Emily Perkins: Novel about my Wife

Perkins, Emily (2008), Novel About My Wife, Bloomsbury
ISBN 978-0-7475-8422-3

DSC_0564Sometimes 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.

DSC_0569First 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.

tumblr_nkbvs6s2dl1r0z5aoo1_1280It’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.

DSC_0572The 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”.

Come CloserWe 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.

LessingSimilarly 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.”

DSC_0570“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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Quest for Emily T.: Doris Lessing’s “Alfred & Emily”

Lessing, Doris (2009), Alfred & Emily, Harper Perennial
ISBN 978-0-00-724017-3

Before I embark on another one of my reviews, let me say this: Alfred & Emily is a thoroughly good and original book that I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone. Doris Lessing has never been a prose stylist sparkling with brilliance, turning out, at times, pages and pages of clunky prose. But in everything I’ve read of her, that part of her writing turns out to matter little. Despite her style, Doris Lessing is a great writer, with astonishing instincts. That is true for her books, but it’s evident even if you just look at her career. As she was on her way to full mainstream acceptance, she suddenly started to write Science Fiction. To make this kind of change takes guts and a very independent mind, two qualities that her work evinces as well. Alfred & Emily (2008) is Lessing’s first book after winning the Nobel prize and it represents another turn in her career, considering that the two books before that were novels set in a SF/Fantasy setting, if I remember correctly. This one, now, is about her parents (the eponymous Alfred and Emily) and, to a large extent, about Lessing herself. Au fond, it’s two books rolled into one, but cleanly separated, into a fictional part and a skewed sort of memoir.

Now, as mentioned, Alfred & Emily consists of two parts. Part one is called “Alfred and Emily: A Novella”. In it, Lessing imagines how her parents could have turned out if they had made other decisions in their lives, and, most importantly, WWI had not happened. In the introduction to the book, Lessing explains that her parents were profoundly unhappy, because “World War I did them both in”. In her re-imagined reality her parents do not marry each other; instead Alfred marries a woman that is kinder, more loving than Emily, qualities that the real Alfred had to do without. Emily marries the great love of her life, a doctor in the Royal Free Hospital where Emily worked as a nurse. The real Emily had to cope with the death of that doctor who “drowned in the channel” and married Alfred, who came, wounded in the Great War, into her hospital. He had lost a leg, and spent the rest of his life making the best of this and his case of what Lessing assumes to have been post-traumatic stress. Additionally, he quickly found himself with a loveless wife and a hardscrabble existence as a farmer in Rhodesia. That last thing, Lessing keeps. Since her father “wanted to be a farmer all his life”, she makes a farmer of him in her novella.

There is not, however, much that we learn about the imagined Alfred, due to the fact that, even though its title suggests something else, the book is more about Emily than about her hubby; the rationale for this imbalance is explained near the end of the book, in the second part:

Even as a child I knew his obsessive talking about the trenches was a way of ridding himself of the horrors. […] But my mother also needed a listener, and to her needs I tried to be oblivious.

Only later did Lessing recognize the validity of her mother’s tale, her mother’s complaints, her mother’s voice. This book, especially the first part, is in many ways a paean to her mother. In imagining her mother’s possible career in a world without the First World War, Lessing takes a couple of puzzling and striking decisions. The first one is the marriage she has Emily embark upon. Since the war took Emily’s great love away from her, Lessing offers her the hand of that doctor, “Dr. Martin-White from Cardiology”. From this premise, a reader would expect an account of a fulfilling marriage to follow, to have the outline of the happiness presented that real life stole from Emily. The usual tosh. Instead, we soon learn that Emily’s new husband expects, and practically forces her to leave her job as a nurse (because it wouldn’t be “proper”) and from that point on everything is caught in a downward spiral. What ensues are separate beds, general emotional cold, until finally, out of despair and boredom, Emily becomes a society lady, giving lush tea parties. It is not until her husband dies that Emily finally breaks free.

As Emily tries to find something to do, she uses her husband’s considerable funds to start a school for poor kids, that, in the course of the book, expands into a hugely successful series of schools with dozens of subsidiaries all around the United Kingdom. Additionally, she expands public libraries to include books both for kids and adults and, at the end of the first part, she starts a series of refuges for ‘disgraced’ women when she runs into trouble upon trying to have an unmarried yet pregnant girl stay at school. So, Lessing suggests, the only thing that stopped her mother from becoming one of the great social leaders of her time was the Great War and marrying the oaf Alfred. This is what I consider the second puzzling decision. Although Lessing’s book contains both an explanatory introduction and a short chapter called “Explanation”, this is a huge leap, that, in its magnitude, is completely unexplained and should be taken with more than a grain of salt. I assume that this suggestion, this change of hers is rhetorical more than anything; my assumption is supported by the fact that the Emily portrayed in the second part, the real Emily, is snobbish, vaguely racist, and aloof. She outs her daughter as a communist to her employer, because she considers her a danger to “public order”. This is not the Emily we have met in the first part. What happened?

