Every so often a magazine will publish a graph that proves, beyond any measure of doubt, that Hollywood is sexist, with a particular bias against middle-aged women. I’m not sure for whom this information is intended. Somebody who has never seen a film but likes graphs? Somebody so insulated from the real world that they’ve never strolled past a multiplex and caught a glimpse of a poster in which an older man leans gamely against a young woman; a woman with a sunny disposition, a tan and the general demeanour of someone born into a country where it never rains. These films were ubiquitous in my youth; I can still recall every glint and gleam of Jack Nicholson’s dodgy grin as he frolicked across the beach with – and I wish I had a better descriptor – some young one.
So what happens to an actress over the age of 45? Robbed of the big roles, she drinks, or goes mad, or does both at a great and reckless speed. The fading starlet has her own sub-genre; Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950) is the most recognisable, though I prefer Myrtle Gordon in John Cassavetes’s Opening Night (1977). Myrtle, played by Gena Rowlands, is in the twilight of her career and bent on sabotaging the play for which she’s currently rehearsing. She drinks too much; is haunted by a woman with a striking resemblance to her younger self; criticises the script and forgets her lines. Everyone is obscenely nice to her and she doesn’t care. Finally, she turns up on opening night paralytically drunk and goes bonkers on stage. Her moment of clarity arrives when she sees her arrogant co-star, and former partner, preparing for their closing scene, an explosive two-hander. She becomes marvellously sober and disciplined. ‘I’m going to bury that bastard,’ she announces. This scene reminds me of something I underlined in ‘The Portable Virgin’, an early story of Anne Enright’s: ‘I’m not that old after all. Revenge is not out of the question.’ The title of Enright’s seventh novel could easily be ‘I’m going to bury that bastard.’ Then again, as a title Actress is good, Actress is snappy, slightly abrupt, defiant. Enright has always understood the importance of brevity.
The book opens as Norah FitzMaurice, a student at UCD, celebrates her 21st birthday with a lavish party. There is singing, wild dancing and the heady sexual atmosphere that announces itself at any gathering where people self-identify as bohemian. All of this is presided over by Norah’s mother, the highly strung Katherine O’Dell, beloved Irish actress of stage and screen. Norah remembers her mother’s dress that evening as ill-fitting and embarrassing: ‘narrow bodice’, ‘fold-over white satin boat neck’, ‘lots of bare skin’. The party is full of Katherine’s cronies, minor celebrities with a certain shabby glamour, all harbouring minor grudges. The next morning there is broken glass on the floor, which the maid cleans up uncomplainingly. A series of photographs, compiled by a social diarist, also appear in the Evening Press. In one picture, Katherine stands beside her new dishwasher – the first in the country – an emblem of new Ireland and the modern, uninhibited woman.
Of course, this is a fiction: Ireland in the 1970s was about as miserable and restrictive as it’s possible to imagine, the only real competition being Ireland in the 1980s. Years later, looking again at the photographs of her 21st, Norah realises that nothing that evening was quite as it seemed. Katherine’s dress was in fact ‘a complete classic … maybe Dior’. Norah’s batty old mother, surrounded by her ageing entourage, had managed to outshine her even on her birthday.
In Making Babies, her collection of essays about motherhood, Enright expounded a theory:
All writers have Major Mothers, Serious Mothers, sometimes Demanding Mothers – the kind of women you always know when they are in the room. I test this theory any time I am at a reading or conference, I float it across the dinner table. The last time I did this, one of the writers did not answer. He had started to cry.
Norah becomes a writer. Perhaps more rebelliously, she also grows into a happily married, middle-aged woman. (‘I never underestimate how hard people work at being ordinary,’ Enright writes towards the end of Making Babies.) Her life, assembled from the slow wreckage of her mother’s, is a mundane miracle. One day, Holly Devane, a student writing her thesis on Katherine O’Dell, arrives at Norah’s front door with a perky attitude and very few personal boundaries. It’s Holly who prompts Norah finally to write about her mother, to try to settle the question: ‘What was she like?’ Of course it’s easy to know what she represented – a hoary, idealised version of Ireland; the bog and the land; the emerald isle reflected in her green eyes; a woman enigmatically striding through the fields.
