‘In the middle of the journey of this life, I found myself in a dark forest, where the straight way was lost.’ The theme of mid-life crisis has inspired a number of great novels – Little Dorrit, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and perhaps Ulysses – although the majority of fictional heroes and heroines are conspicuously youthful. Traditionally, as the novelists themselves grew older, they continued to write about the young. In the later 20th century, it seems, this is no longer the case. Perhaps it is because the novel is becoming more uninhibitedly autobiographical that there is a thinning-out of conventional stories about the spiritual and material hungers of adolescence. The serious novel today is more likely to centre on a mid-life crisis than on the young man up from the provinces, or the young woman affronting her destiny.
Both Susan Fromberg Schaeffer and Maureen Howard are established novelists in mid-career, and so are the heroines of their latest novels. The protagonist of Mainland, one of the three novels by Schaeffer currently available in the UK under the Pavanne imprint (the others are Anya and The Madness of a Seduced Woman), is introduced as ‘a famous author, a novelist, an essayist and a poet, [who] has won many library prizes, and is professor of English at a major university in Brooklyn’. She has a husband and two children, and has lived in New York since completing her PhD at the University of Chicago. Iris Otway, the heroine of The Injured Party, has (with the exception of the ‘major university in Brooklyn’) the same curriculum vitae as her predecessor, and so has Susan Schaeffer.
Iris Otway, like Eleanor in Mainland, is in her mid-forties and has been suddenly struck down by a mysterious disease. The same is true of Margaret Flood, the heroine of Maureen Howard’s Expensive Habits. Both Iris and Margaret (or, as American thesis-style would have it, both Otway and Flood) manage to surmount their mid-life illnesses. They do so by re-establishing contact with a first husband or first lover, with whom they have, so to speak, unfinished business to settle. In the end, they go back to conventional family life, sadder and wiser perhaps, but presumably geared up to write their next novels.
Susan Fromberg Schaeffer is nothing if not an ingenuous writer. Her best-selling feminist saga The Madness of a Seduced Woman was the story of a crime passionel in 19th-century Vermont, told with such freshness and attention to detail that you might have thought that nothing like its events and emotions had ever been described before. Maureen Howard, intelligently but also maddeningly, seems to have no such sense of standing alone in the world. The restless, self-conscious, capricious style of Expensive Habits suggests that she cannot always believe either in her story or in her mission to tell it. Her subtly entertaining and thought-provoking novel deals, like The Injured Party, with such matters as parent-children relationships, the meaning of death, and how to cope with one’s former lover. The difference is that Maureen Howard has no obvious message to deliver about these things.
Iris Otway’s mysterious disease is psychosomatic in origin. With a temperature that climbs to fever pitch every day during the hours she is accustomed to spend at her desk – but only during these hours – she is suffering from a peculiarly effective form of writer’s block. Once she is moved into a hospital ward, the ‘membrane’ or stimulus barrier separating her from the realities of pain and death is no longer intact. She is traumatised by the experience of living in a ‘country where everyone is dying or about to die’. When she is discharged and sent home, she takes to her bed and refuses to speak. Only the arrival of John, her ex-lover, who is himself dying from a degenerative disease, can rouse her from this trance.
Getting ill in one’s forties, for Schaeffer, is a form of memento mori. In the hospital, Iris ‘was forced to ask herself what meaning her life had, and if it was to end, as everyone’s around her was ending, in isolation, in dizziness, in pain, surrounded by people randomly but effectively cruel, in the slow failing of the senses’. Such a question could hardly have been asked in the 19th-century novel, the novel of action and reaction, of love and betrayal. Even in fictions like Madame Bovary with gruesome and clinically detailed death-scenes, such deaths represent the unique and tragic outcome of an individual life. They are not instances of passive, impersonal suffering. But, having asked such a disturbing question, The Injured Party goes on to answer it in familiar and recognisable terms. Traditionally you could either opt for a religious and romantic idealism transcending death and the facts of biology, or for a stoical turning away from these facts. Schaeffer hedges her bets by means of a dual plot stressing both transcendence and endurance. John dies and is then laid to rest with due observance of a series of rituals which affirm the possibility of spiritual survival; meanwhile Iris, by the mere fact of carrying out these rituals, finds herself healed.
The cure begins when John arrives, unannounced and with suitcase in hand, on the doorstep of the happily married woman whom he has not seen for twenty years. Only the stories she has been writing – stories about two people lost in a forest – provide a clue to her continuing obsession with him. He asks to be taken into her house, to die there in dignity, and of course she cannot refuse. During his last months John, who has never been known to write before, emerges as a poet with creative gifts linked, in some occult way, to Iris’s own. After his death she leaves her family, at his request, to travel across the Atlantic to Cornwall in order to scatter his ashes.
