Sunday, May 12, 2013

We're all furies: The amazing first fifteen pages of Claire Messud'sThe Woman Upstairs

Fifteen pages into Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs, and wow — I am thoroughly wowed. I love this narrator, this angry woman, forty-two years old ("which is a lot more like middle age than forty or even forty-one"), single and childless, a grade-school art teacher. She's angry, on fire, and real.

I haven't read Claire Messud before, but I've been meaning to for years, and I had my on this book for months before it was released. I don't go looking for review copies much anymore, as I still seem to get far more than I can reasonably cope with, but when I read the Publishers Weekly interview with Claire Messud, I needed to get my hands on a copy as quickly as possible, so I asked the publisher.

The relevant, goat-getting bit of the interview:

I wouldn't want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? [...] If you’re reading to find friends, you're in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn't "is this a potential friend for me?" but "is this character alive?"

The fury of being a woman
What strikes me from the opening pages of the novel is that Nora is genuine. Messud gets her, maybe she is her, certainly she knows women like her. It's like Messud has peered inside my head and extracted bits from the dark corners. I mean dark.

The voice, the character, is shaping up to be uncomfortably honest. In this sense, she reminds me a little of Lionel Shriver's Eva Khatchadourian (We Need to Talk About Kevin), admitting to thoughts and feelings that women aren't supposed to have.

It was supposed to say "Great Artist" on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say "such a good teacher/daughter/friend" instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave, too, is FUCK YOU ALL.

Don't all women feel the same? The only difference is how much we know we feel it, how in touch we are with our fury. We're all furies, except the ones who are too damned foolish, and my worry now is that we're brainwashing them from the cradle, and in the end even the ones who are smart will be too damned foolish.

The failure of vision
There's this bit about failure, which was truly eye-opening for me. Nora feels like she's failed, and so do I, in the sense that our current situation is measured against some once-imagined situation. Or rather, against several possible variations of a vision. Too many possibilities. Too much imagination.

She (Nora, or Messud) contrasts this with the type of success men are particularly good at.

Such a strength has, in its youthful vision, no dogs or gardens or picnics, no children, no sky: is is focused only on one thing, whether it's on money, or on power, or on a paintbrush and a canvas. It's a failure of vision, in fact, anyone with half a brain can see that. It's myopia. But that's what it takes. You need to see everything else — everyone else — as expendable, as less than yourself.

As if to say, my visions, my ambitions, have too many superfluous details. I must learn to pare them down to their essence.

The standards to which we hold our friends versus our fictions
An article in the Atlantic, Do Readers Judge Female Characters More Harshly Than Male Characters?, inspired in part by question put to Messud in the above-noted interview, quotes an essay by Emily St. John Mandel on unlikeable characters:

The point is that these characters aren't real, even the ones wrought by a master like Updike. What is naïve and blinkered is the insistence that fictional characters be held to the same moral and behavioral standards we expect of our friends. It seems to me that part of the point of literature is to enlighten and expand, and there are few pleasures in fiction that expand our consciousness further than getting to observe the world from the perspective of characters so different from us, so thoroughly flawed, that if we were to encounter them in real life we wouldn't like them very much.

I disagree. On several points.

  • Of course fictional characters aren't actually real, but they are, most of them. They reflect some reality out there in the real world. If they didn't, we would dismiss all reading as purely escapist.
  • The problem is that we do not hold our friends to the same moral and behavioral standards by which we pass judgment on fictional characters. For two reasons:
    1. We lack the moral rectitude to actually call our friends out on their shortcomings. It wouldn't be polite, they might not like us anymore. We are far more willing to forgive real people than fictional characters, not because we are compassionate creatures but because we are morally lazy. On the other hand, it's really easy to judge a book.
    2. We don't know our friends nearly as well as we know fictional characters. Friends share with you only what they want to share. But when you live inside someone's head for a week or two, you discover all sorts of things about them, even unpalatable things they might rather wish the author had never divulged to us. With fictional characters we often have more information, more background, more insight — more evidence by which to condemn them.

Nora Eldridge is alive, and more real than some of my friends sometimes appear to be! The first 15 pages of this novel are fantastic! I'll let you know how the rest of it holds up.


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