The Weldon Manifesto : TROUBLE, By Fay Weldon (Viking: $21; 228 pp.)

Daniel Harris is an essayist and book reviewer whose work also appears in Harper's, Salmagundi and New York Newsday

What differentiates the ferocious satires of British author Fay Weldon from the typical bed-hopping, feminist sex comedy is their harsh determinism. For most of her female characters, holy matrimony, far from being full of connubial bliss and the attendant pleasures of the pitter-patter of little feet, is about as consensual as being clubbed by a cave man and dragged back to a cul-de-sac in the suburbs. Weldon's women are swept up in a sort of marital Darwinism, a brutal process of natural selection in which secretaries continually usurp their boss's wives, who, in turn, often retaliate with creative forms of psychological torture. The vindictive heroine of her masterpiece "The Life and Loves of a She-Devil," for instance, systematically sabotages her husband's newfound happiness with a writer of treacly romances by transforming herself through plastic surgery from a sexless frump into a voluptuous centerfold. In such bitingly satiric cautionary tales, divorce frequently proves to be an unexpected boon for the forsaken wife, who experiences both romantic and economic rebirth after being summarily dumped, as in the short story "Redundant! or the Wife's Revenge," in which a humdrum piece of domestic chattel blossoms into a liberated woman when her husband leaves her for their daughter's lesbian lover.

Weldon takes the hackneyed scenario of sentimental betrothals followed by inevitable midlife adulteries and infuses it with the gleeful malice of one of the most reductive examinations of the human body in all of contemporary fiction. She describes sex as a kind of genetic battlefield, a desperate effort on the part of that abstract entity, the human race, to create the perfect specimen; marriage is just the fig leaf with which we camouflage this imperative to procreate, a flimsy disguise that Weldon delights in snatching off, exposing to her readers again and again the fierce physiological dramas that we sublimate in this duplicitous institution.

Central to many of her plots is the rise of the Nietzschean superwoman, an embodiment of naked ambition who, like Becky Sharp in Thackeray's "Vanity Fair," manages to escape from her proletarian upbringing to become the Machiavellian consort of a prosperous spouse or even an entrepreneur in her own right, like Marion in Weldon's last novel, "Life Force," who finances her art gallery by auctioning off her baby to a South African millionaire. It is tempting to interpret these self-made heroines as an extravagant burlesque of Weldon's own meteoric rise to fame, which occurred after a decade of relative poverty during which she scrambled to make a living as a temp, a profession that takes pride of place in her fiction as the spawning ground of her most ingenious and diabolical she-devils.

The paradox of her fiction, however, is that, while Weldon admires the chutzpah with which many of her characters trample over the wives and children who stand between them and the men they use as the vehicle of their ambitions, she ultimately despises the state of complacent affluence that these greedy materialists aspire to achieve. No sooner do the conniving temps of these embittered fairy tales ensnare a successful corporate executive than they are cast aside, like the wife they replaced, and deposed by yet another Becky Sharp. These women emerge out of the seething multitudes of hungry romantic careerists just waiting for their chance to advance up a hierarchical power structure that Weldon describes as the equivalent among women of a food chain. It is the much compromised feminism of this unending round of musical chairs, in which the relentless exuberance of her scheming Lady Macbeths is at once celebrated and reviled, that gives her fiction its distinctive note of scathing cynicism.

While Annette, the downtrodden protagonist of Weldon's new novel, "Trouble," is certainly no superwoman, she fits to a T the classic profile of the usurper. She is the second wife of a gullible chauvinist, Spicer Horrocks, who turns against her when she inadvertently challenges his self-esteem by publishing a successful novel. Their relationship abruptly deteriorates when Spicer falls under the spell of a manipulative pair of "healers" who, preaching a unique blend of psychobabble and astrology, succeed in convincing him that Annette is the incarnation of the "Inner Enemy" conspiring to molest his Child Within. At once a tirade against the unconscionable scam of quack psychotherapy and a wicked broadside of the whole institution of marriage, the book ends apocalyptically when Annette miscarries in her final month of pregnancy and is then booted out of her own house, which Spicer, now the glassy-eyed disciple of these two unscrupulous charlatans, converts into an institute for the Assn. of Astrological Psychotherapists.

This catastrophe leads Annette to deliver a series of delirious monologues about the disappointments of marriage, a raving manifesto of Weldon's own sexual nihilism. Her concluding speeches are really the only saving grace of this otherwise capricious novel, which, regrettably, bears the hallmarks of a hasty piece of contract work dashed off to satisfy a publisher's implacable demand for this most gifted of author's annual pound of flesh.

The major problem with "Trouble" is not only the absurdity of its basic premise--about body-snatching astrologers poisoning a once uxorious man's mind against his pregnant wife--but also its form. The novel consists almost entirely of interminable gab sessions in which Annette and her best friend Gilda rattle on over the telephone abut Spicer's increasingly icy indifference, as well as his escalating tendency to spout meaningless shibboleths about "internalized negative figures" and "anti-synchronicity." In choosing to keep the book's third-person narration down to a bare minimum, Weldon has deprived her readers of one of the most interesting aspects of her incomparable style as a storyteller, an idiosyncrasy that can perhaps best be defined by the typographic convention that distinguishes many of her short stories and novels: the extra space with which she sets her paragraphs off by themselves so that any given page looks like a heap of disjointed fragments, a mosaic of sententious proclamations, each of which has its own internal unity.

The effect of this fragmentation is extraordinary: What Weldon essentially does in her best work is to strip her stories of the transitions between individual scenes and distill the lives of her characters down to discontinuous moments, emblematic episodes that are often separated from each other, not only by blank spaces, but by huge leaps of time. By drastically foreshortening the period that elapses between an action and its consequences, a crime and its punishment, she heightens the impression her books make of being instructive fables that show men and women making bad decisions in one paragraph and then reaping their just rewards in the next. In this way, she creates the atmosphere of a parable, a folk tale, the sort of story that does not attempt to give you full-blooded, naturalistic characters in real situations but animated cartoons, Rumplestiltskins and Rip Van Winkles who move quickly through the decades, as if their lives had been speeded up through time-lapsed photography. Weldon is most comfortable with these capsulized abridgments and is far less successful with an experiment such as "Trouble," in which the reader will miss the unusual style of Britain's preeminent laughing tragedian who guffaws with such irresistible cruelty at her characters' sexual adversities.

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