The Witches of Corinth

In Truth and Consequences, Alison Lurie’s delightful new novel, middle age is a deep, dark forest full of howling wolves, wicked spells, ogres and witches, castles and enchanted gardens. There are princes and princesses, too, rescuing and being rescued, and it all takes place right in the middle of Corinth, Lurie’s fictional upstate New York university town that readers will remember fondly from earlier novels like The War Between the Tates and Foreign Affairs. Lurie is a scholar of fairy tales and children’s literature. As a novelist, she is a master of the humor and pathos of the fictions her characters weave around their own selfish actions. In this, her tenth novel, Lurie’s deep understanding of the literature of childhood fantasy joins hands with her sharp appreciation of the self-deception of adult reality. Casting the crisp irony and humor of her academic novels in the dappled metaphorical light of an enchanted wood, Lurie has had thewit to recognize that middle age is just as dark and bizarre as any of the Grimms’ fantastic tales.

The trolls and wicked witches of the novel are, in fact, just the ordinary citizens of a university town, but the fairy-tale references are everywhere, beginning with the very first glimpse Lurie gives us of her hero and heroine. Alan and Jane Mackenzie had been a happily married successful Corinth couple. He was tall and handsome, a professor of architectural history with an endowed chair and a growing reputation. She, small, tidy, and competent, was a Corinth local who not only married well but worked her way through the university system to become the administrative director of Corinth’s prestigious Matthew Unger Center for the Humanities. But, no surprise to Lurie’s readers, there is trouble in academic paradise.

On a hot midsummer morning,” the novel begins, “after over sixteen years of marriage, Jane Mackenzie saw her husband fifty feet away and did not recognize him.” Alan Mackenzie was, just a year ago, an athletic, youthful man, not yet fifty. Now, transformed, he walks slowly down the driveway, “an aging man with slumped shoulders, a sunken chest, and a protruding belly, leaning on a cane.” Alan, this strange troll shuffling along the driveway, suffers from what Lurie, with her sly insight, recognizes as the modern-day, middle-aged version of a very evil spell, indeed: chronic back pain.

Like his fairy-tale predecessors, Alan has been turned into a frog. Jane

still couldn’t quite believe that the person inside the shirt was her husband…. Awkwardly, she untied and removed the oxfords she had put on and tied earlier that morning. It was like taking care of a giant toddler, she thought—but this child’s bare feet were not soft and smooth and lovable, but hard and knobby, with horny toenails.

This helpless gnome was once Jane’s prince. “Nobody would have guessed that twenty years ago, long after she knew the phrase to be foolish, she had clung to the belief that one day her prince would come, and that he would appear at the University.” Jane met her prince when he came to renovate the center’s building. Alan stayed on to become a distinguished professor, and married Jane, just as she had fantasized. They lived happily ever after—until the prince disappeared and left in his place the ogre with knobby, horny feet.

Alan is not only physically altered. In constant pain, Jane’s charming husband has turned into an ill-tempered stranger, a monster of selfishness. In her portrait of this poor suffering beast, Lurie treats us to some of her poetically exact descriptions of human pettiness:

And the ice,” Alan reminded her. “If you could get me the ice now…. Not that one, it’s too heavy…. Jesus Christ. I need the little blue packs. Both of them…. That’s better…. And could you maybe bring me a towel to wrap them up in?…. Ja-ane…. The bottle of valium from my toilet kit, and some cold grapefruit juice to wash it down….”

Where is his pillow for his back? No, not that one, the one upstairs. Jane goes up and down the steps, in and out of the kitchen. She fetches and washes and wipes up his spills.

Whining, writhing, demanding, spilling, yelling, a noisy lump of unappeasable need, Alan is the worst kind of ogre—he is an invalid. Lurie has a marvelously acute sense of the life and times of this newly created patient. Alan is consumed by self-pity, irritable and demanding, yet resenting every effort to serve him. He has stopped working on his book about church architecture. He is doped up with pain medication and alcohol, and he is angry at everyone who is healthy. Only fellow invalids are tolerated, even admired, and he is surprised at how many he finds around him. “It was almost like a secret society: non-members might know of its existence, but only members understood its power and importance, and only they knew what went on at meetings.”

