By Arthur Phillips
Random House / 336 pages / $25.95
Edmund Wilson's 1934 essay "The Ambiguity of Henry James" famously put forth a Freudian-steeped argument that the apparitions in James' The Turn of the Screw were not real ghosts but figments of the sexually repressed governess' imagination. No one but the governess sees the ghosts, after all, and James himself had remarked in a preface that the apparitions "are of the order of those involved in witchcraft cases rather than of those in cases of psychic research."
In the closing pages of Arthur Phillips' new novel, Angelica, set in late-Victorian London, the narrator, Angelica, describes a dinner party at which the host "challenged the assembled party to tell a ghost story. ... I won, of course, with a tastefully done version of my mother's life." Angelica has been writing about her childhood and her mother's life - "busywork" she terms it, although we experience it as the substrate of a novel - and she begins with a ghost story, even though she worries "that the term arouses unreasonable expectations in you."
Recall that The Turn of the Screw opens with a group telling ghost stories, only to move on to a manuscript that chronicles one in great detail, and it is hard to believe that Phillips did not have that novella in mind when he decided to give this Jamesian terrain a few more dramatic twists.
Married life became a gallows, asphyxiating, for Angelica's parents, Constance and Joseph. Amid their suffering, specters appeared, and the exact nature of these is deeply ambiguous in hindsight. Was there incest? If so, did it occur in Angelica's childhood or Constance's, or both? Was there madness, the so-called female hysteria? Or was there an actual visitation by a sexually predatory spirit? Joseph disappeared, but was it flight or murder? And if it was murder so foul, at whose hands? Angelica is left to sort it out, which becomes clear only as the novel progresses. The "I" relating the story and the barbed asides to "you" gradually resolve into Angelica's "unsavory assignment" to write about her childhood for a doctor in a therapeutic context.
Angelica questions the psychoanalytic approach of her treatment. Speaking of a spiritualist who invented stories of previous hauntings at the family's house, Angelica notes "that these may or may not have been precise actualities was neither fraudulent nor relevant. ... You, sir, rely on similar methods, do you not?" Elsewhere, she rails at the attempt to clarify her past: "We are excavating muck without bedrock, laying our foundations on swamp mud, pestilent and boiling and bottomless, a Venice of a life and sinking fast. What can we build when we shall never, never reach the end of our backwards work?"
The issue of how to validate any perspective lies at the center of Angelica, in which 19th-century concepts of a male, scientific mode of knowledge (Joseph worked as a medical researcher, which to Constance meant he was a torturer of animals) and a female, intuitive mode (Constance, the spiritualist Anne Montague and Angelica) bitterly contend with each other. In one scene, Joseph rushes to extinguish a small fire that Constance had started with lamp oil around 4-year-old Angelica's bed (her effort to ward off an evil and highly sexualized spirit she associates with her husband), then questions her. Although he "knew in the main that she was lying, he could not see precisely when or why or what truth she was burying. Any fragment of her explanation was possible, but the totality of it was suspect."
Phillips' novel reverberates, rather than proceeding in a standard sense, oscillating between male and female perspectives, the supernatural and the natural world, innocence and evil, and generations too. In Phillips' world, the dance of the sexes is more of a death march. Constance becomes convinced that Joseph is out to kill her by pregnancy. When Constance consents to sex, despite the doctors' warnings, there is consequent fury: "Was ever murder disguised thus? How crafted by a demon mind to cloak hatred in love and dress death as birth! He had murdered her that night with her own sighing consent."
For his part, Joseph watches his wife "vanish into motherhood. ... She exerted no effort to please him, was openly indifferent to his comings and goings. She was deaf to his words, blind to his regard, insensate to his gentle touch. If anyone deserved the right to spin and wail in hysterics, it was he."
Readers of Phillips' Prague (expatriates in Budapest) and The Egyptologist (an archaeological whodunit) will find Angelica to be a more seriously cast novel in which "truth" never materializes. The doctor whom Joseph visits tells him a story that twists upon itself until Joseph "lost all track of who had been guilty, mad or worthy of his sympathies."
So it is in Angelica, where potential explanations abound. Perhaps Constance truly saw spirits and "struck down the man who invited the ghost into our home." Or, Angelica suggests, "my father was a seducer of children, and he was murdered to protect me." Or perhaps Constance "knew her husband was acting evilly toward me and did not for a moment see ghosts, but was more than willing to pretend she did, so that Anne would rescue her from 'them.' "
Joseph once had an epiphany that was as frightful as any demon: That the mind could wander so that it "was stripped of all belief or character," and that "the better self could evaporate in an instant, not even in a moment of crisis or temptation, but in the most prosaic life." A ghost story indeed.
Art Winslow, a former executive and literary editor of The Nation, writes frequently about books and culture. He wrote this review for the Los Angeles Times.