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The Road to the Tower

With the possible exception of Joyce Carol Oates, there is no busier or more prolific woman of letters in twenty-first-century America than Francine Prose. During the past decade or so she’s brought out a study of Anne Frank, a short life of Caravaggio, a guide to “reading like a writer,” a book about the female “muses” who inspired various male artists, a monograph on gluttony, and novels for both young adults (Touch) and grown-ups. These last include, most recently, A Changed Man, which focuses on a neo-Nazi skinhead, and Goldengrove, which traces the impact of a drowning death on the victim’s boyfriend and younger sister. Go back even further into the Prose bibliography and you’ll find fiction about a voodoo queen in old New Orleans, a creative writing teacher in thrall to one of his students, and an Italian butcher who—by the grace of God—won his wife in a card game.

That last novel, Household Saints, was made into a movie, but Blue Angel—the one about Professor Ted Swenson and his obsession with Angela Argo—remains Prose’s best-known work of fiction. Like her latest, the satirical and unsettling My New American Life, this “campus” novel is a troubling comedy, sharply witty but also surprisingly sympathetic to its protagonist’s all-too-human failings.

In Blue Angel, Ted Swenson teaches “Beginning Fiction” at Euston College in Vermont. The poor guy really does try hard to find positive things to say about his students’ various subliterate compositions, even preppy Courtney’s awful “First Kiss—Inner City Blues” and Danny’s tale of a frustrated teen having his way with a frozen chicken. After one particularly dismal effort called “Toilet Bowl,” the desperate Swenson actually manages to croak out “Thank you,” followed by “It’s a brave story. Really. Let’s hear what the rest of you think. Remember, let’s start off with what we like….”

For twenty years Swenson has been faithfully married to Sherrie, the beautiful school nurse, and they’ve been happy together. Nonetheless, just lately the blocked writer—it’s been ten years since his last book, the ominously titled Phoenix Time—has started to feel a little weary of his virtuous ways:

What really bothers him…is that he was too stupid or timid or scared to sleep with those students. What exactly was he proving? Illustrating some principle, making some moral point? The point is: he adores Sherrie, he always has. He would never hurt her. And now, as a special reward for having been such a good husband, such an all-around good guy, he’s got the chill satisfaction of having taken his high-minded self-denial almost all the way to the grave. Because now it’s all over. He’s too old. He’s way beyond all that.

Wrong. No man is beyond all that. It just takes the right other woman, though on the surface Angela Argo doesn’t seem Swenson’s type at all. A new student, she’s “a skinny, pale redhead with neon-orange and lime-green streaks in her hair and a delicate, sharp-featured face pierced in a half-dozen places.” She wears a black leather motorcycle jacket and “an arsenal of chains, dog collars, and bracelets.” Yet Angela, alone of all the students Swenson has ever taught, possesses The Gift. The chapters of the punky goth’s novel—reproduced in the book—are terrific.

To his surprise, Swenson finds himself strangely turned on by the young woman’s command of language, by her syntax and diction, though it doesn’t hurt that her book’s sexy plot revolves around the kinky seduction of a teenaged girl by her teacher. Or is it the other way around? All that really matters to Swenson is that enigmatic Angela writes like an angel, albeit a rather blue angel. Before long, however, the good professor finds himself caught up in a genuine folie à deux, while simultaneously clashing more and more with his politically correct colleagues. Toward its end, the novel begins to accelerate and things spiral completely out of poor Swenson’s control. As Prose succinctly puts it: “Time passes quickly when you’re wrecking your life.”

Time also passes quickly for Lula, the young Albanian protagonist of My New American Life, who is, however, very much in control of herself and deeply focused on acquiring her green card and enjoying the endless bounty of our generous country. In a loose sense, My New American Life is the flip side of Blue Angel. Where Swenson merely dreams of a new life, Lula does all she can to realize hers. Readers may feel sorry for the middle-aged professor, but Lula elicits our admiration as a force all her own, a survivor, not a victim. And unlike Angela Argo, Lula is a woman with whom it is quite easy to fall in love.

When the novel opens it is 2005 and Lula has been employed as a nanny by Mister Stanley for nearly a year. Her unhappy benefactor currently works long days on Wall Street, having given up his career as a college professor in the hope of better providing for his wife Ginger and son Zeke. Unfortunately, a couple of Christmas Eves back, Ginger suddenly ran away from home, having decided that she needed to live a more wholesome, organic, and spiritual life. Since then the twenty-six-year-old Lula—who speaks excellent English—has kept Zeke company after school and brought a little warmth to a household in which father and seventeen-year-old son hardly communicate. Though neither acts on the only half-acknowledged feeling, both Mister Stanley and Zeke are clearly smitten with the vibrant Lula.

