Nora Eldridge, the narrator of Claire Messud’s latest novel, The Woman Upstairs (Random House, 2013), is by her own description one of those quiet women—middle-aged, single, dutiful—who live “at the end of the third floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, [and] who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting.” (Cats are optional.) Dismissed because they are not extraordinary, such women are familiar from the fiction of Barbara Pym, Hilary Mantel, and Lorrie Moore among others. However, while these writers proceed skilfully to undermine our assumptions of these women by demonstrating their wry humour, blackly comic thoughts, and sharp observations, Messud’s character merely spits at us in fury. On the raised middle finger of her gravestone, Nora wishes to have engraved the words, FUCK YOU ALL.
At first we suppose that her anger stems from having had to abandon her youthful ambition to be an artist. (Although the novel links the notion of the work of an artist and being famous as an artist so closely it’s difficult to know which of the two she really desires.) Burdened with the care of her mother—now dead—and her elderly father, Nora now teaches third grade in a Boston elementary school. Her art is relegated to her spare time in her spare bedroom.
All this changes, however, when the Shahid family arrives from Paris: Skandar, a Lebanese academic on a year’s Fellowship at Harvard; and his wife Sirena, an installation artist with a burgeoning reputation in Paris. Their young son, Reza, is enrolled in Nora’s class. From the fulsome description of his beauty, one imagines her running in slow motion towards him, arms outstretched.
Already in the moment, I loved his nape, the carefully marshalled black curls lapping their uneven shoreline along the smooth, frail promontory of his neck.
Nora meets Sirena when Reza is bullied in school and, wonder of wonders, immediately suggests that she and Nora—I’m an artist too!—share a studio space. Nora hears the Sirena call and jumps at the chance. (Clearly she has not read her Homer.) It is surprising that Nora’s artistic aspirations are taken seriously so quickly. Sirena is herself ‘serious’, Skandar tells Nora one evening. “That you are serious is what’s important.” Nevertheless, it’s the perks of being a Famous Artist that Nora zeroes in on. (“Does she sell for thousands? Does she know the fancy people?” Why yes. Yes she does.) And therein lies the fascination for Nora. The whirl of glamour in which this family exists enthralls her. Would she have been drawn in the same degree to a dumpy woman from Poughkeepsie, however gifted an artist, and her accountant husband? Doubtful. Even the violence Skandar experienced as a child growing up in war ravaged Lebanon is treated as just one of the things that makes him so exotic. He is an annoying character and, apart from his verbosity and the obligatory absent-mindedness, an unconvincing scholar. There is a Wikipedia quality to what we learn of Lebanon’s history. His true role in this narrative is to be alluring to Nora, and that he is. She deciphers his every word and gesture as if he were the Bletchley Code.
At any rate, Nora and Sirena embark on their respective projects in this shared studio. Nora works on dioramas: tiny boxes that recreate in detail the bedrooms of famous, damaged women: Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Emily Neel and, inexplicably, Edie Sedgwick. (From this doomed roster she’s left off Sylvia Plath, head stuck in a miniature oven. We must be thankful for small mercies.) Sirena, meanwhile, is at work on a large installation called Wonderland (oh really!) which consists of flowers, a giant dress, slivered glass shards—our fractured self, no doubt— Astroturf and blown up photos of naked women. Why is it that feminist art must use women’s nudity to illustrate our “power” whereas men get to keep their kit on? In this context, Nora’s rapture over the photo of the older woman –“you felt the strength of her and she was beautiful”— is wearyingly predictable. It is the blithe inclusion of a photo of a nude, prepubescent girl (“the tiny, childish split of her”) that repels. Nora only argues against the photo showing the girl’s mouth. This she considers too inviting but otherwise, hey, no problem. Neither woman mentions Alice’s creator, Charles Dodgson’s questionable hobby of photographing young girls.
The final touch—Sirena’s genius!—is to install video cameras. They will record women’s reactions as they tour this feminist Legoland. Ultimately, the camera plays a significant role in destroying Nora’s relationship with the Shahids. Also, the Astroturf. It provides a comfy bed on which Nora, dressed as Edie Sedgwick, masturbates and later, for a sexual encounter with Skandar, the Khalil Gibran of academics. (“Rather, you need only to move all of your emotions out of their little boxes and let them take up the whole room.”) She is coy about what they actually get up to (“I never fully let him inside me”) but not about its effect on her (“…our union was nonetheless absolute…”). Nora likens Skandar to the Black Monk in Chekhov’s eponymous tale. In it, the figure of a monk—the hallucination that consoles (to paraphrase Stoppard)— visits Kovrin, an academic, in order to assure him of his genius. Skandar serves the same function for Nora:
Even more than Sirena, Skandar was the one who convinced me of my substance, of my genius, of the significance of my thoughts and efforts. If you took away my Black Monk, what was I?
But in Chekhov’s story the monk is used to illustrate Kovrin’s grandiosity, not his genius. She might have been wiser to take her cue from another character in Chekhov’s story: Yigor Semyonich, a horticulturalist and Kovrin’s father-in-law. “The whole secret of success lies… in the fact that I love the work. Do you understand? I love it perhaps more than myself.”
Chekhov counselled writers to never talk about a character’s spiritual state but instead, demonstrate it through her actions. Nothing could be less Chekhovian than Messud’s narrator. Nora minutely dissects her own spiritual state but allows us no insight into anyone else’s. Or even, reliably, her own. The events being narrated occurred several years previously. However, there is little hint of her having gained any further understanding. Of course the Shahids used her! They ask her to babysit. She spends a king’s ransom on tasty goodies for Sirena and cleans up after her “the way a cleaning lady might”. And yet, several years after the fact, Nora can still say about Skandar, “But surely he wasn’t able to see me because of the force of his emotion.” Said by an 18 year old girl, you might hug her. By a 42 year old woman, you want to slap her.
Messud has defended unlikable characters. And she should. Literature is littered with them. Her great error is in confusing unlikable with interesting. Miss Havisham, a FUCK YOU ALL character if ever there was one, is another woman with anger at the heart of her (or where her heart would be if she had one). But in her, it is put to excellent narrative use. Rage propels her to lay lines that snake around her victims’ ankles and wrists, then jerks them about in macabre ways. Nora’s anger, on the other hand, sits in her like a lump of undigested food, making her bilious.
There is, alas, much for women to be genuinely furious about: genital mutilation; sexual violence; denial of access to education; inequality in the workplace. Nora’s anger is the temper tantrum of a thwarted child. Nor is it due, as we are lead to suppose, to how life has treated her, but because of the way the Shahids do. Their betrayal is at once clearly telegraphed–to paraphrase Isaiah, if the wolf lays down with the lamb on the Astroturf, there will be consequences—and far fetched.
What is so frustrating here is the missed opportunity. Messud is an able writer. (Although what a relentlessly dour novel this is.) She is at her best in writing about Nora’s dying mother, who is by far the most appealing character. Indeed, buried in this novel is the seed of a more compelling story: that of the countless women—upstairs, downstairs and in my lady’s chamber—whose creative lives must be balanced with the daily demands of children, parents, partners and jobs. Questions of love and duty—are they mutually exclusive, as presented here?—and about whether the work of making art, however great, justifies the pain inflicted on the artist’s family (A dilemma, I suspect, women artists grapple with more often than male artists do.), are worthy subjects to explore. Instead, we have at the end of the novel exactly what we had at the beginning: Nora’s boiling rage. And after slogging through 253 pages of it, I am beginning to know how she feels.