One common tactic of totalitarian regimes is the designation of certain ethnic, economic, or religious groups as “nonpersons” or “former persons.” These unfortunate individuals are then automatically deprived of the rights of citizenship; they can be fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, mistreated, and in some cases even murdered with impunity.
Today a similar though far less violent process seems to be occurring spontaneously in so-called advanced democratic societies. What is known as “the celebrity culture” now separates us into a privileged minority who are recognized as fully and triumphantly human, and a majority who are not. This division partially overlaps with, but is not identical to, the more widely publicized split between the very rich (sometimes called the 1 percent) and the rest. If you are a celebrity, even a minor one, images of and information (or, sometimes, misinformation) about you will appear on TV and the Internet, and in magazines and newspapers—where your name will often be printed in larger letters or darker type than the names of nonpersons. The very title of the popular journal People implies that only those featured in it are real; the rest of us, by definition, are lesser, more shadowy beings.
Perhaps as a result of all this, today more and more of us seem to be afflicted by a kind of celebrity complex. When we get together we tend to gossip not about our own relatives and friends and neighbors and coworkers, but about film and TV and sports stars and members of the British royal family. Individuals whom we know only as flimsy two-dimensional paper shadows, or fleeting electronic impulses on a screen, interest us more than three-dimensional human beings. In advanced cases of celebrity complex, the afflicted persons feel that fame is necessary to self-esteem; if they cannot achieve it themselves, they may define and value themselves most importantly as fans.
Of course we have always been interested in the lives of famous men and women and liked to observe them, without wanting to be famous ourselves, just as we might like to see Niagara Falls without wanting to live there. In the past it was usually enough to be capable in your own life. A good doctor or lawyer, a skilled carpenter or schoolteacher, a successful farmer, a fine cook, an honest and competent journalist or civil servant, were locally recognized and honored. This earlier mindset is visible in the TV series Downton Abbey, where the servants are presented as in no way inferior to their employers in human worth, dignity, and self-respect. Possibly this restful state of affairs is one reason for the popularity of the program and others like it.
When pictures of our family members appear in the local newspaper, most of us are pleased, and may even send them to friends. But such temporary local recognition does not satisfy people with a celebrity complex. They are not interested in being seen as spectators or participants at a town meeting, farmers’ market, school graduation, baseball game, or Halloween parade. Instead they call attention to themselves through eccentric behavior, or volunteer to be humiliated on reality TV shows. Sometimes they manage to shove their way into the company of a celebrity, and for a while become part of an “entourage”—though they may be badly damaged in the process.
Claire Messud’s new novel, The Woman Upstairs, is a terrifyingly perceptive first-person portrait of someone like this. Nora Eldridge is a third-grade teacher at a Cambridge, Massachusetts, private school that strongly suggests Shady Hill. At first sight, Nora is not what most of us would call a loser. Not only is she very good at her current job, she was once a management consultant who “went everywhere by taxi…and owned four pairs of Christian Louboutin shoes.” At one time she was about to marry an agreeable but unambitious young lawyer, but she broke off the engagement because, as she puts it, she wanted “to fly”—metaphorically, rather than as she then often did, in business class. I found Nora’s past history slightly surprising, but it is probably important as a way of underlining a point Claire Messud wants to make, that even apparently successful people can suffer from a lethal celebrity complex.
When The Woman Upstairs begins, Nora has become convinced that she is a nonperson. She is not only oppressed by her own insignificance, but scornful of everyone who is equally cut off from fame. She also complains bitterly of how she’s had “to cede and swerve and step aside, unacknowledged and unadmired and unthanked…” In fact she is acknowledged and admired and thanked by her students and their parents, but somehow that doesn’t count.
Nora also complains of being invisible, but in a different way from Ralph Ellison’s hero. She wants us to know that she is not exactly an Underground Woman:
Women like us are not underground…. We’re always upstairs. We’re not the madwomen in the attic—they get lots of play, one way or another…. In our lives of quiet desperation, the woman upstairs is who we are…. We’re completely invisible.
For some people, including many actual celebrities, invisibility may be a relief or even a pleasure—a fine kind of freedom. But it is no use to Nora, because she feels trapped in it. “All you want,” she complains, “is that door marked EXIT, the escape to a place where Real Life will be; and you can never find it.” For her, Real Life means being a successful, famous, and glamorous artist. Anything else, by implication, is unreal.