How could they not be? Lula is irresistible and when the novel opens the reader might guess that we’re in for an updated version of Turgenev’s First Love or Calder Willingham’s Rambling Rose. No innocent, Lula knows that “flirtation and charm worked everywhere” and were “second only to money” in getting what you want. At one point she even recalls having paid for some of her college courses, back in Tirana, with sexual favors for a professor. But she loves America and wants desperately to stay in this gorgeous and exuberantly vulgar country:

Who would choose Tirana over a city where half-naked fashion models and their stockbroker boyfriends drank mojitos from pitchers decorated with dancing monkeys?

While working at an upscale bar in New York, Lula and her friend Dunia, both technically here as tourists, worry constantly about being sent back to Albania:

She told herself not to worry, the government had plenty of people to deport before they got around to her. Busboys like Eduardo, Arab engineering students, hordes of cabdrivers and cleaners. On the other hand, who would a bored horny INS dude rather have in detention: Eduardo, some Yemeni geezer in a skullcap, or two twenty-six-year-old Albanian girls with shiny hair and good tits?

Then, one day, Dunia disappears—perhaps sent back to Albania, perhaps sold into white slavery. Lula regards this latter option as a distinct possibility. But what can she do?

She promised herself not to forget how lucky she was, living her comfy new American life in Mister Stanley’s comfy house instead of selling her body to some tuna fishermen in Bari or hiking up her skirt on a service road beside a Sicilian autostrada.

As it turns out, Mister Stanley is not only willing to sponsor Lula’s application for citizenship but also just happens to be the boyhood friend of the country’s leading immigration lawyer, Don Settebello. Lula’s life is starting to look up.

And then the young woman notices the black Lexus SUV that is slowly cruising around Mister Stanley’s New Jersey neighborhood. One afternoon the ominous vehicle stops and three guys emerge, knock on the door, and inform Lula that they are friends of her cousin George. All they want from her is a small, quite inconsequential favor. Just hide this gun until they call for it. Partly because she finds Alvo, the leader of the gang, to be kind of cute, Lula impulsively agrees.

By this point, the reader has begun to feel increasingly ill at ease. Who are these Albanian low-lifes? Why do they want Lula to hide the gun? Is Lula in danger? Prose, author of Reading Like a Writer, knows that Chekhov famously remarked that if you produce a pistol at the beginning of a play it must be fired in act three. But who, in this case, will pull the trigger? Will Lula be the victim? Or Mister Stanley or Zeke? Will this bright comedy suddenly turn very, very dark?

Matters grow increasingly unsettling over the following weeks: Lula discovers that someone with red hair has been secretly using her shower and Zeke’s laptop. Could it be Alvo? She begins to build sexual fantasies about him. Before long, he starts to reappear on her doorstep when nobody is home, each time asking for just a little more from her. What is going on? Have we slid into the distinctly creepy territory of a Patricia Highsmith thriller?

Meanwhile, Lula’s mind constantly veers back and forth from the present to the past, recalling the grotesque deaths of her parents, comparing America with Albania: “The true stories of her childhood were tales of grubby misery without the kick of romance, just suffering and more suffering, betrayal and petty greed.” In view of such a soiled life “back home” it’s little wonder that “Lula was obsessive about her soap, hand-milled in France by monks consecrated to silent prayer and shampoo.”

When Mister Stanley requests details of her earlier life in Albania, Lula quite naturally makes up stories, full of exaggerations and elements of ancient folklore. “It was nicer to mine the mythical past.” But that’s not the only reason. As she once told Zeke, perplexed by the application essays requested by various colleges: “Figure out what each one wanted to hear. Then…write that.” Lula adds that Zeke’s father “would have given him the wrong advice: write what was in his heart.”

Providing her own little public with what it wants to hear, Lula tells Mister Stanley that in Albania “blood feuds still raged for generations. Revenges. Bride kidnapings.” Back there “courtship was still the fireman-carry and rape.” When her fascinated boss asks her to type up some of her longer stories, she goes all out. “I’m writing a short story now,” she confesses to Mister Stanley and her immigration lawyer Don Settebello:

“It’s about this government bureau that analyzes people’s dreams, and everyone has to report their dreams, and they’re on the lookout for any dreams that might indicate that someone is plotting against the state.” Lula held her breath. Neither Don nor Mister Stanley showed any sign of recognizing the plot of a novel by Ismail Kadare.

By introducing Don Settebello, My New American Life adds a further political twist to the story. Settebello is earnest, hardworking, idealistic, and even, it would seem at first, a bit of a fool. But he grows obsessed with the horrors visited by the US interrogators upon the detainees at Guantánamo:

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