“Beneath my youthful diffidence and insecurity lurked the egomania of a Roman emperor.”
Set in the McCarthy era, Francine Prose’s novel The Vixen follows the bumpy career of a young, naïve idealistic editor, Simon Putnam. It’s 1953, Simon is freshly armed with a brand new shiny Harvard degree in Folklore and Mythology, but his career prospects don’t look great. He’s living back at home, watching the news on the execution of the Rosenbergs, with his sporting goods sales goods father and his migraine-stricken former high school teacher mother, so he’s grateful, well sort of, when his uncle Madison, literary critic and “public intellectual” pulls strings to get him a job with the New York publishing house, Landry, Landry and Bartlett. Simon’s hired to replace a pregnant, unmarried young woman who’s being eased out, so right away the vibes aren’t great. He’s buried with manuscripts–mostly awful ones but since he takes his job seriously he reads ever single one carefully before rejection.
I began each manuscript in a state of hope that curdled into disappointment, then boredom, annoyance, anger, then remorse for the anger that the writer didn’t deserve.
For someone whose psyche lives inside Njal’s Saga, this is all very dull work. Imagine, then, when the manuscript: The Vixen, the Patriot and the Fanatic is tossed onto his desk and he’s told by his boss, the intimidating Warren Landry, to manage the author and bring the book to publication. Simon’s boss drops a bombshell: they need a blockbuster, The Vixen, the Patriot and the Fanatic is that blockbuster, a tacky bodice ripper very obviously based on Ethel Rosenberg (Esther Rosenstein in the book) who was executed just the year before. Without the book’s success the firm will fail. So no pressure. …
The novel is awful, sleazy and plain laughable–except for the fact that it is based on a real (dead) person. To add more problems, Simon’s mother knew Ethel Rosenberg, and Simon knows that his mother would be horrified by the novel. So here’s the moral dilemma: should Simon tell his boss to use the manuscript for toilet paper or should Simon bury any moral scruples and try to tidy up the novel for publication? Decisions, decisions, and then he meets the book’s sexy author Miss Anya Partridge.
What would you call her look? Hong Kong brothel meets Berlin cabaret? Lotte Lenya? Pinch of Marlene Dietrich? Soupçon of Rita Hayworth? Let’s find a more literary model …Let’s say … Colette, only juicier. To coin a phrase … a bad-girl hothouse tomato!”
And to complicate matters even further, the very sexy Anya is an inmate at a mental institution, and it’s the very same mental institution that also houses the other publishing partner: wheelchair bound, Bartlett who occasionally escapes from the asylum and creates disruptive scenes at the publishing house. Simon is already busily having erotic dreams about Anya before he meets her, and he justifies working on the novel to tone it down. Simon cannot walk away from the job because of his sexual attraction to Anya.
In some ways this novel is a romp. We know (and in his heart Simon knows too) that there is something really fishy going on. Why is he, the low man on the totem pole, given this novel to bring to publication? If the novel is so important that the firm’s financial health rests upon its publication, shouldn’t the novel be given to someone more senior? Then what of the novel itself, The Vixen, the Patriot and the Fanatic? Ethel Rosenberg/Esther Rosenstein is portrayed as a “notoriously buxom and beautiful Mati Hari,” sexually rapacious and insatiable as she seduces man after man. It’s actually a dirty book, so badly written it feels like some sort of parody. And why is the bizarre, sexually adventurous Anya so disinterested in what Simon does to her book? Curiouser and curiouser. By the time the novel concludes, the plot feels so fantastic that it’s comic and yet … it’s sadly a reflection of the times and all too real. Skullduggery, propaganda, Red Scare, manipulation, Black Ops…. what a world. …