What Are You Like?
by Anne Enright
Atlantic Monthly Press, 257 pp., $24.00
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 …