Let me approach it from this way: Lessing is as much concerned with the social environment of her characters as with interior motivation. The fact that the imagined Emily marries upwards of her class, is disappointed by the elites, and, in due course, shocked by the way that poor people are educated does not have any counterpart in the biography of the real Emily, who is taken out of her environment and dropped into alien territory. Thus, the real Emily has no way of understanding how her class works within the references of British society. Instead, she is now, thrust into Persia first and then Rhodesia, almost completely bereft of references, and she’s called upon to created new connections. Even the imagined Emily, in the midst of London, has to be shown the “dreadful poverty” there, because she “had not been conscious of much poverty” and “servants were the closest she had come to London poverty”. She has to see, smell, experience poor people’s despair in order to understand it. Small wonder, then, that the real Emily never had the intellectual growth necessary for this understanding. Yet, however intriguing that aspect is, the imagined Emily’s encounters and altercations with class do not stop there.

Since WWI and WWII never happened, the British society has never experienced the turmoil that would lead to a gradual abandonment of old and traditional class distinctions (at this point, I should point out that much of this would be vastly more illuminating and interesting to a UK native, since references and allusions will largely be lost on me; additionally, my knowledge of recent British history is shaky at best), and so strict ‘Victorian’ morals are still thriving and powerful, which, with time, proves exasperating for Emily:

How very much they had enjoyed themselves, Emily recognized, those representatives of public charity, saying, ‘It was wrong. It is wrong.’

At that point of the novella, Emily has grown so much that she’s maddened by these onslaughts of moralizing by the rich heads of the charity funded by Emily herself. The real Emily, as depicted in part two, would have applauded the judgmental bishops and rich debutantes, society ladies with nothing to do, who provide a large part of the work and organization in the schools. The juxtaposition of the two Emilies clarifies to what extent our personality, things that we may consider incremental to our selves, depend upon just the right circumstances, and, finally, Emily’s meteoric rise as a social leader of sorts is more than just a statement about Emily’s potential. The whole book could be said to examine the potentials of groups that used to spend their time on the peripheries of power. There are also countless remarks and discussions of the dynamics of speech, sound and listening. The imagined Emily is far more than the re-imagining of a real person. It’s the re-imagining of whole world.

But, and this is why the book works so wonderfully well, Lessing never descends into caricature, into cheap hints and jabs. As smart and aware readers, we are all like the children in the novella, who complain about a storyteller, who cannot “prevent his voice deriding” his tales. The children protest: “Not like this. Read it properly.” In a way, this is my reaction more often than not when I am reading a very ‘clever’ and postmodern book that interrogates things. It’s often both boring and tedious. Lessing circumvents this by ‘reading it properly’, by writing a story that makes sense as a story, that explains its ideas on an immediate level as well as on a more abstract one. It’s always enjoyable to read, though; at times it’s bursting with brilliance, like the scene where she has her protagonist try on a dress for a dance (music and dancing plays an important role in the book, on multiple levels), and that dress doesn’t fit, but she still wears it. That scene is far more subtle than I make it sound, going on as it does over several pages, encapsulating both abstract ideas and direct experience.

The second section, which could be seen as a memoir, should be called “The Quest for Emily T.” because it’s an extended attempt to understand Lessing’s mother. In that sense, it’s quite autonomous. I maintain, however, that its main function is to provide a balance and a contrast to the first part, as my reading has demonstrated. Thus, the novella would constitute the main part of the book, which is interesting. Why is it called a novella, anyway? The most well known definition of the genre was established by the other Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who postulated that a novella is built around one extraordinary incident. Since this novella extends over several years and does not contain such an incident, one might look for the reason elsewhere. I would suggest, however, that the incident or even in this case is the lack of an incident or event. The Great War, the war to end all wars, it never happens, and the “shadow of the trenches”, as Lessing calls it, never falls upon the family. The desire to have a war, that was very loud in the years before WWI, Lessing brands it as problematic, the search for an event to define an epoch. Instead, the imagined epoch is defined by the quests of women like Emily, and not the fights of warriors like Alfred.

This book is complex, containing much more than I had time and space to go into, crammed with continuous explorations of themes like the value of reading and telling stories, like music, old-school Marxist issues, like labor. In the second part, we are told that “[w]hen it was agreed that there was a problem we shared, it was natural for us to approach it from literature.” Alfred & Emily is an attempt to make sense of a personal problem: of the trauma of WWI that shaped not just Alfred and Emily’s life, but Lessing’s as well. Her difficult relationship to her mother, the pre-eminence of her father for her work, her attempts to take refuge in books, making sense of her role and place in the world, they are all influenced by WWI, as the book makes abundantly clear. Yet, strangely, the fantasy is an attempt to erase herself, or rather, to lose herself in that picture of her mother. The whole book is an elaborate play of hide and seek, with Lessing looking out at us, and hiding again. For her last sentence, she breathes into her heart, retreats once more: “She was, they all said, a very good bridgeplayer”. Yet, however much she hides, Lessing’s beautiful mind shines in every phrase here, every sentence.