The Known Unknown
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The Unwitting
author: Ellen Feldman
publisher: Spiegel and Grau
pub date: 05.08.2014
pp: 305
tags: Fiction

Kelly Cherry on The Unwitting

The Known Unknown

May 6th, 2014 reset - +

THIS BOOK is listed as women’s fiction in its publisher’s catalog and on Amazon.com and BN.com. It is true that the narrator, Cornelia Benjamin, a.k.a. Nell, Red, and Slim, is female, married, and a mother, but it would be a shame if male readers ignored The Unwitting or devalued it because it was labeled as domestic fiction. Nell’s political idealism and activism and her work as a journalist bring her close to the major events of the 20th century. Civil Rights; the Cold War; dissidents and spies in the USSR; the McCarthy hearings and HUAC; JFK’s assassination; the CIA’s warrantless and useless meddling with American freedoms (think of the fabulous cultural magazine Encounter, begun in the 1950s by the English poet Stephen Spender and conservative journalist Irving Kristol, secretly funded by the CIA to support the anti-Stalinist left, or The Paris Review, funded by the CIA without George Plimpton’s knowledge), not to mention its shenanigans in Guatemala — there is not much that Nell doesn’t get to see, even if it takes her a while to see it all. Because there is a mystery she has to solve: who was her husband, Charlie? She thought she knew but discovers she didn’t.

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The first notable thing about this book is the narrator’s voice: it is snappish, confident, argumentative, literate. I fell for it from the beginning, despite one early instance of a cliché (“shaft of sunlight”). I don’t know how that cliché got in here; elsewhere, Feldman produces beautiful turns of phrase:

The floor of the lobby was a swamp of black water, and the squeak of my galoshes as I crossed it sounded as mournful as a child crying.

It was a bright March afternoon, and the wind was knocking the clouds around like bowling pins.

I felt fear spread its raptor wings in my chest.

[…] a Wedgwood blue sky.

She describes Roy Cohn, Joe McCarthy’s chief counsel, “with his smudged heavy-lidded eyes and pouty mouth,” as “a sullen mean-spirited boy, the kind who ends up on the front page of a tabloid for murdering his parents and setting fire to the house to destroy the evidence.”

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Nell meets Charlie after she has had her first sexual experiences with Woody Jordan, a black man. She worries that she may be pregnant. Worries, because Woody is not about to marry her. But she is not pregnant, and soon she falls in love with Charlie, who goes on to become a magazine editor. Nell herself snags an assignment to accompany the Porgy and Bess traveling company on its tour of the Soviet Union. In Leningrad she stays at the Astoria and tries to figure out where the bugs are. (When I was there, I decided they were in the telephone.) She meets the distinguished authors Elizabeth Hardwick and Mary McCarthy at a party in philosopher Sidney Hook’s hotel suite. I was often envious of the fictional Nell. Living her life as I turned pages, I was revisiting a world I had dreamed about and wanted to be a part of.

Be careful what you wish for, people say.

As Nell begins to learn the truth behind Compass, the journal her husband edits and for which she frequently writes, she questions his loyalty to their shared political beliefs. Charlie’s boss, Elliot McClellan, handsome and enigmatic; Sonia, a voluptuous and smart secretary to whom men are uniformly attracted; Frank Tucker, an asinine sexist but heroic reporter; and Abby, Nell’s daughter, are among the other characters.

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Alcohol and sex were primary movers in the higher echelons of culture in New York in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. It would have been a tamer, more sensible world without their influence, but even when things were quieter, what women had to put up with from men was fairly horrible. Fear of pregnancy, patronizing bosses, the assumption that a woman could never be as cagey, tough, or accomplished as a man. Frank Tucker inserts his dick into Nell’s mouth while she’s sleeping. Yet he is an honest journalist with convictions! How does he reconcile his crassness with his ideals? (Humans. They’re so damn human.) Nell manages to be happy with Charlie, but they have fights and disagreements, and more often than not she is the one at home. Feldman shows the good and the bad in Nell and Charlie’s marriage, and eventually we learn that Charlie has kept significant secrets from his wife. Lies are corrosive; they eat into the tissue that ties a family together. When Nell learns that Charlie was, in essence, working for the CIA, she has to ask herself who she was. She thought she knew, but discovers she didn’t. “How had we loved each other so much and understood each other so little?” she asks. We like to think that marriage is an institution that grants couples the right to trust each other, but time and circumstance can abrade that trust to a dangerous thinness.

The Unwitting is vibrant, sassy, informative, a page-turner, absorbing, and swift. I am a woman, so maybe it is a women’s book, but I seriously doubt it, and hope that male readers will give it a shot. Surely they too will appreciate the research that went into it. Surely they too will be fascinated by its bold and thorough review of the American 20th century.

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Kelly Cherry's new book, a collection of interlinked stories titled A Kind of Dream, is now available at Amazon.com

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