Saturday, June 29, 2013

To fly, to dream,...or to stop dreaming? (Books - The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud)

Nora Eldridge, the narrator of Claire Messud's new novel The Woman Upstairs (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), is a school teacher and a dutiful daughter caring for an infirm parent.  She is 42,
...which is a lot more like middle age than forty or even forty-one.  Neither old nor young, I'm neither fat nor thin, tall nor short, blond nor brunette, neither pretty nor plain.  Quite nice looking in some moments, I think is the consensus, rather like the heroines of Harlequin romances, read in quantity in my youth.  I'm neither married nor divorced, but single.  What they used to call a spinster, but don't anymore, because it implies that you're dried up, and none of us wants to be that. 
Nora sits in between the roles fashioned for her by others, templates she's very dependent on (as are many of us), and the role she imagines for herself in some foggy, unspecific view of the future - a future in which she will gain courage and take over herself, a future, in which she will make great art and light the world on fire - well, that, or just accept that she's not the type, that she's just an average Jane, and to like it.
All these years, I was wrong, you see.  Most people around me, too.  And especially now that I've learned that I really am invisible, I need to stop wanting to fly.  I want to stop needing to fly.  I want it all to do over again; but also I don't.  I want to make my nothingness count.  Don't think it's impossible.
The trouble is that Nora needs others to tell her who she is.  She is not willing to reject their formulas, and that makes her angry as hell.  She's believed all this time that she's been mildly disappointed, but it takes meeting the Shahid family, particularly Sirena - a visual artist - someone seemingly free of these demands, to find out she's actually furious.

What I found so wonderful about this shout of a novel is the way it lays bare the duality of human nature through its narrator and protagonist: Nora and Sirena.  Nora is a tight, a New Englander, and Sirena a free-spirited Italian married to a Lebanese.  Nora is a single, a school teacher, Sirena a mother with a unwieldy family life.  Nora a pragmatist, who takes obligation seriously, a ruminator.  Sirena passionate, serving her own needs, alive in the present.  They end up sharing studio space and while Serena makes a sprawling, mythic construction that uses Alice in Wonderland as a jumping-off point.  Her audience can walk through this work.  It features a heart at is center, pumping rose water instead of blood - a playground of the sensual with smells, sounds - one where its heart is literally visible and the interaction between audience and art becomes a kind of improvisation. Nora makes tiny boxes - realistic depictions of great artists - who made art despite the roles their time prescribed for them - Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Alice Neel - but her audience stands outside and looks in - just like Nora.  


It is not a stretch to imagine that these characters together are an evocation of Claire Messud herself - half American, half French-Algerian, public artist and private person - a mother, a daughter who herself recently cared for an aged parent, someone disgusted with the role that women have been dealt in an art form dominated by men (read her piece in Guernica here).  This sort of lightly veiled autobiography can be boringly self referential, but The Woman Upstairs is not.  Its characters have their own integrity and its plot an inevitability.  They don't explain, they surprise and they flower - their totality expressing a point of view.  The writing also ocassionally displayed the limitations of its subjects.  In a few cases it is bound by the actual, as Nora is.
Remember this season.  This dinner, this day, the signing of the lease, took place on the Saturday before the presidential election: John Kerry versus Dubya, in Dubya's Round Two.
or
 "My OCD gets in the way."

"So put your OCD to work for you..."
This sort of micro-specific reference in the lingo of the day could date the book in a few years.  It seems a divergence that may leave it just shy of the larger resonance it could have.  But its impact is felt in the reference to great archetypes which it evokes, in the identification that a reader with unfulfilled versions of themself will feel (that would be almost everyone), in the well-earned climax which Messud constructs, and especially in the driving engine of this narrative - a consuming rage.

1 comment:

James Chester said...

I like the distinctions you draw between the two types of art and what they reveal about the characters in the novel.

But I have to say that as someone who has seen a lot of installation art, the Alice in Wonderland project sounds really trite to me. I think I would be like the boys who see the project in the novel, quickly bored by it all. The river of blue dresses... really? I think the boxes are the much more interesting project. Someone should make life size versions of them.