What are you like? Well, you are:
way out, sometimes to the point of aggression
and given to column lists like this one.
But you are also:
good at evoking milieu
capable of contained, perfect bits of writing, that hit the nail they’re meant to hit and hypnotize one with the impact—like this macabre passage about a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown:
At two in the morning, her eye was caught by a lampshade hanging over an archway in a flat across the road. For a second it looked like a body hanging there: the archway as a dark coat, and the lampshade was the head, broken at the neck like a blossom on its stem. Of course, it didn’t exist, except in the corner of her eye, but the face was awful, dead and fleshy and somehow pleased with itself, and the coat, the cloak, the shapelessness was worse. The face was blank when she saw it first, down-looking, perhaps a little sad and surprised by the sight of the floor. It was only when she saw what it was that it took on this pleased expression, no doubt because she had been fooled.
With The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath managed an unforgettable novel on just one nervous breakdown. Here there are two, plus another woman with a brain tumor leading to dementia and death in childbirth. The breakdown quoted above belongs to a character called Rose, and continues like this:
What if the woman really did hang herself? What if the woman hanged herself, maybe next week? She would wait until Rose’s head was turned and then climb up on her chair. Or she would wait until Rose had gone to the toilet and then she would climb up on her chair and tie the knot. She would wear the coat for effect, or perhaps because, in her distress, she felt cold. (Why would she leave the curtains open? Because she did not want to rot at the end of the rope, did not want the rope to grow wet with her, to creep over her skull and pull her face away at a slow crawl, until she slipped through and fell on the floor, and then the rest of her face dropped off after her—a day later, because gravity is slow, a whole day. She left the curtains open so that Rose could get the authorities on the phone and watch their fumbled pietà, in trilbies and trenchcoats, as they caught and cradled and lowered her down, one on the chair, now put to rights, and one standing on the ground.)
The woman knew Rose. She saw her at the shops, or she saw her at the bus stop. And she didn’t like her. She would wait until Rose looked over before she kicked away her chair.
Rose is one of two identical Irish twins born in Dublin in 1965. The other one is called Maria, and the story is about their separation and later reunion. They have alternating chapters to themselves, with abrupt jumps from one life story to the other. Their mother, Anna, is the person with the brain tumor that kills her as she gives birth to them. This occurs in the first chapter, but Anna reappears—rather unnecessarily, you might think—to have her dementia all over again in the penultimate section of the book. Her husband’s name is Albert (Berts) Delahunty. He is only twenty-four when the twins are born, and feels he can manage to bring up one baby but not two. The nuns at the hospital are keen to keep both children for adoption, and they make Berts feel they are doing him a favor by allowing him to hang on to Maria—whereas in fact it is the other way around: he is doing them a favor by giving up Rose. Anne Enright is not fond of nuns. And her snide takes on them are among the most enjoyable passages in the book. She has a nice sense of irony—incompatible though that quality may seem in the overwhelming too-muchness of some of her writing.
Maria grows up in her father’s suburban three-bedroom Dublin semi-detached house. Enright is good on suburbia, on things like trash bags and vacuum cleaners. Bert’s well-meaning second wife, Evelyn, looks after Maria, is nice to her, and gives birth to two more children. “Evelyn had wanted to make a go of her children, to make friends of them, but they were all strangers to her still. If you thought about it, it was the loneliest job of them all.” Insights like these, casually expressed and casually dumped in the text, are another positive feature of What Are You Like?, in engaging contrast to the general overintensity of the prose.
After school, Maria studies engineering, drops out, needs to get away from her family, and goes to New York, “where everyone she met hates their parents.” She works as a maid for rich, eccentric employers, who leave a sticker on the refrigerator door to inform her she is a treasure. She has an unsatisfactory affair with a young man of Czech extraction, then a nervous breakdown at exactly the same time Rose has hers (Christmas 1985: they are both twenty); though of course neither knows about the other’s. Maria makes a suicide attempt—or possibly not: she is too confused for the reader not to be—but manages to catch a plane to Dublin, where she wakes up in the hospital with an irritating psychiatrist by her side. She escapes, still very confused, but when she next gets a chapter to herself, she has moved into a rented room and has a job as changing room supervisor in the women’s dress department of a big store (i.e., she has to hand out the discs numbered according to how many garments each customer has chosen to try on, and to tell her that whatever it is is exactly the right color for her).
Rose’s life meanwhile is lived at a higher social level. She has been adopted by Dr. Cotter and his wife in Leatherhead (a prosperous bedroom community not far from London). They are a progressive couple with a big social conscience, and act as foster parents to a few boys in addition to adopting Rose. She studies music and sleeps with a nice viola player from a good family—a far less dramatic affair than her sister’s; and she gives it up from boredom. She gives up music too, choosing instead to become a social worker and do good. After her nervous breakdown she becomes obsessed with finding her natural parents, which brings her to Dublin and to the changing room where Maria works: the sisters recognize each other, and the ending is happy-end happy, with nice Dr. Cotter smiling as he discovers “that he loved them both equally, though he preferred his own.”
What Are You Like? is not long, but it is too long in the sense that there are unnecessary episodes like the replay of Anna’s death; and Bert’s infidelity, late in the story, to his second wife. The plot is predictable, the male characters are shadows, but the structure works, and there are wonderful moments as well as incomprehensible and over-the-top ones, as when Bert expects Rose’s visit:
The doorbell rang. And the hoover of his wife turned around and sucked itself up. The house of his wife turned itself inside out for him. The house of his wife flipped over in space; with the wallpaper showing on the outside and the furniture drifting into the garden, and the lampshades floating off the roof: vomiting Berts out on to the road.
“Must try less hard,” would be a fair verdict on this novel. But I shall buy Enright’s next one.