The Musk of Menace

Francie Lin is the associate editor of The Threepenny Review

"The Hunters" is a dry, mannered, peculiar story with complicated ambitions. The second of two novellas collected in Claire Messud's new book of the same name, it does not at first appear to have any grand designs. It is short, for one thing, and there is also not much plot to report: The narrator, an American scholar living in London for a summer in order to research historical conceptions of death, spends day and night shut up in the library, or in the apartment watching neighbors through the windows, and most of the book passes in dark brooding and conjecture. What little action there is centers on the downstairs neighbor, a woman named Ridley Wandor, whom the narrator despises with an unreasoned paranoia straight out of a story by Poe: "From the instant that she appeared on the far side of my Judas hole, I was forced out of exultation and back into humanity, and I would have hated her for it no matter who she had been.... The existence, in my world ... and presence, more egregious still, of Ridley Wandor, was irredeemable, heinous, utterly unpardonable ... all I ever wished was that she would not be."

From this account of the narrator's first meeting with Ridley, one gets a fairly clear idea of the difficulties Messud poses for herself and her readers in writing "The Hunters" from the perspective of a misanthropic recluse. Ridley, as the narrator tells us, "gave off the pewter tang of misery and the musk of menace ... and need. Acidic, brown. I can detect it now even as a recollected burning in my sinuses." A self-defensive gag reflex is not the most endearing response to such misery and need, but then the narrator is not meant to be lovable. "The Hunters" is full of stiff, formal prose and winding locutions that are either condescending--"I felt that I looked upon the mortals around me as from a great height. I observed anxiety or rage or hope in the faces of my fellows with a salutary flood of compassion; but it was as if their experience of life ... mired in the infinite, pointless encumberedness of their days, were completely other than mine"--or torturously solipsistic. Even the basic fact of the narrator's gender is pointedly withheld, giving the entire story an unpleasant self-consciousness that eventually becomes tiresome and coy.

If Messud had less talent, one might chalk up these flaws to a lack of stylistic control. But, in fact, she is an exceptionally fine writer, as evidenced by her two previous novels. "The Last Life," published in 1999, was a serious, intelligent, deeply felt account of a colonial French family relocated from Algeria to the south of France after the war of independence, while her 1994 debut, "When the World Was Steady," traced the paths of two estranged sisters with equal gravity and wisdom. The mannerisms of "The Hunters" are deliberate, an experiment in which we are faced with the same dilemma as the unnamed narrator: Is it possible to care for a person whom we find fundamentally repulsive?

Only after the fact, apparently. At the end of the summer, the narrator returns to Boston, where within a few months s/he finds a lover, a new apartment, a new mode of life. Safe behind the proper facades of the brownstones on Commonwealth Avenue, s/he looks at the Polaroid taken with Ridley at Ridley's insistence: "[T]hough still laughing less than kindly at the hideous shell suit, the grease-glinted hair ... it was only then, at last, that I was able to wish her well."

This happens toward the end, and the last few pages are scenes from a kind of mea culpa pilgrimage to London the following spring. The narrator acknowledges guilt about Ridley Wandor and her subsequent fate, but there is something offensive or at least inadequate about his/her lip service to shame, for it is overpowered by the image of both narrator and lover living it up in London while the memory of the less fortunate Ridley fades. "Our last night in London, my dearest and I dined at the Ivy, that pricey frivolity capping a week of extravagance, more ruinous still and no less charming than the hotel ... we spoke about all the excitements and pleasures of the city as we had discovered it together, a city of verdant parks and crowded cafes.... Neither of us mentioned ... Ridley Wandor.... And now, I believe, we never shall, because it is all but a story to us--was it ever anything but a story to me?"

Again, is it really possible to care for a person whom we find repulsive? Yes, the narrator claims, but his/her readers won't be too sure.

"A Simple Tale," the book's first novella, fares better than "The Hunters," although despite, or perhaps because of, Messud's elegant prose, the story often feels indifferent, as if it were written by someone idly recording events from a very high window. The title is meant to be disingenuous, for "A Simple Tale," which follows a Ukrainian immigrant housekeeper named Maria from Gulyaypole to World War II German labor camps to Toronto, marriage and disenchantment, is full of twisted fortunes.

And yet it is simple, at least in the way Messud presents it. Maria's experience of the war passes like "a dream"; the landscape is "a dreamscape"; the farmer who rescues her and her friend Olga--"that too had felt like a dream." Human agency seems to have no place in the story; the plot moves quickly--too quickly to be of much depth. Maria falls in love, has a baby, moves to Canada in a few short pages, the narrative pushing onward relentlessly, skimming only the surface of emotion.

But then fate is the subject of this story. "Choice," Messud writes of Maria's decision to move to Canada, "was but a semblance." Everything in "A Simple Tale" happens so smoothly, with such inevitability, that one rarely gets a sense that anything truly important is at stake. Even Maria's son Radek, who sloughs off the hopes and history of his parents by changing his name to Rod and marrying the fat, slovenly daughter of a German woman, ultimately comes off as a collection of stereotypes: the cowed husband, the failed star, the son impatient with his immigrant mother's diligent ways.

Strangely, the one relationship that has dimension to it is the one that appears least likely to foster love. Maria's uneasy friendship with her employer, Mrs. Ellington, is fraught with the tensions of money, class and age, but for this reason it is more valuable to Maria than the obligatory family ties.

As she grows more estranged from Rod, she describes the passage of time as "a sensation of the light going out, of the people who could know her ... disappearing--until, rather than not seeing, Maria was above all unseen ... both she and Mrs. Ellington were becoming invisible ... they were doomed to each other ... bound ... to illuminate one another and to help each other to cast some semblance of a shadow." It is in these moments that Messud's wide imagination and intelligence combine to produce a portrait of the most touching kind, proving the reach of human sympathy after all.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°