LET'S BEGIN AT THE END. An eighty-year-old man is visited by his daughter. This man is a retired university professor, a literary critic of some renown with seven out-of-print novels to his name. Recently he has been suffering from a mysterious brain ailment, one that leaves him locked up in his own mind. The doctors have diagnosed him with Creutzfeldt-Jackob disease; they will be proven wrong, but this isn't the point. The point is the man, whose vocation was predicated on the unusual agility of his mind, is now tripped up by the tiniest parts of speech. He stares into space. Occasionally, non sequiturs fall, like bits of food, out of his mouth. And when his daughter visits, she knows that he is beyond repair. Dad, she says, do you recognize me? Do you know who I am? He looks at her. Focused and in this fixed gaze he utters three distinct words, in all likelihood the last three he will ever say: You. Are. Invented.
Austin Wright's final novel, Tony and Susan, was first published in 1993. Despite good reviews and generous praise from Saul Bellow (he called it "marvelously written"), the book made barely a ripple. Seventeen years later there were similar undulations across the pond after it was reissued by Atlantic Books and then again, this past July, when it arrived in North America. The novel's second life would have held wry appeal for Wright, whose characters obsessed over their personal narratives and the endless need to rewrite their own personal histories. Alas, the man did not have the opportunity to appreciate it. He died in 2003.
Susan Morrow, co-eponym of Tony and Susan, leads a life stuffed with all the expected middle-class comforts: three kids, two pets, and a successful cardiac surgeon-husband. Arnold, in fact, is on the cusp of a major career advancement; he's out of town for a three-day conference at which he will interview for a prestigious new position that would require the family to move from Chicago to Washington. Susan teaches English part-time at a community college. Her days are spent cooking and cleaning, taking care of the kids. She is an avid reader, who finds the act of reading "takes her mind off herself." It is this habit, in part, that persuades her former husband, Edward Sheffield, to mail her the manuscript of his unpublished novel. They haven't seen each other in over 20 years, yet something lingering and intense lurks beneath the apparent casualness of his note: she was always his best critic. He signs it, Your old Edward still remembering. The book's title is portentous: Nocturnal Animals. Certainly midnight emotion remain long after any failed relationship; theirs is further complicated by one of the chief causes of that failure: his desire to write. During their marriage, Susan supported Edward while he worked on his overly-mannered prose. He was occasionally absent in person and often emotionally so; even when Susan admitted an affair to Edward, he was oddly, formally passive. Only now, Susan suspects Edward may be "unloading his brain, the bomb in him."