Claire Messud is known as something of an intellectual among literary novelists, with a cool, quietly probing tone from her first book, "When the World Was Steady" (1995) to her best-selling "The Emperor's Children" (2006). Her bracing and vehement new novel, "The Woman Upstairs," is still probing, but anything but cool.
In this emotional Vesuvius of a book, Messud gives us Nora Eldridge, a middle-aged elementary school teacher and frustrated artist whose hunger for fulfillment brings her into the orbit of the Shahids, a glamorous family in the author's hometown of Cambridge, Mass. This engagement, initially promising, ultimately leaves Nora seething with rage from the first-person narrative's very first sentence: "How angry am I?" she asks. "You don't want to know."
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We caught up with Messud, who was teaching in upstate New York, by phone. Here's an edited transcript of our chat about "The Woman Upstairs," with a coda about her marriage to New Yorker book critic James Wood.
Q: Some reviewers have said "The Woman Upstairs" is a bit of a departure for you, from a more reserved tone to something that's more raw and exposed. Do you agree?
A: Well, I would hope that each book I write is a departure in some sense, that it isn't about staying still. But certainly this one was a departure. I'd written a novel and a novella in the first person before, but in this case, what opens the novel is a sort of rant, and that came to me first. After I'd written it, I had to figure out whose voice this was, where she was coming from, what her story was. In the process, I was — what's the word? — crossing limits that I hadn't known I had.
A: Yes, transgressing those limits. In this case, I was chasing her voice, and I was aware from the beginning that her voice would be challenging for some people, and indeed unappealing. But that didn't matter, because I felt hers was an important voice, one that I hadn't heard in fiction. And of course people are free to have whatever reaction they have to it. But for me to feel free in that way was new. In the past, I always hoped people would respond in some way to what I wrote, but in this case, I felt I was doing the work I wanted to do, and doing it as best I could, and just leaving it at that.
Q: You say the rant "came" to you; any theories about where it came from?
A: She's an amalgam of myself, people I've known, stories I've heard. In the rant, she puts herself in a feminist context, if you will, when in fact her primary concern is herself and her own story. To the extent that we have a political consciousness, it does relate to us, to our own experiences. But at the same time, I think her story overlaps with a lot of others. When I was working on the book, I gave a reading in Germany, and there was an anthropologist who came up afterward and said, "Thank you for reading that. I never saw my mother angry, but when I was growing up, we would all have breakfast, and then she would go upstairs to clean the house. We could hear her upstairs when she was cleaning the bathroom and sweeping the floors, and she was cursing at the top of her lungs, just cursing. Then she'd come downstairs smiling, and we would all pretend we hadn't heard." And I feel like that's the experience of a lot of people. Nora is giving you her interior life in this book, but it's not a life anybody would normally see. What you would see, if you met Nora, is somebody who is absolutely charming, grateful, friendly, patient, accommodating, all those things. But like everyone, she has an interior life that's not visible to the world.
Q: At the core of her anger, it seems, is her failure to become the artist she wanted to be. I often meet failed or frustrated artists, and their disgruntlement has a particularly bitter quality that you capture in the book. Did you have models for that?
A: Well, of course, a lot of them. When we can't pursue the things we dreamed of, for whatever reason, it creates a lot of anger. I'm really fortunate to be able to spend a lot of my time doing something I really want to do, but for all sorts of reasons, a lot of people don't have that luxury. And yes, I know people in the creative world who've had that experience, but in other worlds also.
Q: In Nora's case, what seems to bother her most is her sense that she has sabotaged her own artistic ambition.
A: Yes, partly that's true, and partly it's that she has a self-flagellating temperament. She has spent several years caring for her dying mother, who instilled in her very early that the most important thing was to be financially independent. And she had trouble squaring the prospect of being a working artist with financial independence. She's also lacked a certain ruthlessness, you might say, to pursue her dream. I could go on at length about how the acculturation of girls discourages that ruthlessness, far more than the acculturation of boys does. Of course, the artistic gamble is an insanity for anybody, male or female. But it's also true that women are brought up to believe that being part of a social fabric is paramount. There is no myth of the semi-autistic female genius in our society. That is a male myth, of the man who needs to be taken care of and supported in his work.
