Bells and Whistles
Claire Messud became a household name with The Emperor’s Children. I was exhilarated to read that book because it was released shortly after my move to New York City, and it described New Yorkers I felt I knew. The New Yorkers were sort of awful, but still lovable. This is something Messud specializes in: Her characters tend to be dreadful, but you offer your sympathy anyway.
Messud has gone through an interesting period. Since The Emperor’s Children, both of her parents have died. She has been silent for several years. The Woman Upstairs represents her reemergence on the literary scene.
It’s impossible not to think about the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante when reading Woman Upstairs, for a few reasons. First, Messud’s husband, the influential New Yorker critic James Wood, recently wrote an attention-grabbing piece about Ferrante (“The Violently Personal Novels of Elena Ferrante”, 21 January 2013). Also, Messud has taken up a subject very familiar to Ferrante: an angry woman’s life. Lastly, Wood mentioned Ferrante in a recent piece about both Wood and Messud (New York, “At Home with Claire Messud and James Wood” 21 April 2013), and Messud seemed to bristle when the name came up. When I read this, I wondered if Messud had been consciously trying to write an American version of Ferrante’s celebrated novel The Days of Abandonment, which was published by Europa in 2005.
Messud provoked a small news event in a recent interview with Publishers Weekly (“An Unseemly Emotion”, 29 April 2013). Asked by an interviewer whether she liked her narrator, Nora, Messud became irritated. She wondered why this question needed to be asked. She observed that Humbert Humbert, Mickey Sabbath, and Oscar Wao are all unlikable protagonists; no one rings hands over this. It’s only when a female narrator is unlikable that the “unlikability” becomes a problem.
My feeling is that the issue mainly comes up if a novel doesn’t work, and the critic can’t find a polite way to state his case. It becomes easy, safe, to say, “Well, I just don’t like the protagonist.” When a woman (or man) writes a novel that works, no one cares if the protagonist is unlikable. Think of Alice Munro (whom Messud mentions), along with Lorrie Moore, Jane Austen, Penelope Lively, Hilary Mantel, and Tessa Hadley.
The reason Messud’s book doesn’t work is not that its narrator is unlikable. The reason it doesn’t work is that it is merely an outline; it lacks life. There is very little humor and there are very few surprises. Many characters are merely pieces of furniture on which Messud has draped a few foregone conclusions.
Messud needs to take much bigger risks. Why is she in a hurry to publish? Oh, big deal: She waited several years. James Salter waited a few decades. Lorrie Moore had a bigger gap between novels than Messud’s gap. These writers took their time, perhaps because they realized they needed a great deal of time to develop something fresh to say. Messud did not take her time.
The Woman Upstairs concerns the aforementioned Nora Eldridge, an unmarried woman in he30s who sacrificed a good deal of her early adulthood to caring for her sick mother. Now Nora desperately wants to make something of her own life before her slow march toward death.
Throughout the book, you want to introduce Nora to Buddhism. You want to say, “Desire is the root of all suffering! Just be!”
You can’t do this, of course.
When you’re just getting to know Nora, Messud pulls out some memorable quotes. Her understanding of Nora’s school-teaching job is a prime example. She nicely illustrates how some students can inspire a teacher in a special way:
“Exceptional. Adaptable. Generous. So intelligent. So quick. So sweet. With such a sense of humor… He was eight, just a child of eight like any other, but we all wanted to lay claim to him. We didn’t say these kind things about Eric P., or Darren, or moon-faced Miles, whose dark circles beneath his eyes emanated gloom like some form of permanent mourning.”
(This has the ring of truth; it also says something surprising about a teacher’s point of view.)
I also liked:
“I’m always looking for what people are really saying. When they tell me that I ‘get’ kids, I’m worried that they’re saying I don’t seem quite adult. The professor husband of a friend of mine has likened children to the insane…He says that children live on the edge of madness, that their behavior, apparently unmotivated, shares the same dream logic as crazy people’s… I’ve learned to be patient with children, to tease out the logic that’s always somewhere there, and irrefutable once explained…I’ve come to understand that grown-ups, mad or sane, ought really to be accorded the same respect.”
(Again, this is interesting news. It has the weight of lived experience. I’d like to spend time with this woman, get to learn more of the startling truths that race around in her mind. Sadly, I would not like to see her tossed into a half-baked pseudo-thriller plot.)
Also, Messud comes alive when she writes about Nora’s mother’s death:
“When they finally made the diagnosis, maybe she already knew. And the diagnosis, ALS, was really simply the confirmation that she was dying, which of course we all are, only henceforth that she would be dying more swiftly, her body no longer a temple but a prison, one closing door after another, until she was confined inside her mind—a room, it is true, with no walls, but ultimately with no doors, either.”
...Later in the novel, there’s also a use of the word “cunty” that is memorable.
