Please note that there will be some crudeness in today’s post. Please leave now if you don’t want to know what John Irving did to some people…
Okay, so every so often, there are scenes so tightly wound that they clearly illuminate everything that’s come before as mere clockworks, components that enable the core metaphor of the book or movie. Tarantino is full of them, as is Paul Thomas Anderson, Jennifer Egan, Steven Holl. It’s a common high-culture malady, as true in modern architecture and modern music as it is in modern literature. We’re supposed to admire the creator’s ingenuity more than the actual sounds or images or words or people.
The example that first made me think of this, almost thirty years ago, is the moment when I quit The World According to Garp in full disgust, recognizing all at once that each and every character existed only to play out the author’s cleverness. The hinge of the book comes in the few pages when all of the foreshadowing is triggered at once, like a game of Mousetrap, to implement the whole Rube Goldberg device.
- There’s Garp himself, the product of multiple sexual traumas, who is little more than broken, ambulatory libido.
- There’s his wife Helen, an English teacher driven to affairs of her own by Garp’s inattention and infidelity.
- There’s their son, ignored by both of his ruined parents.
- There’s the repeated theme of physical mutilation as a symbol or outcome of sexual abuse.
- There’s the car with the gearshift lever that they’ve never repaired, its bare metal shaft a symbol of their acceptance of decay.
- There’s the steep driveway, which Garp regularly uses as a test of masculine capability, gauging his speed so that he can coast the last bit uphill and let the car come gently to rest in the garage bay.
Can you guess what dish Irving concocts from this recipe?
(Don’t read this next paragraph if you’re worried about spoilers or naughty words or authorial human decency.)
Helen feels guilty about the affair she’s carried on with a student, has him over to break it off, but agrees to give him a farewell blowjob in his car. Garp is coming home with their toddler son, no seatbelt or carseat, himself uncertain about their marriage and family. He rolls up the hill in the fog, and runs into the back of the student’s car in the garage. In the impact, Helen bites off her lover’s dick, and Garp’s son is thrown onto the gearshift and loses an eye.
Oh HELL no! You didn’t just do that! Oh, fuck you, dude, I’m out!
You do NOT bring me two hundred pages into a book just to reveal that you think of your characters as nothing more than a vaudeville setup. You do NOT ask me to care about real people and then make them artifice again. No. I will not have it.
And I had that experience again this afternoon at about 3:30, while reading the 2015 novel Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum. It’s a book of metaphors. The Swiss German language as a metaphor for action and inaction, for the consideration of tense and gender. The work with a Freudian therapist, Freudian analysis being nothing but the investigation of metaphor. The endless affairs as a metaphor for disillusion and passivity. The notion of Swiss emotional reserve as a metaphor for all of male inattentiveness to women’s inner lives. The mixed-parentage baby as a metaphor for all of the secrets Anna can never reveal. Her inner life, enormously detailed in its protective inertia, kept at its own emotional distance from us (and from Anna herself).
But then, at the stereotypical moment of two-thirds-of-the-way-through-the-book, Anna finally tries to do “the right thing,” fails at it, and is immediately punished in the most garish, cruel way that her allies (us, the readers) could ever have imagined. And we suddenly realize that Essbaum wasn’t employing metaphors to help us understand Anna’s life, but rather that Anna’s life, and the lives of those around her, were nothing but authorial metaphors in the first place. The World One is shredded to reveal the World Two author, grinning like Harley Quinn as she reveals her presence behind the levers.
And looking back from that moment of reveal, I can now see that Anna’s therapist Doktor Messerli had all the best lines. She’s actually been the only person in this story with insight or agency, her Freudian metaphoric analysis being the Greek chorus that offers interpretive commentary. Here’s one of the very best things in the book, right up front on p. 6:
“Shame is psychic extortion,” Doktor Messerli answered. “Shame lies. Shame a woman and she will believe she is fundamentally wrong, organically delinquent. The only confidence she will have will be in her failures. You will never convince her otherwise.”
(There’s an entirely different blog essay coming in the next week or so about incorrectly gendering the work of shame, spawned by an article from a couple of weeks ago by Jennifer Weiner. We’ll get back to that at some point, after I get through this afternoon’s trauma.)
This is full authorial malpractice. This is an abuse of trust, asking me to believe in the virtual reality of World One and then ripping it open to see the Matrix beneath, shimmering with its manipulative algorithms. It is a fully Modernist abuse, all head and no heart.
If I were still teaching, I would teach this novel beside Jennifer Tseng’s outstanding book Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness. We could explore the parallels:
- The authors, both celebrated poets embarking on their first novels
- The protagonists, women of similar age (38 and 41), women in marriages that are “good enough” but not at all good
- Both women with children whom they love but do not begin to understand
- Both women in landscapes that they only partially inhabit, different from those around them in some fundamental ways
- Women who embark on secret affairs, and equally secret wandering just to be alone
- Both stories culminating in an unexpected death that the protagonist and others must collectively come to terms with
And even with all of those parallels, one story is generous and the other meager. One is wise, the other merely intelligent. One is kind, the other cold. One uses metaphor inductively, to love, to explore, to illuminate the detailed contours of precious lives. The other uses metaphor deductively, to delimit, to burn away, to incinerate everything outside its own concerns.
Essbaum’s book has done one good thing for me. It has given me the desire to go back and re-read Tseng’s.