Friday 14 May 2010

'an illusion of memory alive'

Tony And Susan 
by Austin Wright

What an amazing week this has been. My two previous reviews glowing and I round it all off with an absolute belter. Don't say I'm not good to you. I was attracted to this novel by the promise of discovering a lost classic, an unfairly neglected book, the kind of thing I am always looking for or asking other readers and writers about. It has been one of the joys of reading other book blogs for me, to find those lost gems that I would never otherwise have come across and if that holds any water for you too then this is my gift to you. Austin Wright, professor emeritus of English at the University of Cincinnati, was 70 years old when this novel was first published in 1993 and despite positive reviews I'd be willing to bet that it's a book unknown to most readers on both sides of the Atlantic. Only ten years later Wright died, leaving behind seven novels and four works of non-fiction. The re-issue of this novel by Atlantic Books should hopefully do something to focus some critical appreciation on his work, it certainly deserves it on this evidence, but if you only ever read this book you'll be richly rewarded by a novel that combines the pace of a thriller with the intelligence of something far more philosophical - a treat for anyone who values the art of reading.

There are plenty of novels that riff on the process of writing but this is one of the first I have read that focuses on the act of reading itself (feel free to fill comments up with other famous examples). This is the kind of book that immediately sinks its teeth into you. Like Chekhov's celebrated opening to The Lady With The Dog, Wright's novel has you chomping at the bit to know more straight away. Living a comfortable life with her second husband, Susan Morrow is surprised to receive first a letter and then the manuscript of a novel written by her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield, whom she has had little contact with for 20 years. This is immediately electrifying as during the 'unrealistic days of their marriage' Edward's attempts at a writing life and Susan's harsh criticism of it had been a major contribution to their breakdown. 'Damn, but this book is good' says Edward in his letter but Susan doesn't feel compelled to read it until another letter comes from Edward detailing the date when he will arrive to meet with her. Susan gives herself three days to read the manuscript of Nocturnal Animals and we will read it with her, and I really mean with her, each chapter closing allowing a moment to reflect before moving on to the next and the end of each day a longer pause for thought.

Nocturnal Animals turns out to be exactly the kind of book that Susan thought it wouldn't be - 'a story of blood and revenge'. It is a thriller and, frankly, a thriller that would stand quite happily on its own. Tony Hastings is driving his family, wife Laura and daughter Helen, down to their summer cottage in Maine. As night falls it is Helen who makes the fateful suggestion, '...let's drive all night' and so Tony continues along the Interstate, the novelty exciting for them at first before the darkness falls and Tony drives whilst the others sleep. Then he meets a couple of other cars on the road and a confrontation develops out of nothing, ending with a small accident and Tony forced to stop by the other car. That's where the first chapter ends. We want to know what happens next and Susan doesn't think too long before continuing, acknowledging first those feelings of confusion when reading something by someone you know, separating them from their creation and stopping yourself from swapping yourself and others into the roles of the book's characters, knowing that the author now has the power over you, he alone knows where this is going; and so we continue.

I'm not going to give away the plot of a thriller but Tony's actions and inaction on that night will have huge consequences for him and his family as the evening plays itself out. Wright brilliantly captures the excitement with the short punchy sentences of the genre and knows exactly where to put his chapter breaks and cliffhangers. This might be enough for some writers but the brilliance of the novel is that we get to live through the act of reading it through Susan and witness the impact that reading has on her own life. There are two main ways that this has an effect. Firstly, the experience of any reader who surrenders themselves to the grip of a novel: the compulsion to turn another page, the investment made in the characters with all that entails emotionally, the immense satisfaction that comes from trying to figure what the author may be up to.

She gropes for the possible loophole Edward might have left but finds none. Meanwhile, despite the sadness, she feels this energy and does not know if it's her own chemistry or the book, Edward in a sate of excitement, enjoying his own work? She likes to see Edward enjoying his work, it sparks her up. She awaits the horrible discovery her spirit deplores, she awaits it avidly.

Then there is the subtle shift into Susan's personal response, or more accurately how her reading of this book forces a shift in perspective on her own life. This comes first through empathy, Susan knows 'how much her pleasure depends on [Tony's] distress.' but also that that pain 'is really her own, which is alarming. Her own designated pain, old or new, past or future, she can't tell which.' But also there is the question of what Edward intended by writing this novel and sending it to Susan? She rejects the idea of 'novel as revenge' and yet one effect of it is undeniable.
All day she keeps wondering, why am I thinking about Edward? His memory reverberates out of slumber like a dream, it flashes like birds tree to tree. It comes too fast, flits away too quickly.
We come back, as Susan must whilst reading this book, to the reasons for her split with Edward. Whilst she herself had rejected not writing but dissemination, 'the chance to be part of a writing conversation...to read the consequences of her words...' she has to face up to the consequences of reading his words.

Twenty five years ago she ejected the Edward ego, clumsy and crude, from her life. How subtly it works now, soaking up her own, converting hers into his.

How subtly indeed. Wright's novel is satisfying in so many ways, he even uses its form to preempt its weaknesses and whilst some might claim that 'there are things in life the reading of no mere book can change' you may not feel the same after reading this rediscovered gem.


Anonymous,  14 May 2010 at 16:42  

Curses, Will. I was hoping this was one that I could overlook, but it would appear not. Excellent review, as usual.

William Rycroft 17 May 2010 at 08:12  

"To overlook it once could be considered a misfortune. To overlook it twice would seem like carelessness."

John Self 28 May 2010 at 19:09  

I've read your review, Will, which has persuaded me to carry on with Tony and Susan. At the early stages, what we have (in my view) is a very clichéd thriller with a very slight framing structure. However it seems from what you say that the frame bleeds into the main picture more (if I can extend the metaphor beyond its useful life) and that interests me. The reason why I think the Tony sections are ropey is because I mistrust any book which has to resort to stock characters (the 'baddies' on the road) and life-threatening situations to get us to keep turning the pages. It does get us keep turning the pages, but it makes me for one feel dirty in doing so. To me, if a writer can't keep you turning the pages through the quality of the writing - the prose and what he has to say - then he has failed.

So, here goes for the other 90%...

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