The last section describing Iris’s pilgrimage to Cornwall illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of Schaeffer’s approach. The emotional momentum of the story justifies Iris’s passionate response to the Cornish landscape with its windswept solitude, its granite cliffs and deserted coves. Here, she feels, is a ‘crossing-over point’, a sacred place where she can take leave of what has been haunting her. When she goes swimming in the cove where she intends to scatter John’s ashes, she has a mystical experience confirming what she has earlier sensed in fictions and dreams, and offering some reassurance about immortality. One would not wish to quarrel with the romanticism of all this if it were not mixed in with scenes worthy of a TV commercial for West Country holiday cottages or for the Cornish pasty industry. The quotation from the Inferno with which this review began is echoed by one of Susan Fromberg Schaeffer’s characters. She has produced a touching myth of emotional foundering and regeneration but it can also be said that it is like being taken through hell and purgatory only to wind up in a Cornish pasty-eating paradise.
Maureen Howard is not a conviction novelist like Schaeffer. She writes in an ironic, not a mythic mode and is evidently wary of the pratfalls that can accompany grand emotional gestures. On the last page of Expensive Habits we are offered, not a peroration, but the heroine falling into a deep pit caused by her husband’s excavations in their back garden. Since she began the book with a dangerous heart condition (later successfully operated on), both she, and we, assume that her fall into the pit means curtains at last. Not so. ‘It is the end, the final take,’ Howard writes. ‘She is through and so forth – Margaret with no words, little drama. Until, using her wits, she hugs the stone. It will not roll back on her. Watch as she hoists herself out of the abyss, crawls over the perfect lawn toward the light.’ All that she has done, in this close encounter with the grave, is to have broken a leg. Margaret Flood is a survivor, an improviser, something of a clown.
Perhaps our first impression of Expensive Habits is of the author’s expensive habit with words. About Margaret’s heart condition, for example: ‘Always special, often improbable, Margaret’s disease is fitting in that it is unusual for a woman of her age, off the charts.’ These floating, bobbing phrases are perhaps meant to convey the heroine’s jumpy state of mind, her rackety pulse: but the device does not really come off. Howard’s gift of mimicry, which turns much of the narrative into something close to interior monologue, is far more successful when it is deflected away from her central character.
This is a novel of textual fragments, brief scenes, and abrupt switches of narrative point of view. Its centres of consciousness include Margaret’s first husband Jack – now a heart surgeon – her son Bayard, and Lourdes, her resourceful Hispanic maid. There are walk-on narratorial roles for Manny, Lourdes’s sinister son, and for the teenage wife of a Hollywood film director. Two domineering old ladies, the sole survivors of the American Communist Party intelligentsia, are tracked to their lairs in Manhattan and Brooklyn. A more prominent though decidedly enigmatic character is Margaret’s current husband, the ex-1960s radical Pinkham Strong. Pinky, who has resurfaced after his brief moment of glory to become a second-hand clothes dealer, is to some extent an ironic comment on the other figures. His Greenwich Village store is called Golden Oldies, and it is he who digs the pit that Margaret will eventually fall into. When interrupted by heart disease, Margaret has been trying to write a novel about the McCarthy years – but her life is too fragmented, and her heart isn’t in it. Like Iris Otway, she is suffering from writer’s block. Her answer is to write in fragments.
The portrayal of the writing process in The Injured Party and Expensive Habits makes a telling contrast. In Schaeffer’s novel both Iris and her former lover are shown as unconscious and automatic writers, scribbling or keyboarding away at the dictation of forces they neither control nor understand. Their words, so to speak, are already processed. We are to understand that they will be published exactly as written. For Margaret Flood, however, fiction is a form of public discourse shaped by the interventions of editors, publishers and movie directors. Because she fell under the sway of her earliest editor, she was quite content to turn a sober fictional account of her grandparents’ lives into lurid soap opera. Iris Otway compares the writer to a kind of thief, furtive, parasitical and hoping to get away undetected. Margaret Flood compares her to a striptease artiste, a vulgar and flamboyant public performer. She lays herself bare, but is never genuinely naked, off-guard. She uses the material of her own life but ‘she is so passionately in pursuit of a story that she does not see to what extent she makes it up.’
The images of the thief and the striptease dancer both suggest an uneasy relationship between Fiction and autobiography. Either the novelist steals from the life and people around her, hoping to remain invisible, or she lives by putting herself on show – but at the price of becoming the show that she puts on. Neither act is easily sustained, for there is too much internal resistance to overcome. Margaret Flood falters in her career, and comes to think of her stories as ‘trick chronicles’. Perhaps this is why Howard has been at such pains to create a screen of artful diversions and mannered language around her central character. When Margaret’s new publisher dares to suggest that she should throw aside her ‘ramblings’ and write directly out of her most painful experiences, he is quickly and brutally given his comeuppance. Once she would have done it; now her reputation is something she would rather not have to live with.