Thursday, May 23, 2013

VANILLA ANGST







Let me make this clear, I don't "get" THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS. Yes, I find  Claire Messud's  writing  technically correct. However,  her dissection of her main character, Nora Eldridge, a would-be artist  turned school teacher leaves me untouched. It makes no difference that Nora is meant to be incandescent with rage, brimming with hoarded passion.Her rage is second hand. She gets it from her mother, who went to college but ended up being a mom and a housewife, poor little woman. Having lived long enough to learn that being a mom and a housewife can be a more satisfying job and a more positive contribution  than, say, making silly installations bespattered with aspirin flowers, I have no patience with characters  whose great tragedy is that  they are school teachers rather than  great artists. "Don't all women fell the same," Nora asks. "The only difference is..how in touch we are with our fury." Seriously, how observant   is a woman who  thinks nothing of  slapping such a neat little label on all women? Where does she get off assuming that everyone shares her First World angst? Maybe it is all a matter of cultural perception and as a Third World person, I am probably unequipped to empathyse with these little drownings in a teacup. I  can think of far more serious problems Nora's and I have a feeling that there are few artists who are truly great. But this is very much a First World book for First World readers. It is a book with the requisite number of expletives, the requisite number of allusions to social media and fashion trends to show that  Messud has her finger on the pulse of the Zeitgeist.

Nora mentions Lucy Jordan moments at least three times and I had to Google it to find out that Lucy is a housewife who goes mad in a Shel Silverstein (indeedy yes, Silverstein) poem made popular as a Marianne Faithfull song.  Nora gets that and is angry. She is angry that no one "gets" her. She does not worry overmuch about not getting others. Nora does not connect with her brother.Nora thinks her elderly aunt Baby is smelly. Nora talks about the world as a Fun House and  trap. Nora  is her own world and a very vanilla world it is. What does she do to adjust the status quo? She falls in love with with one of her Third Grade students--no, no, there is no perversion there--Reza Shahid, the exotic son of an Italian artist and a Christian Palestinian from Lebanon. Next she falls in love with Reza's mother Sirena, she of the aspirin flowers. Note that name, Sirena. It is one of the few instances in which Messud  is clearly heavy handed. If this were not complicated enough, she also falls in love with Skandar, Reza's father, whose lifework is the study of ethics. Logically, an ethicist has to have sex with a slightly deranged New England school teacher. So he does. Once. Very angry making this is.

What happens as a result is, in my opinion, much ado about nothing.There are references to Lebanon and its endless wars,but there are no references to what really goes on in New England during the Year of the Shahids. A sad place it must be for Nora to think that Italians are exotic. There is exotic Paris, there is quite a bit about how artists become darling of moneyed the buyers and there is a spectacular betrayal at the very end of the story. Believe, that betrayal makes Nora madder than a hornet's nest. Me? I think it is all very cool and very elegant and that the writing itself is superb, but the story has the static feel of flowers of the aspirin variety. Nevertheless,  I would like to read more Messud because I have the feeling that this book is not the measure of her powers.

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