DECEMBER 3, 2011
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 It is this habit, in part, that persuades her former husband, Edward Sheffield, to mail her the manuscript of his unpublished novel.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.”
Nocturnal Animals opens with mild-mannered mathematics professor Tony Hastings, his wife Laura, and their daughter Helen driving from their Ohio home to their summer cottage in Maine. Because he feels like a “cowboy” on vacation, Tony agrees to his daughter’s suggestion that they drive all night. He knows he’ll feel lousy after a sleepless night, but he doesn’t know the half of it. Somewhere in the darkness of rural Pennsylvania, the Hastings get stuck behind another car. They are not allowed to pass. The other car purposely blocks their way. Tony, in a sudden moment of bravado, refuses to yield. There is a collision, a flat tire, and when Tony gets out to confront the three men from the other car, the cowboy in him is long gone. Tony’s essential civility is no match for their rough joking manner, nor their more obvious physicality. The vague threat of violence looms, and when the men make fateful decisions, Tony’s passivity makes him almost culpable. He is separated from his wife and daughter, then driven off and dumped somewhere in the Pennsylvania night. The next three chapters of Nocturnal Animals are inevitable, irrevocable. Tony is benumbed, almost oblivious to the horror he will soon face. Not so Susan Morrow, who races through her ex-husband’s manuscript and awaits “the horrible discovery her spirit deplores, awaits it avidly.” She reads on while Tony, too late, gets hold of the police. The bodies of his wife and daughter are discovered. They have been raped and murdered.
Susan, who saw this plot development coming, is still shocked. She is aware of simple narrative power, even knows that she would have been disappointed if these two fictional women had not died. Poor Tony, she thinks:
How much her pleasure depends on his distress. She has a notion that the pain the scene uncovers, incarnated in Tony, is really her own, which is alarming. Her own designated pain, old or new, past or future, she can’t tell which. It’s obscure because she knows that unlike Tony’s her pain is not here but somewhere else, and its absence, made so vivid, is what makes the moment thrilling.
Austin Wright was a professor of English at the University of Cincinnati for 23 years. His interest in the mechanics of narrative comes as no surprise. His pulpier tastes, perhaps superficially surprising, turn out to be equally apt. Wright may have been, in the words of his daughter Katharine, a “sweet and shy” man, but he was boldly provocative on the page. His curiosity about abstract relationships — character and narrator, reader and writer — encouraged a particularly savage alchemy. This is most evident in an earlier work, First Persons (Harper & Row, 1973). The novel opens with another gentle-seeming professor, Ralph Burr, walking through a Cincinnati park on his way to work. He crosses paths with an old woman and commits a shockingly evil act. He bashes her head in with a rock. Burr then tries to continue an otherwise normal day. He keeps his regular office hours, tries to lecture a class but is forced to cancel. He needs time to think: “It does not square, he realizes, it cannot be reconciled by any means whatever with what you have always purported to be.” Without warning, this gentle professor has been cleaved from the habitual comforts of the self. He is now something more mysterious, more cruel. He is a character in a novel. Confusion sets in. The murderous event is replayed, each time with alterations, until the novel itself starts to splinter in ways both arch and playful. Burr bounces ideas off of the narrator. The narrator decides a full confession would make a better story and the police, who categorize the killing as an “intellectual murder,” soon suspect Burr because he was the “only intellectual near the scene of the crime.” Under such tremendous strain, Burr suffers a heart attack and during his recuperation he can do little more than ponder his fractured persona. With his young lover by his bedside, he tries to puzzle out what is missing:
[He began] looking for things whose loss could only be felt, or not even felt but only dimly intuited or guessed at, and he began to worry about his mind itself, about his capacity still to build a complete world on the struts of his consciousness, and later in the afternoon, when Natalie Fleet came back once again, he said: “I wonder if I have suffered brain damage.”
Clearly, Wright enjoyed turning biography inside out. The men he created — Ralph Burr, Tony Hastings — were simple extensions of himself and they were forced by terrible, artificial circumstances to perform completely out of character. The Wright men, as it were, in the wrong place.
So we find ourselves in Tony and Susan reading Wright’s story of Susan reading her ex-husband’s story of Tony. Wright has moved beyond the bumpier formalities of his earlier work and capped his career with a smooth dialectical dance. Both the novel and the novel-within-the-novel are real page-turners. Out of the long list of writers — Roth, Seidel — who aggressively turn their actual person into literary personae, Wright was one of the few who explored how this affected the reader. Wright understood, as Barthes did, the passive and active aspects of reading. When Susan Morrow dips back into Nocturnal Animals, she is, like Tony, a passive reader, caught in the machinations of plot. This is an engaging passivity to be sure, but little by little her consciousness works to liberate itself. Before reading another word, she actively contrasts herself with Tony: “Comparing his case to hers, what kind of novel would Susan’s troubles make?” Her troubles —Arnold’s past and possibly current infidelities, the limitations imposed by her own life choices — are largely niggling insecurities compared to Tony’s life-and-death situation. Of course, her problems are real. Or are they? She recognizes that her mind may have made these “messy and minor” doubts more outsized, more actual than they truly are. She almost wishes a starker storyline for herself, the one that Edward has invented, the one that she readily imagines. Her role has become interchangeable. She is both reader and writer of the text.
The next chapters in Tony’s life are not unexpected. Grief, anger, and incredulity invade his attempts to re-establish normalcy. Even as he returns to the University, attends faculty socials and mulls over the attentions of a pretty graduate student, Susan seems certain he will be drawn back to the scene of the crime. And when it happens — Tony twice returns to Pennsylvania to make positive identifications of the killers, the second time sticking around so he and a rogue cop can close in — Susan reads, rapt. Dramatic tension keeps her turning the pages but there is something else she cannot shake, a creeping threat. She realizes she mistrusts Edward’s book. Her experienced critical eye cannot overlook the fact that anybody’s sentences — Edward’s, hers — often go too far for the sake of clarity; they can be artificially pared down and leave out clumsier truths. She knows how entire novels can lie, how even the “unpublished writing in her soul” — her memory — is transformed into text, becoming a narrative that is tidy and safe. Edward’s book, his authorial presence, now has her revising this text. She has no choice but to revisit memories that no longer seem so secure.
While Nocturnal Animals leads Tony to a necessary and violent conclusion, so too does Susan come to some violent conclusions of her own. For someone who has always relied on reading to take her mind off of herself, she now cannot hide from certain brutal realizations. She is aware of the times she shrunk from her life’s harder choices, recollecting her own squirming passivity, which, like Tony’s, has come during crucial moments in her life. This is the new “frightening reality planted in her mind.” This is the dagger of self-doubt. Her old Edward has taken the most subtle form of revenge. Susan sits alone and realizes that her “orthodox narrative is totally dead.”
Again, the ending: You. Are. Invented. Down to his final days, his physical self decimated, Austin Wright found himself in the familiar refuge of his mind. He was a man well aware of the daily fictions we all create, the random thoughts and snippets of experience that are organized into a coherent life. Whatever remained of the writer in him — his curious, playful consciousness — forever inverted the actual and the imagined. Everything outside his skull had become part of the plot. His most compelling fiction was also his last.