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The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud

Alfred A. Knopf, April 30, 2013

There was a farmer who had a dog, And Bingo was his name-O. B-I-N-G-O! B-I-N-G-O! B-I-N-G-O!

And this was why, I told myself, I didn’t want to show my art to anyone, even though showing it had always, from the beginning, been a large part of the point: I didn’t want to show it because I didn’t want to be humored.

And Bingo was his name-O!

A writer who abhors writing groups and who is adverse to feedback is like a flight attendant who hates flying or a germaphobe doctor, and yet, here we are.

…and I didn’t particularly want anyone to tell me it was good, either. I just wanted to be got, and I didn’t trust that I would be.

At some point, you have to throw caution to the wind. I get it. But even here, in writing about my admiration for Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, I fear my thoughts may be scoffed at or else dismissed outright (due in no small part to my gender). You see, Messud’s novel is a first-person narrative told from the point of view of a bitter, angry woman. That much of her outrage at the world stems from gender bias is not lost on me. Moreover, this is not the first time I have empathized strongly with a heroine in literature victimized by society (Anna Karenina, Edna Pontellier in The Awakening, and even Nora’s namesake in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House). So will you cut me some slack if I preface with an apology for having the audacity to connect my own experiences to those of Nora?

I always thought I’d get farther. I’d like to blame the world for what I’ve failed to do, but the failure—the failure that sometimes washes over me as anger, makes me so angry I could spit—is all mine, in the end.

Nora’s disgruntlement seeps from the pages, walloping like a hammer flush to the head. It takes me back to when a group of writer friends and I collectively came to the conclusion that enough was enough, the time was now or never to do something to move our writing forward. We began blogging as an excuse for us to push each other to write more by leveraging the accountability of deadlines and peer reviews. And it worked. We wrote. And we wrote.

The hubris of it, thinking I could be a decent human being and a valuable member of family and society, and still create!

Today, I am thinking about how reading a good novel can feel at times more like therapy as the words on the page begin to sound oddly familiar. In these instances, the connection can become incredibly intimate. Truth be told, I was really only looking for some summer pulp with this one. I got more. In the excerpts of The Woman Upstairs that I had come across, the writing was immediately engaging, at least enough so that I did not already click away on Amazon to investigate another title or another author. There was just something about Nora’s edginess and percolating desperation that had me at hello, which in this case translated to the following opening:

How angry am I? You don’t want to know.

In fact, I did want to know. I sensed a similarity to how I was feeling about the stagnant state of my writing. In other sections, I felt an association to my rapidly aging, rapidly widening body, and I felt as disgruntled as Nora at how it had gotten to this point. I remember at the end of April during a spell of some uncommonly nice weather for that time of year, my tennis partner asked me to play a few sets. I said I had to defer to the end of May, middle of June at the latest. I didn’t feel my knee could take the current load. I feared I might tear an ACL and explained that I simply needed a little more time to get in better shape.

It is the end of August now and I haven’t hit the courts once yet this season.

I was getting arthritis in my left knee, which made running harder, and I’d started to dye my hair just to look normal. I needed glasses for the print on the aspirin bottle. All in the space of a couple of years. Death knocking. The sniper on the roof.

Wasn’t it just yesterday that I was monitoring hourly and weekly weather forecasts as if my life depended on playing tennis that afternoon and every afternoon after it, without interruption?

Wasn’t I just the other day playing marbles at recess at Oakbrook Elementary School? There I am now, running home from Oakbrook so I can catch the last fifteen minutes of The Beatles cartoon television show in the days before VCRs. There I am sticking Steve Austin stickers all over my room after The Six Million Dollar Man Fan Club Welcome Packet finally arrived in the mail. Like a big boy, I am thumbing through my first ever magazine subscription: Highlights for Children.

“I often think,” he said, “that almost everyone is a child. That if you suddenly were to take off the masks of each of us, we would all be revealed as children.”

Being a kid was wondrous and always would be. Our easy existence was infinite. The world was compartmentalized into so many little buckets of joy: fishing holes, whiffle ball games, roller coasters, swimming pools, ice rinks, lemonade stands, block parties, movie theaters, birthday parties, cake and ice cream, playgrounds. Before we were found guilty of the heinous crime of growing up and subsequently sentenced to living the rest of our days as responsible adults.

As kids, there was always the chance or even guarantee of an out. Like snow days and summer vacations, and even during school days there was the promise of field trips, the occasional diversion of movies shown in class, pep rallies—something, anything—to ensure a break from monotony.

Kids like breaking the routine, riding the school bus in the middle of the day, the feeling of possibility.

At some point, possibilities became fewer. Not only that, but suddenly they were not automatically of the hopeful variety either. Like the possibility of getting laid off, late with a bill payment, being on the receiving end of a scary diagnosis, or worst of all, living through the death of a loved one. The big picture began announcing itself loud and clear and you suddenly found yourself in tune to signs that, as a kid, you had no idea even existed.

You know those moments, at school or college, when suddenly the cosmos seems like one vast plan after all, patterned in such a way that the novel you’re reading at bedtime connects to your astronomy lecture, connects to what you heard on NPR, connects to what your friend discusses in the cafeteria at lunch—and then briefly it’s as if the lid has come off the world, as if the world were a dollhouse, and you can glimpse what it would be like to see it whole, from above—a vertiginous magnificence. And then the lid falls and you fall and the reign of the ordinary resumes.

Currently, I am living inside numbered lists, procedures, bullet points, overviews, TOCs, indexes, corporate guidelines, agendas, core values, and the like. Everywhere you turned, there was some new rule to conform to. But I take the blame. I have portrayed myself as a Technical Writer for over twenty years now, doing so in decades worth of meetings, seminars, status reports, interviews, and those obligatory introductions to strangers around a conference room when your stomach drops as it is your turn to stand up and upchuck a bio.

You learn a whole other polite way of speaking to the people who mustn’t see you clearly, and you know—you get told by others—that they think you’re really sweet, and you feel a thrill of triumph: “Yes, I’m good at history/biology/French, and I’m good at this, too.” It doesn’t ever occur to you, as you fashion your mask so carefully, that it will grow into your skin and graft itself, come to seem irremovable.

It’s an interesting thought: If the masks of the world were all removed, there is little doubt that each one of us would be who we always were, who we could only ever be: ourselves. Carefree little kids playing kickball at recess, dreamers fantasizing about what we would be when we grew up.

I was crazy. I was crazy in the way a child is crazy, in the way of someone who believes, with rash fervor, that life can be—that it will yet be, and most certainly—as you would wish it. How could I have been so foolish?

I take it back. I refuse to apologize for identifying with Nora. And I really could go on and on about how much of Messud’s novel clicked with me, including its very adult examination of the many complicated aspects of love, obsession, perception, betrayal, and more. I could go on, calling out the “aha” moments. If only I had more time.