The Lizard of Oz: Rachel Ingalls’ “Mrs. Caliban”

Ingalls, Rachel (1983), Mrs. Caliban, Harvard Common
ISBN 0-87645-112-1

There is a risk to this: burdening a book or poem with the weight of a classic work of literature, especially if the work is as iconic as Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The shorter the book, the more frivolous, usually, the reference, in my experience. None of this is applicable to this novel, which wears the reference lightly and plays with it, with ease and joy. Rachel Ingalls is a writer unjustly neglected by the reading public, her work is largely out of print, including this novel, probably her most famous book. Mrs. Caliban was published in 1983, but not a single phrase or scene in it feels dated. Having just finished it, I find it hard to contain my enthusiasm, to put my pure and utter delight at reading this novel into words. Everything about this book fits, every word, every image seems perfectly calibrated. It’s intellectually rich, it’s use of intertextuality is fascinating and challenging, but above all else, it is a great read that races through a fantastic spiral of events, dragging the engrossed reader along. The book is frequently very funny, often rather sensual, but, au fond, as when we hear the protagonist say to her 6-foot lover, “Larry, you’re all I have”, it is a profoundly sad novel, a sadness that, lucky for us, never turns to bitterness.

As is to be expected, no one in the novel is actually called Mrs. Caliban. The protagonist is called Dorothy, which naturally recalls the Wizard of Oz. She is a housewife, whose life feels empty to her. Her husband, Fred, is frequently claiming to be working late, but Dorothy suspects him of actually having an affair; Fred has had affairs before and currently he is distancing himself again from his wife, not touching her more than necessary, moving the beds apart. This last distancing happened after, after an accident and a miscarriage, the pair suddenly found themselves childless. The accident had brought them together for a short period, but the miscarriage had driven them apart. As in so many cases, the husband, irrationally blamed the wife for what happened. Marriage is portrayed as an imbalanced relationship, where the wife is more of a servant than a sensual human being. It’s not just Fred. Estelle, Dorothy’s best friend, finds out that two men are proposing to her in order to acquire a housemaid, already seeking sexual satisfaction on the side with other, younger women. This strange piece of dialog illustrates Dorothy’s need well:

“Oh, Jesus Christ, Dot. You would go get some useless toy dog like that. Fat lot of good that would be if you turn the corner and bump into a gang of roughs who’d beat you up and rape you.”
“With my luck,” she had screamed, “they’d tie me to the railings and rape the dog instead.”

Up to now, Mrs. Caliban has intermittently shown signs of curiousness: the radio seems, for instance, at times to interact with Dorothy, when the radio program is interrupted by a speaker who imparts, sotto voce, soothing messages for her. One day, however, a strange (even stranger?) message, in a loud voice announces breaking news. A giant green sea monster, called “Aquarius the Monsterman”, has escaped from the “Jefferson Institute for Oceanographic Research”. Since her special messages so far had all been delivered in the same tone of voice, Dorothy decides that this has really happened. This broadcast starts off a novel which is preoccupied with a constant flickering of fantasy and reality, and Ingalls displays no interest in telling us what’s real and what isn’t. The fantastic events become more pronounced when “Aquarius the Monsterman” suddenly arrives on her doorstep, turns out to be called Larry and to speak English. Both name and language have been forced on him by the researchers at the Institute, who performed gruesome experiments on him, torturing the poor guy and even abusing him sexually. For the rest of the novel, however, we’ll only know him as Larry.

Larry is something of an antithesis to the world around Dorothy. In contrast to our pop-cultural expectations he does not have an unpronounceable foreign name, which the savvy researchers have shortened to Larry. He was given his name because in his home culture:

“We don’t give names… Everyone knows. We recognize each other.”

The whole culture seems far more intuitive, people do “the same things” and look the same., it seems less like a humanoid society and more like a tender, well-oiled machine, such as nature may appear to be at times. Larry is very tender, careful. Apart from webbed toes and frog eyes he appears to look like any (good looking) man. The fact that he is stark naked quickly awakens Dorothy’s desires, which lay dormant for a long time:

He sat down beside her. He said, looking at her, “I’ve never seen. Men, but not someone like you.”
“A woman,” she whispered, her throat beginning to close up.
He asked, “Are you frightened?”
“Of course.”
“I’m not. I feel good. But it’s very strange.”
A lot more than strange, she thought. And then: no, it’s just the same. They rolled backwards together on the bed.
“Wait. Not like that,” she said.
“Show me.”
“I’m a bit embarrassed.”
“What does that mean?”

She proceeds to have sex with him quite often, everywhere in the house. The novel never describes the sexual act, but shows its reflection in the changes in Dorothy, who becomes happy, relaxed, who suddenly starts to take an interest in life again. She learns what Larry is prepared to eat and what not, she learns about the way he was treated in the Institute. Automatically she assumes multiple roles. She is protective, as of a child, she caters to him as she caters to her husband and, most importantly, of course, she has taken him as her lover. At night he hides in the guest room or drives around town (she teaches him), and whenever her husband is gone, Larry comes out. Events spiral out of control when he kills five louts in self-defense, who attacked him with knives and broken bottles. The media immediately points to the dreaded monster; clearly, he’s no longer safe in her house, people will notice and tell on her. She must get him back to sea, which attempt leads to the cataclysmic finale.

