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.