Tony and Susan by Austin Wright

“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

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14 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Wright Austin

14 responses to “Tony and Susan by Austin Wright

  1. This sounds like a very interesting book. I like metafiction when it is well done and am thinking quite often about this premiss lately that the reader changes the text. To pair a crime novel with a domestic novels strikes me as highly original. Thanks for a a great review and the introduction to an author I hadn’t heard of.

  2. Sounds fascinating, Guy. Will keep an eye out for this one! Sounds as if it deserves a rereading by the public. Mary Whipple

  3. It’s your sort of book.

  4. I know this is trite, but the structure does bring up reminders of Franzen (and I do like the conceit of interior manuscripts). Are there more useful comparisons you might make? The mix of contrast and comparison between the two storylines that you outline has sparked some interest.

    • I haven’t read any Franzen, so I’m no help there. The novel-within-the-novel seems standard fare–although it then takes a more complex turn. John at Asylum didn’t like it, but I did see a number of other positive reviews.

      I’ll have to think about the comparisons….

  5. I recall hearing about this now. It is an interesting conceit. How long is it?

    Remarkable he could write both a thriller and the domestic elements. Those are normally very different skillsets.

    • I read mine on the kindle, but checking on Amazon it’s 336 pages. If I remember correctly, The Guardian had a very positive review of the book. My one complaint, if pressed to voice one, is that I would have liked more of Susan’s life.

  6. I had to check what metafiction was, so thanks I learnt something. (and noticed that I have only read one or two of all the books referenced as metafiction)
    I like the quote about the co-existence of writers and readers and how they depend on each other.

  7. Sue Ryan

    I picked this book up at an airport bookshop year before last, and it is now one of my favourite reads of all time. It is a very very good example of metafiction(although I too only just learnt the meaning of that word). It was interesting (to me at least) that the passage about Susan being a receptor”who became richer the more she received…etc” I had copied down in one of my notebooks as it explained my version of my own reading habits so accurately. I’m wondering if any other of Austin’s novels are this good.

    • Thanks for the comment Sue. Tony and Susan almsot made my best of the year list, and I had to chew the decision over. I too wondered if other books by this author are this good. I bought Telling Time and After Gregory but haven’t got to them yet.

  8. Hello Guy, Ian alerted me to this review when I saw the film adaptation, Nocturnal Animals, at the London Film Festival a couple of weeks ago. I’m not sure if it’s out in the US yet, but I’ll be fascinated to hear what you think whenever you get a chance to see it. The set-up reminded me of some of David Lynch”s films, while the core noir was very Coen brothers (along the lines of No Country for Old Men and Blood Simple). I read the movie as a cautionary tale, as if Edward was reminding Susan that she threw away something precious when she left Edward for another man. The novel sounds excellent too – I’ll have to read it once my memories of the film have faded a bit. Great review as always.

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