'The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher' Is White-Hot Storytelling by a Mind Possessed
These stories are as delightful and fizzy as Hilary Mantel's many awe-inspiring historical novels.
The Assassination of Margaret ThatcherPublisher: Henry Holt
Length: 246 pages
Author: Hilary Mantel
US Publication Date: 2014-10
A writer goes on a trip to speak before a book group somewhere in England. She notes twisted, half-dying trees outside her train window. She wonders if she will be able to evade the inevitable "Book Group Dinner"; perhaps she will feign illness and then find some cafe, where the espresso will be like "diesel oil". At the meeting of the book group, the author finds herself so bored by the chatter of the handful of guests before her that she begins to make up lies to entertain herself. She says, "Call me Rose," though Rose isn't her name. She claims her "influences" include a vast array of Russian thinkers and artists who don't actually exist.
Back at the hotel, a little girl attends to her. Surely, this little girl is too young to be working? And are there hints that she is being physically and/or emotionally abused?
The author entertains thoughts of saving the little girl, spiriting her away to a new life in a big, progressive city. Wouldn't this be the moral thing to do? Isn't she, the author, like one of those Western photographers in war-torn, impoverished African countries, wondering if she should pluck away "some ringwormed toddler squawking from the ruins?" Or should she simply observe and take note?
Her noble impulses fail her. She leaves the child behind. Later, after a brief interaction with a handsome stranger, she sits and wonders, "Which of my defects did he notice first?"
This is Hilary Mantel's story, "How Shall I Know You?"
Mantel's contemporary, Penelope Fitzgerald, once made a comment that could easily apply to Mantel's own work. To paraphrase Fitzgerald, "I have written about the courage of those born to fail and the weaknesses of the powerful... And I have tried to represent life's tragedies as comedies -- for, otherwise, how are we to endure?" ("The Editor's Daughter, Tempered by Homelessness", The New York Times, 18 November 2014).
This is also Mantel's approach to the world, and to work. She gravitates toward characters who are destined for failure. She's famous for her love of Thomas Cromwell, who exited the world early with his head on a spike. Her first major subject was Robespierre, who was in his 30s when he went to the guillotine. And one of her mid-career novels, A Change in Climate, concerns a woman whose child is stolen and butchered in Botswana, who then must "rebuild" a life in England, a life that includes a weak, shattered husband with a roving eye. Mantel is fond of people with fairly limited power.
In her new collection of stories, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, she writes fearlessly from the perspective of a little girl whose father watches S&M child-porn, and whose sister is dying of anorexia. The little girl makes wildly inappropriate jokes about the anorexia, because, really, what is the better response to madness? We might as well turn pointless suffering into humor as a means of getting by.
Mantel writes stingingly about her childhood in her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost. Here, she recalls elementary school, which is full of crazed sadists, i.e., teachers. She remembers the absurdity of having to answer this mind-blowing question: "Do you want to be punished?" She remembers, also, the infuriating habit teachers have of asking questions merely to amuse themselves, or to pass the time. Little Mantel viewed school as an indignity to be stoically borne. Whenever I catch myself asking a pointless question, or taking a condescending tone in the classroom -- which is approximately a million times per day -- I think of Little Mantel, and my own behavior makes me cringe.
Some people complain about Mantel's work. The great novelist Michelle Huneven observes that Mantel's most recent protagonists simply aren't very nice; in fact, they're mean. These characters' focus is on life's pains rather than life's beauty. After all, many, many lives have moments of love and kindness. Why can't Mantel broaden her focus, in her most recent book, and include some of those moments of kindness?
I see Huneven's point. (You can read her thoughts at, "Mantel's Story Collection Long on Controversy", L.A. Times, 3 October 2014). But the limits of Mantel's point of view don't really bother me. One of the only real sins a writer can commit is to be uninteresting. And Mantel is consistently exhilarating.
She brings to mind Joan Rivers, who once told a provocative joke about Helen Keller and found herself arguing with a prissy man in the audience, a father of a deaf child. Rivers said (paraphrasing): "This is what humor is for. It's meant to drag shitty stuff out of the darkness, and to expose all the shitty stuff as something less unendurable than we think. Comedy makes us braver." (This exchange took place in the documentary on Rivers' life, A Piece of Work). The same could be said about Mantel's courageous writing.
J.M. Coetzee once published a piece about the Australian Nobel laureate Patrick White, in the front of the Penguin edition of The Vivisector. Coetzee observes that there are moments when this man's writing is less than "white-hot". This is what is great about Mantel: the white-hot moments are almost constant. You feel you're in the presence of a mind possessed. The stories are coming from somewhere not entirely of this Earth. The sentences have "fizz", a quality that can't be taught, as it's simply a gift that someone handed to Mantel while she was still in the womb.
And how she uses it! A teenager gnaws on "a gray piece of meat". A philandering man imagines his wife's discovery of his transgression; he will simply, blithely ask, "Can't we just try to be a bit French?" An appalling, pampered, racist neighbor refers to her own daughter as a "White Nigger", then snidely observes that "the big lips didn't come from MY side of the family." This isn't nice or pleasant writing. It's writing you won't forget.
And now, a postscript. I realize I haven't spoken much about the plots of Mantel's new stories, with the exception of "How Shall I Know You?" A secret between you and me: the plots don't really matter. Sometimes, they're hardly there. Mantel is like Lorrie Moore, who is frequently assailed for failing to provide "plots", and who has even made fun of this quirk in her own stories. Who needs an airtight bit of narrative engineering when each sentence is so delicious? Anyway, in lieu of plot synopses, I'll offer a few passages I love, without context (which is unnecessary here):
Just before our leave I had met my Saudi neighbor, a young mother taking a part-time literature course at the women's university. Education for women was regarded as a luxury (in Jeddah), an ornament, a way for a husband to boast of his broadmindedness; Munira couldn't even begin to do her assignments, and I took to going up to her flat in the late mornings and doing them for her, while she sat on the floor in her negligee, watching Egyptian soaps on TV and eating sunflower seeds... Munira was nineteen, with coarse, eager good looks, a pale skin, and a mane of hair that crackled with static and seemed to lead a vital, separate life; her laugh was a raucous cackle....
A heavy, solemn child, she was beginning to walk, or stamp, under her own power, her hands flailing for a hold on the furniture. She would fall on her bottom with a grunt, haul herself up again by clutching the sofa; the cushions slid away from her, she tumbled backward, banged on the floor her large head with its corkscrew curls, and lay there wailing...
My hair flattened by the rain, I stepped inside [the hotel room], to a traveler's stench... I stood and breathed in -- because one must breathe -- tar of ten thousand cigarettes, fat of ten thousand breakfasts, the leaking metal seep of a thousand shaving cuts, and the horse-chestnut whiff of nocturnal emissions...