The evil spell of Alan’s middle-aged chronic back pain spills over onto Jane as well. For if Alan the prince has been turned into a monstrous patient, Jane has been turned into a resentful Cinderella. She has always prided herself on two things: her calm, organized vision, which allows her efficiently to run the Humanities Center with its eccentric fellows and cracks in the ceiling; and her attempt to be a good person. Alan remembers when he met Jane:

…It was not only her good looks and lively charm that attracted him, but her intelligent and sympathetic appreciation of his plans for the building in which she worked, and her honesty and straightforwardness…. Like the architecture he admired, she suggested order, harmony, and tradition.

He reminded her of a white New England church. We meet Jane in even more innocent surroundings, the lettuce patch in her garden, and she is often associated in the novel with the organic, with honest simplicity. Lurie describes her as “lively and pretty, with curly reddish brown hair and the look of a small friendly Welsh terrier.” Jane is seen as a little animal, and not even a forest creature, but a benign, if spunky, domestic pet. Since Alan’s illness, however, Jane has been expelled from the purity of her vegetable garden—both literally (she has no time to tend to her vegetables) and spiritually (even as she dully, dutifully nurtures her charge, she begins to despise him).

Lurie, unsparing as she is of Alan the invalid, is equally unsentimental about Jane’s attempts to be a good nurse. Being a caregiver, Lurie tells us, is another kind of curse, and Truth and Consequences cheerfully exposes the absurdity and unpleasant reality of tending to a person in chronic pain. Jane sees a pamphlet in a doctor’s office that describes the unhappily entangled participants as “caregiver” and “care-getter.” Lurie never loses sight of the trivial preoccupations of either. Her descriptions of Jane’s attempts at goodness and generosity and patience toward Alan, who is genuinely suffering, and how those attempts are accompanied by disgust, anger, and finally—what else can you call it?—hatred, are hilarious and pointed and revealing. This may be a fairy tale, but it’s still an Alison Lurie story, and her characters are, as always, wonderfully imperfect.

Into this blighted marriage comes Delia Delaney. Delia is an academic diva, a writer whose stories, full of gauzy ghosts and poetic horror, have earned her a feverishly devoted following of literary groupies. As one of the Humanities Center’s fellows, she comes to spend the academic year at Corinth University. Alan is also a fellow for the year and their offices are on the same hall of the center’s large Victorian mansion. We first meet Jane in the lettuces, but Delia is introduced to us trailing her “silver net shawl in the long flowery grass.” She is

tall and fair, with masses of heavy red-gold hair, elaborately arranged in a series of braids and puffs and tendrils…. Her voice was low, vibrating, breathy, with a warm Southern accent; her gauzy white dress was cut low, revealing full rose-pink breasts.

A colonial church she is not, though she and Alan do meet in an architectural context. Alan has written a book about architectural follies in England. He has also built two follies on his own property with his graduate students: a miniature version of the Washington Square Arch and an old henhouse transformed into a ruined late-nineteenth-century neo-Gothic chapel. Alan takes the mundane and transforms it into pretty ruins, something he finds ironic now that he sees himself as a ruin. Jane has never understood these fanciful works. Delia, on the other hand, is fascinated. Alan, in turn, is fascinated by her, for Delia is not only beautiful, she not only sees him as an artist, but she also, perhaps most importantly, suffers from chronic migraines.

Over the next few weeks, while Delia and Alan discuss art and the relative pain-dulling merits of vodka, codeine, and morphine, Jane finds herself more and more interested in Delia’s beleaguered husband, Henry Hull. He is an ordinary guy in jeans and a work shirt, a down-to-earth fellow, a house-husband who bumps into Jane at the supermarket among the cabbages. They sympathize with each other over the horrors of tending to invalids and, at the weekly farmer’s market, continue what gradually becomes a courtship among the vegetables. Henry, strong and muscular, is no troll, but he is not exactly a prince either. “To an American, a Canadian is something like—like this cabbage,” he says to Jane after admitting his nationality at the farmer’s market. “He lifted it from his basket. ‘Organic, healthy, solid, reliable, boring.’”

Henry Hull (even his name has a whole-grain feel to it) is perhaps most like a fairy-tale woodsman who comes to the rescue of the lost little girl. For he does come to Jane’s rescue. Unlike Alan, Henry does not view Jane as an inspiring white clapboard church or as someone who does or does not appreciate his own accomplishments. Henry sees something in Jane herself. “You know what’s so remarkable about you?… You always try to say what’s true, not what will make you look good or please the person you’re speaking to.”

