“The novel as revenge is preposterous, but the idea won’t go away.”
Tony and Susan by Austin Wright was originally published in 1993 and is now a well-deserved re-release. Wright, also known as Austin McGiffert Wright (1922-2003), was a professor at the University of Cincinnati who wrote 7 novels and also a few books of non-fiction. I’d never heard of this author before, and it’s only due to the fact that Tony and Susan is being reissued now, that I ‘discovered’ him. I decided to read the book for its very attractive and intriguing premise (more of that later), and while the novel is extremely entertaining, it’s also a marvellous example of metafiction. This makes the multi-layered plot more difficult to explain.
Susan Morrow, a married university teacher in her late 40s, unexpectedly receives a letter from her ex husband Edward. They’ve had no direct contact for over twenty years, and Susan knows little about Edward’s life except that he’s remarried to someone called Stephanie and now sells insurance. In the letter, Edward tells Susan that he’s written a book that he wants her to read as she’s always been his “best critic.” This seems an odd request that’s possibly loaded with meaning as Edward’s so-called writing career was a major problem in their brief marriage. Edward and Susan knew each other in childhood and reconnected by chance in college. Susan was studying English and Edward was in law school at the time, but shortly after their marriage, Edward dropped out to become a writer. His efforts were not successful, and since the topic was fraught with emotional minefields, Susan could not broach the subject. About two years into the marriage, Susan, now the sole wage earner, began to realise that there was a problem. At first Edward produced short poems about their sex life, but then he began to hide his work, and at one point even retreated to the woods in order to concentrate:
He talked of larger projects. He had been working on a novel but had not mentioned it because it was so unfinished. It was pretty long. She gathered it was autobiographical, with twelve hundred pages so far, and had brought young Eddie up to the age of twelve.
They grew apart with the abyss of Edward’s non-existent writing career spanning the distance. Susan wrote Edward off as “phony” and they divorced.
So now fast forward twenty years. Edward and Susan are both remarried. Susan is married to Arnold, an eminent cardiac surgeon and they have three children together. Edward’s unexpected request arrives as a blast from the past, and Susan finds the prospect of reading the manuscript both intriguing and disturbing. She wonders if he has a hidden agenda. Does he want to show her that she was, after all, wrong about him? Does he want to prove that he can write? All these thoughts make her recall her first marriage and she reluctantly re-evaluates the fictions she’s woven about Edward and Arnold:
There’s a gap in the saga of Susan’s official memory, almost a year between Edward’s return from the woods and her marriage to Arnold. When she looks back, she finds the time blank. It could not have been totally without event. There must have been daily drives to the college with snow scenes and slushy streets. Also grocery shopping, cleaning and cooking for Edward. And moods and arguments, movies, a friend or two. She remembers the apartment: dark walls, tiny kitchen, the bedroom with books on the floor and view of the alley.
The reason for the blockage is that the period was about to end with revolutionary change. Arnold would replace Edward with new laws, values, icons, everything. The new regime rewrites history to protect itself, burying Edward’s time like the Dark Ages. It takes Edward’s return to remind contemporary Susan of what is hidden and challenge her to rewrite the old saga through imaginative archaeology.
As it turns out, Edward’s novel, a dark thriller, which appears in its entirety here, is a remarkable pageturner. It’s not at all what Susan expected from her ex-husband. The novel is called Nocturnal Animals, and it’s a story that penetrates into the unexpressed fears of any spouse, any parent. In Nocturnal Animals, mathematics professor, Tony Hastings, his wife Laura and their daughter, Helen decide to drive through the night to their holiday home in Maine, but the trip is derailed by three psychotics.
As Susan reads Nocturnal Animals and then occasionally puts the book down, Tony and Susan goes back and forth between Edward’s novel and Susan’s personal life. With Arnold off attending yet another conference, Susan uses the novel as a much-needed distraction from some unpleasant things that she’d rather ignore in her troubled marriage. But Edward’s novel is more than a mere distraction, and while Nocturnal Animals certainly does entertain, it also disturbs Susan. She wonders what sort of a man Edward has become, and then there’s the uncomfortable feeling that some aspects of her old life with Edward have crept into his novel.
Tony and Susan is a splendid, clever multi-layered novel, a perfect example of metafiction. On one level, we get the gripping story of Tony and how one man faces his fears and inadequacies, and then we have Susan’s reaction as a reader to the tale. She’s pleased with parts of it, disappointed at others, but enthralled with the characters who are sufficiently diverting that she is able to shelve her problems, temporarily at least:
Well, she was a reader. If Edward couldn’t live without writing, she couldn’t live without reading. And without me, Edward, she says, you’d have no reason to exist. He was a transmitter, spending his resources, she was a receptor who became richer the more she received. Her way with the chaos in her mind was to cultivate it through the articulations of others, by which she meant the reading of a lifetime with whose aid she had created the interesting architecture and geography of herself. She had constructed over the years a rich and civilized country, full of history and culture with views and vistas she’d never dreamed of in the days when Edward wanted to make his visions known.
Some reviews of the novel state that while Nocturnal Animals is a gripping tale, by comparison the bits we see of Susan’s life are boring. Nocturnal Animals is a crime novel set within a contemplative domestic scene, so the pace of these two stories are entirely different. There’s a stark contrast in tone when Susan puts down Nocturnal Animals, picks up various domestic tasks and begins to mull over her personal life. I did not find these sections boring, but while Nocturnal Animals comes to a conclusion, Susan’s life and the dilemma she faces is not neatly sew up with a tight, discrete ending. Instead Susan’s life must continue after the novel she reads concludes.
Tony and Susan is a rich novel which tackles many thematic issues within Susan’s relationship with Tony, Arnold and Edward. While exploring the subjects of family, marriage, and divorce, Wright shows that what we want, what is important, shifts with age. Through Susan’s readership of Edward’s manuscript there’s the idea of a parallel universe at play. Susan finds herself asking if she did the right thing in divorcing Edward and marrying Arnold–not that she still has feelings for Edward at this stage, but in changing husbands, did she simply swap one set of problems for another. Is Edward, on some level, for example, a more sensitive human being than Arnold?
But twenty years of marriage (no idyll, to be sure) allow Susan to wonder with an open mind what sticking to Edward would have been like. If she’d stayed with him, she’d now be Stephanie.
Not only is Tony and Susan a marvellous example of metafiction, but it’s also a superb instance of the literary theory The Transactional Theory of Reading and Writing developed by Louise Rosenblatt–a theory that argues that the meaning of a piece of literature or poetry does not reside solely in the text to be analysed by the critic, but that the work is fluid with each reader extracting his/her own subjective meaning which is influenced by a unique frame of reference.
It’s a path going somewhere, made by Edward up ahead. The question for Susan, do I want to follow? How can she not? She’s caught, just like Tony.
Copy read on my kindle courtesy of netgalley