Many of the references to “The Tempest” are obvious, I’d think, but there is a twist to it all. Larry is both Prospero, the man who comes over the sea and leaves again at the end, and Caliban, the native ‘alien’, who is taught the ‘civilized’ culture, who is perceived to be in need of teaching (incidentally, he does not only learn language. He watches a lot of TV and starts, suddenly, to imitate a dancer in a commercial. After learning the performance he asks Dorothy what it means. She replies that it’s just a dance performance and considers telling him about the cultural moorings of dance, but thinks better of it. After a while, twoscore pages later, Larry proclaims to have understood what it means. We are never told what Larry’s groundbreaking insight is, but clearly, using his limbs in the semiotically fraught way of dance is a language, as well, and Larry recognizes this immediately, and learns). Since Larry is, as I mentioned, a representative of the forces of nature (He seems, at times, as naïve and helpless as Prince Myshkin, but their naivety is rooted in completely different circumstances; indeed, it’s rather Dorothy who is a weathered, numbed descendant to the Prince, I think), one may see the world where humans built their cities as the island where Prospero’s rule has wrought many changes. Dorothy, the best candidate for ‘Mrs. Caliban’, supports such a reading. The very name “Mrs. Caliban” is ambiguous. Fred, her husband, is clearly in no shape to be the noble savage, but at the end, Larry and Fred, somehow, have merged in her racked mind: asked about her husband’s name, she produces the name “Larry”. This suggests that it is only at the end of the novel that she has become Mrs. Caliban.

This issue of naming and reference is fickle. Ingalls interrogates two large constructs, both concerned with power and disenfranchisement. There is gender and its intricacies, the relationships between men and women, the roles both automatically assume and the difficulties of breaking out of such a role. Both Dorothy and her best friend Estelle try, and both, in a way, fail at it and both are tragic failures, because we can see it coming. The depressing, claustrophobic domestic situation of Dorothy is emblematic for the world and society she lives in and it takes Larry for us to see that. I say: “for us”, because all the characters are restricted to their world, they are never afforded the opportunity to actually reflect upon their roles and relations. The second large construct is only hinted at, and it concerns the idea of enlightenment and progress. Larry and the Institute are two factors in this discourse, but the criticism does not only strike at blind belief in scientific progress: when a news report about the five dead teenagers moves Fred to rant about the ugly, giant monster, we get more than a whiff of the amount of prejudice and racism that is part of this society’s structure. The fact that the community appears to be completely ‘white’ only adds to the claustrophobia. In order to to this in the brevity she has chosen, however, Ingalls is forced to project very conventional, strangely unproblematic sense of corporeality. It questions many conventions, but bodies just exist and are all functional human bodies. I said ‘strangely unproblematic’ because, after all, we encounter a 6 foot sea monster which has never lived with humans, which doesn’t speak normally, which is irritated by the movements of dance, but this is all taken in stride. The strangest part about this is sexuality.

While emphasizing the needs of sexuality for Dorothy, the novel is less explicit about the effect this has on Larry, who has never had sexual intercourse before. In a way, Dorothy makes him into a man, but we never learn whether this effects any change in Larry. After all, we aren’t even sure Larry exists at all. The uncanny messages that we learn about on the very first page, introduce a sense of surreality. In the sense of Brian McHale’s excellent explication of postmodernism, this is a highly postmodern novel which at no point expresses an interest in finding out what’s real and what’s not. There are parts of the story that conform more to what we conventionally perceive to constitute ‘reality’ and parts that conform less to that, but Ingalls is constantly mixing up her elements. Certainty is not for us, and it’s neither for Dorothy who, in the final chapter, scrambles to hold everything together even as life and fantasy fall apart. In a way, Dorothy is caught up in a Cyclone but she can neither return to Kansas nor land in Oz, so she’s in a state of limbo. Thinking about this I was reminded of Salman Rushdie’s famous essay on the Wizard of Oz where he points out the difference between the Kansas of the book and the Kansas of the movie version. If I do not misremember him, he emphasizes the fact that the Kansas of the Wizard of Oz movie is not a realistic Kansas, as the one in L. Frank Baum’s book is. It is a curiously warped version. In Mrs. Caliban, Dorothy may be living in a country which is the dark twin of that Kansas.

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4 thoughts on “The Lizard of Oz: Rachel Ingalls’ “Mrs. Caliban”

  1. Pingback: Rachel Ingalls: Mrs. Caliban - World Literature Forum

  2. I was so happy to come across this so smart reading of a book that I love, and which doesn’t seem to get its due attention…

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