted from [him]”. The contrast is instructive and important, especially given the tradition that the book ends up settling in. There are two distinct literary traditions dealing with spouses that suffer from breakdowns. One is written by men, one by women. Perkins wrote a book that belongs to the latter tradition, but mimics the language and structure of the former.
The first category could easily be summarized as “novels about men’s wives”, an exploration of female breakdowns. In a 2011 essay, Naomi Scheman undertakes a dialogue of sorts with Stanley Cavell’s philosophy, by pointing out how much of it is predicated on a male author and a male audience. She points to discussions that either employ a generalized we or use the third person. Even well meaning looks at the plight of ‘outsiders’ are “a response in the third person, learning more about them, when what was needed was a response in the second person: […] not knowledge but acknowledgment” (emphasis hers). While I am not sure about the strength of her arguments against skepticism (although I will come back to them in my review of Setz’ Indigo), the point about the direction of discussions on knowledge are entirely valid. And we can see that literature bears them out again and again. Jonathan Wilson points out, for example, that in Bellow’s books we see women only through the mirror of “American male anxiety”, other examples in literary works are women in Philip Roth’s novels (including the downright vengeful depiction of Eve Frame in I Married a Communist). In popular fiction, works like the novels of Wally Lamb continue this theme. Women are moody, angry, sometimes insane, and most of the time, they turn up in these books as a nuisance. That is how Perkins’ narrator Tom sees his wife too. Tom is an unsuccessful screenwriter and the first half of the novel mostly charts his attempts to make enough money to support his family, and all the attendant anxieties. More successful, more virile men turn up, and women are either used as relief (cf. above) or they are a nuisance. Ann, Tom’s wife, is particularly difficult. She has a pregnant woman’s moodswings (cue the stand up comedy routine), but she also somehow suddenly believes she might be haunted and that there are such things as ghosts, possibly. One evening after she confronts him about his snobbish attitude towards colleagues, he, as the narrator, insists on undercutting her speech by directing his readers’ eyes at her. He turns on the light and states “She looked ugly”.
We know these performances from the other side in literature. Especially pregnancy and/or a sudden involvement with or fear of the supernatural have been used by female novelists fairly frequently as means to highlight the pressure and the eye of society and its pressures on women. The results are often riveting and terrifying. One example is Sara Gran’s brief but horrifying novel of demonic possession, Come Closer. The plot of the book is unusually single minded and the book takes no detour in dragging its readers to its terrible conclusion. The basic trajectory of the plot is not, however, what makes the book so terrifying. It’s the way that this demonic possession expresses itself: it’s a total loss of control. Things in your household are not subject to your control, but much worse, things in your head are not. Gran’s protagonist is increasingly unable to rely on her senses and memory. She will say and do things that she doesn’t remember saying and doing and the sensible world outside offers her no means of redressing it. But Gran does something else too. Instead of writing an elaborate tale in the Stephen King mode (which does offer room for female narratives, as novels by writers like Caitlín Kiernan and Sarah Langan show), she uses an unusual amount of space, given the length of the story, for exploring the increasing alienation from her husband. All the demon does, at the beginning, is increase her natural anxiety that exists because her husband ignores and abandons her. It amplifies her anger. And her husband is no help to her. He is solicitous enough to appear helpful, but he keeps her at a distance, cheating on her, eventually asking for a divorce. Sara Gran really couldn’t be more clear in how her book works. Near the end, we learn that the demon is connected to Lilith, Adam’s first wife who “wouldn’t lie down and take it and she wouldn’t do what she was asked or told”. The demon, manifesting itself as a loss of control and destruction is merely giving Gran’s protagonist something she always craved: love and protection. That she destabilizes and destroys the male dominated surroundings is not a bug, it’s a feature.
Similarly terrifying, and an even better book, is Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child, one of the most terrifying books I have ever read. Similarly short, it’s the story of the Lovatt family. Harriet and David, Two young conservative people meet in the hubbub of the 1960s and decide, against the Zeitgeist, to raise a ‘traditional’ family, which works well. There are alarming signs in the husband’s behavior and in the way the young family grows, but it isn’t until the titular fifth child that something breaks. Something, Harriet feels, isn’t right with the child growing inside her, but everyone from her family to her husband, to the institutions, disbelieve her. She feels alienated from the unusually active and unusually large child in her womb. It is frequently described like a demon, hence the connection to Gran’s book. While friends jokingly call it “a wrestler”, her husband already censures her behavior. She refers to the child as “this creature with whom she was locked in a struggle to survive”, calling it “the enemy”. Once born, it appears that she was right. Ben, as he’s named, is a violent and strange child, and she’s not the only one to notice. The story doesn’t end there, it’s where the story really picks up steam. Ben physically assaults his mother, who finds breastfeeding him well nigh impossible, he attacks other children, and quite generally becomes a danger to others. His mother decides to go and get the help of institutions, who have a history (cf. Foucault) of taking the strange and maybe dangerous and pulling them back in line by hook or by crook. As a woman, hoewever, she quickly finds herself under attack. Her husband works against her, and the rest of the family similarly abandons her, as well. A doctor looks at her and says “The problem is not with Ben, it’s with you. You don’t like him very much.”
“The problem is with you” is something women get thrown at very frequently, but that’s what happens when they open up. More often, intimidated by this pattern, afraid of censure, women keep their inner lives to themselves. This is how things like postnatal depression or even rape end up often being unreported. In novels, men, uninterested in dialogue, write about these silent women, reporting to their readers the surface phenomena, which often look like moodiness, bitchiness, and other gendered negative perceptions. And this is exactly what Perkins makes use of. She’s presenting to us a man writing about “the known knowns”, hitting all the registers and his voice with such precision that she comes close to a pastiche of a certain kind of authorial voice. She never descends into parody, the book is not a comedy (although it’s frequently funny). Behind the whole story is a Lessing/Gran kind of book, a terrifying story of paranoia and abandonment. As soon as we realize this, Novel About My Wife becomes increasingly scary and tense. Emily Perkins is a deeply intriguing writer and I will read her other books in due course. You should, as well.
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