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A lost-and-found surrealist treasure: 'Mrs. Caliban' by Rachel Ingalls

“Mrs. Caliban” by Rachel Ingalls is an unusual book with an unusual publication history. First published in 1982, the slim surrealist masterpiece is the story of a romance between a lonely housewife and (stick with me here) an amphibious humanoid named Larry. It was Ingalls’ third book of fiction and, like the two that preceded it, at first almost entirely ignored.

“Practically zilch,” she said herself, describing both its commercial and critical reception in a 1986 profile that ran in this newspaper under the headline “Obscure U.S. Author Begins Storybook Life.” The “storybook” part had to do with the novel’s surprise inclusion on a list produced by the British Book Marketing Council of the “top 20 American novels of the post-World War II period.” This generated a flurry of interest and money: “Mrs. Caliban” was reissued and reviewed widely and warmly; the Book of the Month club picked it up; a three-book deal with Simon & Schuster was signed.

Ingalls, an American who has lived in England since the ’60s, was 46 at the time of her brush with literary fame. To a contemporary reader, her story sounds a bit like that of Nell Zink avant la lettre. Zink is a contemporary late-emerging expat satirist with a caustic streak and a penchant for short, brilliant novels, but her star is still rising: She has been long-listed for the National Book Award and has published four books in the last three years, with another on the way. Ingalls returned to obscurity almost immediately. Most of her books are long out of print in the U.S., and some have never been published here at all.

Still, Ingalls has always had her devotees, and each generation discovers her anew. The present reissue of “Mrs. Caliban” has a fittingly wry yet fully smitten introduction by Rivka Galchen, who tells us that “in Ingalls’s fictional worlds terrible things happen regularly; there are prophecies, metamorphoses, and, almost always, violence. ‘Mrs. Caliban,’ slim and often bright in tone, has a body count to rival a western.” The front matter boasts effusive quotes from John Updike, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joyce Carol Oates, Daniel Handler, Ed Park and Alexandra Kleeman. Earlier this fall, novelist J. Robert Lennon was heard raving about the book on his “Lunch Box” podcast after (full disclosure-slash-humblebrag) picking it up because he saw me raving about it on Twitter, which I did after hearing novelist Gabe Habash rave about it in person. And so it goes.

As I mentioned above, “Mrs. Caliban” is, among other things, a romance. When we first meet Dorothy, she is a broken woman, trapped in a bad marriage in a boring suburb of what I take to be Los Angeles in the mid ’60s, though it could just as easily be 10 years earlier, or for that matter, later. She and her husband, Fred, recently lost a child, after which they tried to have another, but Dorothy had a miscarriage, so she bought herself a dog, which was hit by a car. (This is what Galchen meant about the body count, and what I meant about the caustic streak.) Now they sleep in separate beds, and Fred, not for the first time, is cheating.

Larry — Dorothy’s tall, green, handsome stranger — is on the lam, having escaped from the local Institute for Oceanographic Research after killing the scientists who were studying him. He breaks into the house looking for food while Dorothy is making dinner for Fred and a business associate. “She came back into the kitchen fast, to make sure that she caught the toasting cheese in time. And she was halfway across the checked linoleum floor of her nice safe kitchen, when the screen door opened and a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house and stood stock-still in front of her, crouching slightly, and staring straight at her face.”

Dorothy has heard on the radio that Larry is dangerous, but he tells her that this is all wrong. The scientists were bad men who abducted him from his home deep in the Gulf of Mexico and at the institute repeatedly tortured and raped him; he killed them only to save himself. Larry’s ultimate goal is to get home to his native sea. Larry’s traumas are clearly different than Dorothy’s, but they are able to understand one other as survivors, and this becomes the basis of their relationship: Two broken creatures healing each other. Dorothy suggests that Larry hide out at the house until the (frog)manhunt dies down.

“They made love on the living-room floor and on the dining-room sofa and sitting in the kitchen chairs, and upstairs in the bathtub. And they talked.” To say more about this novel would be to risk spoiling, well, not the plot, exactly, but the profoundly rare experience of an encounter with genuine strangeness. “You know, it’s wonderful to see another world,” Larry says to Dorothy at one point. “It’s entirely unlike anything that has ever come into your thoughts.”

And so it is with “Mrs. Caliban,” which, as Galchen and other have noted, is “a perfect novel.” There are many familiar things on which it draws (B-grade monster movies, suburban malaise, romance tropes), and it has been justly compared to cultural touchstones from David Lynch and Richard Yates to “The Wizard of Oz” and “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” but there is nothing else out there that is “like” it, or even close.

Taylor’s most recent book is the story collection “Flings.”

Mrs. Caliban

Rachel Ingalls, introduction by Rivka Galchen

New Directions: 128 pp., $13.95 paper

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