Why couldn’t it all have been written at this level? I suppose I must narrate specifics of the main plot, the story of Nora’s friendship with a visiting artist, but this is the part of the book that interests me least.
And yet, here I go.
Nora wants desperately to resume her artistic life. She had put this on hold to care for her mother; she had found herself doing a respectable, bourgeois (and aforementioned) job, being a teacher.
When a new friend, Sirena arrives, Nora sees in her an opportunity to have a creative life. Sirena is glamorous and Italian. She has a powerful Lebanese husband, Skandar, who is a visiting professor at Harvard. Sirena and Skandar are raising little Reza, a lovely, foreign-looking boy who gets bullied because of his foreignness.
The bullying of Reza provides Nora an opportunity to slide into Sirena’s family. Nora and Sirena begin to talk, and they discover they have a shared want—a desire for studio space in the Cambridge area. Sirena finds a place for the two of them, and soon they are working under one roof on a near-daily basis.
Nora wants to create tiny dioramas—replicas of female artists’ houses. She is interested in the rooms of Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, and Edie Sedgwick. In each, she will place a tiny figure that represents the abstract concept of joy. Also, she considers projecting a copy of Woolf’s suicide note on a wall.
Nora is particularly enchanted by Edie Sedgwick, whose “workspace” is a mystery. No one ever photographed Sedgwick’s rooms, apparently. Nora will create large windows, perhaps to suggest that the world was always watching Sedgwick. (Perhaps Sedgwick’s only function was to be watched.)
Meanwhile, Sirena is at work on a far larger project. She hopes to create a space entitled “Wonderland,” with images borrowed from Lewis Carroll’s work. There will be frightening red eyes to suggest the presence of the Jabberwocky. Alice-esque frocks will be sewn together to create the sky. A replica of a human heart will stand on a pedestal, and it will pump rosewater scents into the room. (The scent is supposed to evoke thoughts of desire, followed immediately by thoughts of death.)
Viewers will be filmed as they experience Wonderland.
Women at various ages will be photographed and displayed nearby. One is quite young, one is middle-aged, and one is nearly dying. (Nora is blown away by the image of the near-dying woman, whose breasts are like “dugs”. This woman seems proud and full of happy secrets. Seeing the image provides a moment of inspiration for Nora.)
An implicit contrast is established between the artistic worlds of Nora and Sirena. Nora is self-effacing, tiny, and focused only on the past. Sirena is sprawling, ambitious, and focused on the imagination and on possibility. It’s not difficult to predict that Sirena’s work will find an audience, whereas Nora’s will go unnoticed.
(One aspect of Messud’s work I admire is the fearlessness with which she invents Sirena’s project. Who’s to say whether or not the art world would actually embrace a piece of work such as Wonderland? …Messud describes the work with such conviction and confidence, you simply assume she knows what she is talking about.)
As Nora’s relationship with Sirena deepens, Nora also begins to spend more and more time with Reza and Skandar.
But the main question—always—is: Does the writer seem to have fun? It seems to me Messud really enjoys creating Nora. The parts about Nora’s background, and the sections in which Nora is free to rant about injustice…These parts really come alive. They are fired by anger, and by the thrill of transgression. It’s the other material that seems workmanlike and without joy. It’s the material about Sirena and Skandar that doesn’t come to life.
Perhaps Messud should have tried for a less plot-packed book… a book that simply follows Nora around for a little while. Instead, she chooses the most conventional, tiresome plot. Almost nothing Sirena and her family do is surprising. The reader can sense the impending betrayal from about a mile away. Worse still, Nora has a friend whose sole purpose in the novel is to give wise advice. This is a sub-Pixar level of character development. One wonders, doesn’t this friend grow tired of Nora’s endless self-absorption? If not, what kind of lunacy is driving this friend’s saintly, inexhaustible interest in Nora? Messud could entertain herself here; she could leave little clues about the best friend’s resentment, clues that Nora misses, but that leap out at the reader.
There is none of this.
It seems to me that Messud could also have embraced the cheapness of the thriller plot that she narrates. If she is going to give us a tired, cliché-ridden tale of friendship and betrayal, she could at least wink at the reader now and then, or gleefully toy with certain conventions of the genre. Instead, every piece falls tediously into place, just as any sentient reader would anticipate.
It’s no crime to write about an unlikable character, but an uninteresting character is a different story. The writer’s job is to find the interesting aspects of even the dullest person’s life. Messud fails at this job. Her Nora—and the world provided for this Nora…these elements become tedious. They have a whiff of the author’s own boredom, a boredom Messud tries desperately to conceal and to evade. Note that other authors take characters who have far less eventful lives—less sex, less violence—and yet make the characters vibrant and fascinating.
The queen of this particular skill is Barbara Pym, who can turn a sleepy retirement dinner into an enthralling piece of prose. Messud, on the other hand, pulls out many bells and whistles, then becomes too drained to make good use of her sets and props.
Better luck next time, Ms. Messud.