Norah begins to categorise her mother’s crimes: the crime of being sexually promiscuous, or sexually mysterious at any rate; the crime of being attractive, the crime of neediness, the crime of having talent or, worse, the crime of squandering it. Then there’s her greatest crime, which is also her most absurd: shooting a man in the foot. After Holly’s visit, Norah recognises an opportunity to shape her mother’s legacy, the seedy opportunity to become a telltale. She remembers Duggan, a friend of Katherine’s, once asking: ‘Who are you going to kill?’ Norah thinks of herself as a ‘writer-murderer, full of fake power’. She’s not too old for revenge. And revenge is what Actress is about: the ugliness of it, the tedium and, finally, the futility.
Both Norah and Katherine make adversaries out of self-pitying, older men who have a habit of issuing condescending instructions. Katherine’s grudge is straightforward. Her hatred of Boyd, a film producer, stems from the belief that he ruined her career. He once offered her an audition, didn’t send a driver to pick her up, and then didn’t give her the role. (‘He didn’t even send a car’ is a comic refrain throughout the novel.) Katherine’s solution is simple: she shoots him in the foot with a pistol. Afterwards, she is arrested and sent to live out her days in a mental institution.
Norah’s relationship with her opponent is more complex. Niall Duggan is introduced as someone who ‘molested his students and snarled at his students … shafted his colleagues and gave jobs to his friends, many of whom were mediocre’. But he and Norah have a private connection. She is flattered by his attention: ‘I liked our complicity, he made me feel not just smart but better than all the other smart people who were – let’s face it – actually useless. Not like us.’ Impersonating a girl about town – her own small, unhappy performance – Norah sleeps with him. She realises that ‘having sex with Duggan’s body was like having sex with the least interesting aspect of the man, and that, I suppose, was the revenge I had been looking for.’ Norah feels guilt and shame, but the knowledge that Duggan is bad in bed makes her feel she has one over on him, that somehow she has won. Slowly, however, it dawns on her that their wordless negotiation is not finished: she will have to pay for sleeping with him once by sleeping with him again. The second encounter is miserable: his weight on her body; his bachelor’s bedroom; the spine of the books facing her on the bed. Why did she stay for that third pint? Was it out of awkwardness that she helped Duggan take off her underwear, ‘even though [she] was at the time saying no and he was not taking no for an answer?’
I think I said it clearly. The ‘no’, I mean. Not the way they say it in the movies, in a voice muddled by desire. But I also did it the way an Irish girl says it, with a wretched squirm in the word. Sweetly, I said it. Then, I stopped saying anything and I thought, This is happening.
Afterwards, she collects her clothes and lets him walk her to a taxi. She watches his broad smile as he chivalrously, and uncharacteristically, opens the car door, and she knows that he has won. Nobody is going to bury that bastard.
On the face of it, Actress shouldn’t be as powerful a novel as it is. It’s full of clichés: the ingénue actress, the bad man, the older, alcoholic actress dosed up to her eyeballs on lithium, the other bad man. But to reduce this novel to its plot components traduces it – like forcing an object into a container that doesn’t fit. Many novels about actresses seem weary of their subject matter, desperate to prove that their interest in celebrity belongs to the deeper, morally righteous trade of Literature. Enright has no such boring qualms and showbusiness is well within her scope. She understands the illusion; she also understands the cost. Of Katherine she writes: ‘It was exhausting, we all knew it. It took everything she had, this business of getting into character, and then painfully, coming out of character. It was such a long journey back to the real world.’ Actress depicts an Ireland of the past, but there is, thankfully, no nostalgia here. Katherine is an IRA sympathiser – more for show than for politics – and that black period of history is deftly handled. Self-delusion and nostalgia mingle; one can’t exist without the other.
This book could easily, and mistakenly, be lumped together with other #MeToo novels; work that seems to feed the patriarchy rather than challenge it. Enright, sensibly, doesn’t care if she has your sympathy – she’s too cold, too sharp. She also knows all about the everyday sadism to which successful women are subjected, the sly condescension and barbed remarks. ‘Under the elaborate courtesy I saw something truly unpleasant,’ Norah writes, after watching men like Duggan interact with her mother. She also understands the pointlessness of being a legend or icon, the uneasy gap between image and reality, the burden of belonging to everybody and nobody: ‘Holly Devane has written to me to say she has decided my mother was a great Irish feminist. She was a great Irish disaster, I want to tell Holly. She was a great piece of anguish, madness and sorrow. And by the way, she was not Irish at all.’ (One of Katherine’s best-kept secrets is that she was born in London.)