Trying to say what’s true, whether it is pleasing or not, is one definition of art. It is definitely not Delia’s. In art as in life, telling the truth is just what Delia does not do. Delia is a storyteller, in both senses of that word, brilliantly manipulative, quickly getting every fellow and secretary at the Humanities Center to do her bidding. “Delia understands the use of obligation,” Henry says.

She knows how to bind people to her with them…. She makes you feel that she couldn’t survive without your help, and that you have a big part in her fame and success.

At the center, as if by magic, large soft sofas are moved up to her room, expensive pale green paper is piled on her desk, an adoring radical feminist fellow screens her phone calls, another fellow brings her the newspaper, another hot tea. Delia casts her own spell, and the spell she casts on Alan is almost strong enough to make him forget his pain. She sees some of his sketches for his follies and arranges for a Manhattan art dealer to give Alan a show. By the end of the book, he has become a fashionable artist building follies for the rich and moving on to create fragmentary architectural tableaux. Swooping down like a fairy godmother, Delia gives Alan a new meaning to his life: she transforms him from a twisted, shuffling troll into a tormented but productive artist.

Delia can be an insufferable fairy godmother, a witch, really, though Alan doesn’t notice that at first. He is charmed and flattered by her breathy artistic folderol, her sense of her own superiority, her condescension to the little leafy vegetable sprites, Jane and Henry. Creative people, she explains, need be neither happy nor good. “‘We’re above all that,’ she had told him. ‘What’s important for us is to do our work.’” This is Delia’s myth about herself, or one of them. It is as if everyone in the novel is in his or her own fairy tale: each of them has a personal myth. As in Lurie’s other novels, the moments of insight are the moments when a character catches an accidental glimpse of the truth beneath the myth. None of Lurie’s emperors has any clothes on, but the nakedness they notice is usually someone else’s and only sometimes, only briefly, their own.

There is a wonderful moment in Truth and Consequences when Alan decides to tough it out after Jane has walked in on him and Delia. Characteristically, the enraged but ever responsible Jane, about to throw a vase of flowers at Delia, holds on to the vase, an antique that is the property of the center, and flings only the wet stems. She is angry and humiliated. But later that night, in a scene reminiscent of Brian Tate in The War Between the Tates, and others of Lurie’s faithless, self-justifying males, Alan takes the offensive. “Maybe it’s you who owe me an explanation,” he says, quite illogically. “Then, though it felt unreal, he took the offensive and rebuked her for her rude unprofessional behavior and leap to false conclusions. He insisted that his presence in Delia’s office” (where, it should be noted, Jane found him hiding behind the curtains in a somewhat dishabille state) “had been an act of concern and friendship—telling himself meanwhile that if he was stretching the truth, it was also out of concern and friendship. He was sparing Jane information that would hurt her unnecessarily.” Here, then, is Alan’s self-myth. But what follows is a moment when, briefly, he sees Jane’s conflicting myth:

As he spoke in imitation of a firm, reasonable manner, he felt a rush of pity and affection for his wife: this small brown-haired woman with her neat shirtwaist dress, her fading prettiness and wide blue eyes, reddened as if with weeping. She was a good person who loved him and had been unfailingly kind to him over the long months of pain. It wasn’t her fault that her kindness had begun to feel more and more like a burden.

Overlapping myths turn out to be less like fairy tales and more like pockets of loneliness. And the transformations that Lurie discovers are not really magic, either: they are, of course, human. Jane’s kindness is transformed by pain into oppression. Pain transforms Delia, too. For Alan,

Delia’s egotism, her self-centeredness, was one of her great attractions. She might not notice or sympathize with his pain and disability, but she also never treated him as an invalid, a member of a different, inferior species.

In some ways, Truth or Consequences is about escape, escape from loneliness, from one myth to another. Alan has escaped from the vegetable patch of his marriage and his academic life to the castles of imagination and creativity. Jane and Henry, like two captive children, break away, too—Jane from the awful ogre, Henry from the wicked but beautiful witch. Delia disappears like a proper fairy godmother sorceress, leaving them all for a house hidden in the southern woods. Middle age is not beaten back, but it does reveal itself as a curse that can become a kind of enchantment. For all its sardonic look at human frailty, Truth and Consequences is a buoyant and optimistic book.