Q: Maybe Emily Dickinson sort of fit that mode.
A: No. Emily Dickinson was a spinster who stayed home in her room. It wasn't a space of strength that she lived in, except in her head.
Q: Is Nora in some way a descendant of other literary characters? Does she have a lineage?
A: I think she has a number of lineages. One that people have suggested is Nora in Ibsen's "A Doll's House." For me, funnily enough, her lineage is from (Dostoyevsky's) Underground Man right on down, a trajectory of misfit antiheroes: Zeno in (Italo Svevo's) "The Confessions of Zeno," Krapp in Beckett's "Krapp's Last Tape," Mickey Sabbath in Roth's "Sabbath's Theater." So Nora has a lot of brothers. I did look for voices like hers among female characters, but ultimately I had to write it myself.
Q: Nora mentions Ralph Ellison's guy down in the basement with the light bulbs. That's another of her brothers.
A: Right, and arguably the most logical one, in some ways.
Q: She talks about how she used to ask people if they had the ability to fly or be invisible, which one would they choose? The best choice, she decides, is the latter. But ultimately she discovers that the ability to see how people really are, through being invisible, isn't as wonderful as she thought it would be. She finds out things about people, in fact, that she doesn't really want to know.
A: (Laughs.) That's always a danger. One of the things I explore in the book is: How important is the truth? How important is delusion? Do we need delusions to function? Do we need them to create art? If you want to take that step, do you need to be deluded about who you are, and what it means to make art, in order to go ahead and do it? And in our relationships, how much of them are our own creation, our own illusion, versus what is real? And when we encounter what's real, do we wish we hadn't?
Q: The way the book ends — and of course we won't say how it ends — does lead me to suspect that there might be a sequel featuring Nora. Her last words, after all, are "Just watch me."
A: I can't say it's on my mind just now, but I'd never say never. I like to believe that the world is open before her and anything could happen. But right now I'm happy to leave it for everybody to imagine what they want for her. At the same time, I may feel at some point that I need to intervene and send her in some particular direction. It could happen.
Q: To change the subject slightly: Does it help or hinder you as a writer that you're married to a literary critic?
A: You know, there's the image people have of your relationship, and then there's the reality of that relationship, which is: "Did you take the garbage out?" "Did you walk the dogs?" "We need to get some chicken from the supermarket for dinner." So, no, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about the fact that I'm married to a literary critic. Long ago, before we had children, I always read his pieces when he wrote them, but now I read them when they appear in The New Yorker, like everybody else! (Laughs.) People say that can't be so, but I say, well, who's going to wash the sheets? I feel very privileged and grateful to have somebody who cares about many of the same things I do, and that precisely while doing the dishes, we can talk about books we're reading or articles we've read or things we're working on. That's a huge part of our day-to-day life, but in some funny way, I'm married to James, and that's separate from the literary critic guy.
Q: So you don't talk to each other about your works in progress?
A: I do ask him to read things. If it's early on, he knows well enough to be sort of vague and cheerful and say, "Keep going!" Unless he thinks it's a disaster, in which case he feels free to say, "This is a disaster!" But he doesn't offer any sort of detailed critique in the early stages. When there's a full manuscript, he's my first reader. But I don't say to him while I'm doing the dishes, "I'm at the end of Chapter Three." At the same time, I always feel guilty when I ask him to read my manuscripts, because he has so much to read. And in those situations, it's not like giving it to your agent or your editor. You don't say, "How far along are you?"
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer whose work appears in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Poets & Writers Magazine and elsewhere.
"The Woman Upstairs"
By Claire Messud, Knopf, 253 pages, $25.95Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun