Saturday, May 25, 2013

The woman upstairs — a vertiginous magnificence

I loved Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs. It's been a while since a book resonated with me in such a meaningful way.

I've recommended it to bunches of people, mostly women but not exclusively, but in one case I spontaneously advised, "But wait a few years, you're too young." I'm not one to prescribe reading, and certainly not on the basis of age, but I do believe that every book has its time and its place. The fact is: I read The Woman Upstairs now, being of a certain age and having faced certain disappointments, fumbling through some parts of my life and assessing my life in a different way than I did, say, ten years ago. [And! I will never have read Sylvia Plath as a teenager (but more on this in a future post, soon).]

Some call it a feminist novel; in some regards that's true, but mostly it's a human novel, about the anger that comes of betrayal, (and not, that I can see, by the patriarchy that is our society, but) by friends — people turning out not to be the people you thought they were, your mother also turning out not to be the person you thought she was (at least, having facets beyond those shown you), and life generally turning out not the way you thought it would. Doing what you thought was expected, and not only not getting the anticipated payoff, but discovering that you'd misconstrued those expectations from the beginning, or that those expectations of you hadn't ever existed outside your own head (OK, maybe that's more me, and less what's actually in the book). Still, it's not a scenario exclusive to women, though possibly women are more likely to fall victim to it. It's a midlife crisis, plain and simple, isn't it?

"Life's funny. You have to find a way to keep going, to keep laughing, even after you realize that none of your dreams will come true. When you realize that, there's still so much of a life to get through."

So Nora's mother told her.

The anger
There's the issue of Nora's anger. The book starts and ends with it. But there's very little of it in between, as she relates the events of five years previous. She talks about the anger that she would develop, but she is a relatively normal — and normally emotional — person. Which makes it all the more mystifying to me why an interviewer would comment that she wouldn't want Nora as a friend.

Nora does have friends who see her through her troubles — they are good friends to her.

Didi is more comfortable in her skin than anybody else I've ever known, and I've always felt that being friends with her makes me closer to the person I imagine myself to be: someone who doesn't care about all the wrong things, like money or fashion or status, but who ferrets out the genuinely interesting.

I'd love to have Nora as a friend. She's smart and feeling and interesting, if troubled.

The story
Basically, not a lot happens. A family comes into Nora's life, a new student of hers (third grade) and his parents — an artist and an academic — and she gets swept up and away by them. They awaken something in her, the possibility of a different kind of life. Nora is inspired and motivated by them, to resume doing her art in a meaningful way, to think of herself and fulfill her own needs while they reignite her interest in the world outside of her daily grind. Nora acts like a woman in love, and she is in love with this exotic family, both as a unit and individually. This may sound a little perverse when stated blankly (and in some summaries of the novel it's made to sound quite unnatural), but I think it's a reasonable way to describe the excitement, the rush, the flurry of activity, emotion, energy, when you make a new friend and are exposed to new things.

I was happy. I was Happy, indeed. I was in love with love and every lucky parking spot or particularly tasty melon or unexpectedly abbreviated staff meeting seemed to me not chance but an inevitable manifestation of the beauty of my life, a beauty that I had, on account of my lack of self-knowledge, been up till now unable to see.

Then there's a betrayal.

The problem of experience
This novel drives homes the point that shared experiences are experienced differently. For example, I recall some experiences from my childhood as greatly important, yet they barely registered with my mother or my siblings, if they remember them at all. And they speak of other events involving me in such a way that I wonder if I was even present. Or like how when you meet someone and it makes an impression on you, but at a subsequent encounter, the other person doesn't remember you at all — the event simply hadn't registered on them in the same way. This novel's all about that. An experience may be in common, but every perception of it is unique — filtered through individual knowledge, emotional makeup, bias. You can never get inside somebody else's head.

The art
Nora's art, previously relegated to the spare bedroom of her apartment, attended to on evenings and weekends, is upgraded to a studio, shared with her new friend Sirena. It strikes me that their art is almost exactly opposite.

Sirena creates installations, "lush gardens and jungles made out of household items and refuse," and videos of people experiencing the installations, of "this revelation that the beautiful world was fake, was made of garbage." Sirena's work requires wild abandon. She is fashioning Wonderland.

Nora envisions a series of dioramas, tiny replicas, of Emily Dickinson's Amherst bedroom, Virginia Woolf at Rodmell, the sanatorium suicide ward of Alice Neel, Edie Sedgwick's room in Warhol's Factory. Dollhouses. They require painstaking detail. Yet despite the gloom of these personalities, Nora insists that Joy has a place in their rooms. For example, for Alice Neel, Nora wanted the colors of the future, "in the interstices, outside the windows, high up the walls, like shoots coming up through the earth, the promise of spring."

Of course, Sirena's work has critical and popular acclaim, while Nora's is unseen, unknown, small. And which of these artistic attitudes is the prevailing outlook out in the world?

Possibly Sirena's vision has been corrupted by the business of art. Possibly Nora's art is purer.

You know those moments, at school or college, when suddenly the cosmos seems like one vast plan after all, patterned in such a way that the novel you're reading at bedtime connects to your astronomy lecture, connects to what you heard on NPR, connects to what your friend discusses in the cafeteria at lunch — and then briefly it's as if the lid has come off the world, as if the world were a dollhouse, and you can glimpse what it would be like to see it whole, from above — a vertiginous magnificence. And then the lid falls and you fall and the reign of the ordinary resumes.

This novel's like that.

Lucy Jordan
Messud weaves the theme of the Ballad of Lucy Jordan throughout the novel. Nora associates Lucy Jordan with her mother, with what she knows of her mother, with the person she believed her mother to be. And clearly Nora is experiencing her own Lucy Jordan moment. "At the age of thirty-seven, she realized..."

We're left to wonder about the tragedy of never having gone to Paris, versus the tragedy of having gone to Paris. But I like to believe there is still Joy in the room.

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