Beyond the patricide and even the incest, the horror of the Oedipus myth lies in its insistence that our fates are not ours to change. And yet the story itself is far from unalterable, having been handed down in multiple variants — something that Natalie Haynes knows very well as a classics scholar. Now Haynes has written her own version of the tragedy, finding new space in the narrative by looking at it through the eyes of two characters neglected by antiquity: Oedipus’s mother/bride Jocasta and their youngest daughter Ismene.
The narrator of Hanif Kureishi’s short novel is feeling his age. “One night, when I am old, sick, right out of semen, and don’t need things to get any worse, I hear the noises again,” says Waldo, in an arresting first sentence. Our man is a film-maker, though these days feature-length pictures are beyond him and he sticks to making shorts. In fact, a lot of things are beyond him: “almost paralysed and dead”, he can no longer get about on his own, and he hasn’t had sex with his ravishing and 22-years-younger wife Zenab (or indeed with anyone else) for some years.
But his creativity has not wholly deserted him, and nor has his libido. From his bedroom, he eavesdrops on Zenab (Zee for short) and their dubious friend Eddie, a film industry hanger-on supposedly working on a retrospective of Waldo’s work. And from what he hears, Waldo crafts a narrative of adultery. “Working with sound and my imagination, I envisage the angles and cuts, making the only substantial movies I can manage these days, mind movies.” Like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, his fixed perspective and total boredom allow paranoia and fantasy to thrive; but is it possible that, like Stewart in Hitchcock’s movie, his invention has cracked the case open?
Some opening lines are so good, you worry that what comes after will disappoint. This is how The Possessions starts: “The first time I meet Patrick Braddock, I’m wearing his wife’s lipstick.” It’s a perfect mystery in miniature. Who is Patrick? Who is speaking? Why is she wearing another woman’s lipstick? Is it all as sleazy as it sounds? The answer to that last question is yes, but not in the way you’d expect, as Sara Flannery Murphy unspools a creepingly clever ghost story that encompasses thriller, horror and literary fiction with seductive swagger.
Our narrator is Edie, short for Eurydice. She is an employee of the Elysian Society, which is a kind of bordello for mediums. The Possessions’ universe is, fundamentally, our universe, with one tweak: the spirits of the dead persist and can be channelled, with the help of a pill called “lotus”. The class of professionals who do this work are referred to as “bodies”, and all of them seem to be on the run from their own identities, lending their physical selves to roaming souls at least in part for the temporary relief of vacancy.
A Line Made By Walking is a sophomore novel that feels in one (but only one) way like a debut. Where 2015’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither was remarkable for the quality of Sara Baume’s sympathy with characters unlike herself – a damaged man, a wounded dog, both of them old-ish – the protagonist of Line is closer to the autofictional kind that many writers start with.
Frankie is Baume-like in age, sex and background: mid-twenties, female, and returned to the Irish countryside where she grew up after a student hiatus in Dublin. She is also, like Baume, an artist and struggling with it. In one scene that is a close parallel of a story Baume has told about herself, she has lunch with some old schoolfriends; the friends discuss their starter salaries and the lifestyles they expect to purchase, as Frankie stares into her “bowlful of unusual lettuces” and realises how little she has in common with them. For Frankie, the idea of a salary has never occurred. She is, simply, devoted to art.
First published New Statesman, 24 February-2 March 2017, under the headline “The art of suffering”
The coming-of-age novel can be almost as painful as actually coming of age. It’s a genre that demands a tricky combination of narrative knowingness and character naivety, while recruiting the reader’s sympathies for one of God’s least sympathetic creations: the teenager. Even so, many novelists choose it for their debut, and last year offered two examples that exemplified both the successes and frustrations of the form. Emma Cline’s The Girls was a woozy hormonal fug that found the horror in the thrill of growing up; Tiffany McDaniels’ The Summer that Melted Everything smothered its story’s gothic potential in stentorian hindsight.
Emily Fridlund’s debut falls between the two. Teenage narrator Linda gets called “commie” and “freak” by her schoolmates, and it’s small wonder that she doesn’t fit in when her background has precision-tooled her for oddness. Raised by parents who are the last vestiges of a failed cult, she lives a semi-wilderness life in a cabin at the edge of a lake, on the fringe of a northern Minnesota forest. Uncomfortable in the world, she spreads discomfort about her: “I was flat-chested, plain as a bannister. I made people feel judged.”
Michelle Tea’s memoir Valencia, published in 2000, won the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Fiction. Reading Black Wave, you can understand the confusion: Tea’s work sits on a raw fault line between the real and the made-up. This new novel is about a San Franciscan lesbian (like Tea) who is an incomer from Chelsea, Massachusetts (like Tea). Called Michelle (like Tea), she is a writer of autobiographical volumes who worries about the ethics of autobiography (like Tea) and works dead-end jobs between getting laid and getting high in the scuzzy Mission District (like Tea).
In her introduction to the reprint of Valencia, Tea called that book “a bug trapped in emotional amber”. Is Black Wave just gummed up in the same moment? No, it isn’t. For one thing, that time and place are due for revisiting. San Francisco in the late 1990s was once a backdrop to Tea’s personal life. Now, it’s a synecdoche for the economic, social and cultural transformation of most of the world. The future hangs over Black Wave like exactly that – a black wave.
First published New Statesman, 10-16 February 2017, p. 53, under the headline “Goddess of the underworld”
Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, was a writer at a time when being a writer was unusual enough, let alone being a woman as well. Before Daniel Defoe, before Aphra Behn, Cavendish wrote – voluminously, uncategorisably, turning out works of science, philosophy and fantastical fiction. She was nicknamed “Mad Madge” for both her eccentric outfits and her gender-flouting insistence on recognition. Margaret’s untutored invention has embarrassed even ostensibly sympathetic readers: Virginia Woolf, in one of her swipes of matricidal waspishness, likened her to “some giant cucumber [that] had spread itself over all the roses and carnations in the garden and choked them to death”.
Yet strangeness suited the duchess’s purposes, in a world where “normal” com-passed a very small realm for women. “Art itself is, for the most part, irregular,” she wrote, and these words become the epigraph to Danielle Dutton’s fictionalised account of Margaret’s life. For Woolf, she had the profile of a mortifying aunt, honoured out of obligation but held at a remove for fear that her oddity might point to some congenital disarray in the “female author” as a type. Dutton’s sympathy and love, however, are offered more uncomplicatedly in this luminous historical novel.