Norah comes across Katherine’s diary from when she was 23, which details, in erratic handwriting, a violent rape in a restaurant toilet by the man Norah knows to be her father. Afterwards, ‘I came out, and sat down with my make-up nice. The lady will have the ice cream, I think.’ The eternal actress. Norah struggles to adjust to this discovery, this whole new past and present: ‘I think about my mother raped. I think about my father, who did not deserve a name. And I do not know how I can quell, in myself, the rage, the rage, the rage.’ It’s the depiction of this rage – and the placid, blank surfaces that disguise it – that makes Actress so effective.
No one understands rage, or the lucid, bleached moments that follow it, better than Enright: expertly applying lipstick after a sexual assault, watching the lint rise and fall on the carpet as your husband fucks another woman. Enright’s short stories are some of the most furious I’ve read. On nearly every page, there is rage. The title story in The Portable Virgin (1991) ends with the memorable line: ‘I’ve nowhere else to go. I love that man.’ Her female characters are restless, tormented, unhappy in their domestic roles, searching for love and security, but enraged when they find it. Enright has the ability to show that contradiction within a single page, sometimes within a single paragraph. Here is a section from ‘Until the Girl Died’, collected in Yesterday’s Weather (2008):
He is not a bastard, that is what I am saying. I am saying that he is a fantastic man. My husband is a fantastic man. And until the girl died, beetling along in her little Renault Clio on the wrong side of a road in Tuscany, until the girl died, that was enough for me. To be married to a fantastic man who loved me, and was prone, once in a long while, to a little lapse and a lot of Catholic guilt about it. Oh, the bloody bunch of flowers and the new coat in Richard Alan’s sale. Isn’t it worth it? I used to say. Isn’t it bloody worth it for a trip to Brown Thomas’s and a long weekend with the kids, all of us together in Ballybunion, walking the winter beach, a couple of bottles of wine and more conjugal antics than is decent at our age, with my wonderful husband, home again after his little lapse; some over-ambitious young one who will Shortly. Be. Fired. Thank you darling and no, I know you will never do it again.
But actually I hated it. It was like living on a page of some horrible Sunday newspaper. Horrible people. Horrible people with their horrible sex lives and their horrible money.
Isn’t it worth it? The answer is no. Enright’s early characters are full of desire and fear and are determined not to show it. Often they are baffled about how they wound up so staunchly middle class. When did the coffee machine arrive? The couch? They mask their desperation with objects (of course, Katherine O’Dell owns the first dishwasher in Ireland, of course she does). They use their money – or their husband’s money – to buy nice Pinot Noir, organically grown vegetables, fashionable handbags. In the middle of a crisis of infidelity, they get their hair done; they travel foggily up and down escalators in high-end department stores. They are, very calmly and discreetly, losing their minds at the cosmetics counter. Their lives are open wounds. They are heartless observers of their own self-destruction. If these stories took a physical form, I imagine they would be a well-dressed woman screaming into a silk pillowcase. Which is to say, I love them.
After her mother shoots Boyd, Norah reinvents herself: ‘over the course of those days and long nights, some version of myself dried, cracked, fell to the floor. I stepped out of it, like a woman stepping out a dress. I walked away from my appointed life.’ After her assault by Duggan, she cycles out to Seapoint and throws the hurt away into the flat, silent sea. These moments of rebirth reminded me of Enright’s introduction to Yesterday’s Weather:
These stories are not written by the person who has lived my life and made the best of it, they are written by people I might have been but decided against. They are written by women who take a different turn in the road. They are the shed skins of the snake.
So who was Katherine O’Dell? What was she like? No, but what was she like really? Most important, what sort of mother was she? Enright, writing about the bond with her own daughter in Making Babies, remarks: ‘It is good to keep in mind the fact that, in a world where sexual partners can come and go, children remain. They are our enduring love.’ So, tell me, what sort of mother was she, nosy Holly Devane asks Norah. ‘She was mine,’ Norah replies.