In the past Nora has made efforts to become an artist. She used to paint “big messy pictures” but later began to concentrate on miniature dioramas the size of shoe boxes, each a reproduction of the actual room of a famous dead woman: Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Alice Neel, and Edie Sedgwick. This last choice, of course, is striking, since Sedgwick was not an artist, only a Warhol-created celebrity, “famous for being famous.” But for Nora “Edie was essential…. She was the cool people’s Marilyn Monroe.” As an adolescent, Nora tells us, she herself might have chosen to be Sedgwick rather than Georgia O’Keeffe, who for some reason does not rate a diorama—perhaps because her life was not sufficiently tragic.
Nora has always been afraid to show her work, fearing that people might not “get it”—they might say or suggest that it isn’t any good. As she puts it, “I couldn’t bear to be a failure. It seemed worse to try and fail than not to try.” Meanwhile, she can continue alternatively to believe in her potential greatness and to doubt it bitterly.
I always thought I’d get farther. I’d like to blame the world for what I’ve failed to do, but the failure…is all mine, in the end. What…consigned me to mediocracy, is me, just me.
Nora’s life changes when she meets a glamorous international couple, the Shahids, parents of a boy in her third-grade class. Sirena, the wife, is an ambitious “almost-famous” artist; soon she will be “well known, in certain important circles.” The husband, Skandar, is a Lebanese professor from Paris who has a visiting fellowship at what is apparently Harvard and is writing a book on ethics and history. “He’s interested in how we can’t tell a history truly…but so then we must try to tell a history ethically….” Like the names of the couple, which suggest the words “siren” and “scandal,” this topic should be a warning to both Nora and the reader.
Nora is attracted to the Shahids instantly, not so much sexually as romantically, though sex enters into her obsession occasionally in the form of fantasy. Almost at once she sees her friendship with the family as a way out of mediocrity. “My lifelong secret certainty of specialness, my precious, hidden specialness, was awakened and fed by them, grew insatiable for them….” She is especially obsessed by Sirena. It was like “having an epiphany…a feeling that you have no choice but to trust completely.”
Appropriately, and brilliantly, Messud portrays Sirena as just as anxious about and obsessed by her own artistic success as Nora is:
This show—it’s very important, it’s my chance. I’m getting older, and…each time it only matters more. If I fail, it will be the end…. This matters so much.
Sirena creates installations: “lush gardens and jungles made out of household items and refuse: elaborately carved soap primroses, splayed lilies and tulips fashioned out of dyed dishrags and starch….” She also makes videos of the installations, and “the story of the videos was precisely this revelation that the beautiful world was fake.” Skillfully as Sirena’s work is described, it is possible that it may not be as wonderful as it seems to Nora, and that perhaps what we have here may be a devastating commentary on much of contemporary art.
When Sirena seems to recognize her as a fellow artist and suggests that they share the rent of a studio in Dorchester, Nora is thrilled. She begins to work on her miniature dioramas with enthusiasm again. But as time passes she begins to put more and more of her time and energy into helping Sirena construct a new room-size installation called “Wonderland.” This is a completely plastic world, with a bright green astroturf floor, flowers and plants made out of aspirins and shards of mirror, and a sky of secondhand blue clothing sewn together largely by Nora. In its final form it includes, perhaps symbolically, a huge artificial model of a human heart that sprays rosewater mist and six video cameras set to record the responses of potential viewers.
Sirena doesn’t apologize for keeping Nora from her own work; rather she charms her with sweet talk:
When Sirena took my hand between both of hers and said, “What would I do without you? You are my angel, my heart’s best love,” I believed her.
As readers, of course, we suspect this instantly, but Nora is by now completely committed to her intense new friendship.
I didn’t look at her and think, “Why are you almost famous and I’m only your helper?”…Instead, I looked at her and saw myself, saw what suddenly seemed possible for me, too.…
Nora also soon begins to babysit regularly, without pay, for the Shahids, and takes great pleasure in it. When her jobs are over, Skandar walks her home from their expensive Cambridge neighborhood to her shabbier one. Gradually the walks get longer and longer, and eventually they seem to promise Nora an even deeper and more dubious involvement in the family’s private life.
But of course the Shahids are only in town for the academic year, and all too soon they are gone, leaving Nora to try to hold on to the memory of those wonderful months when she too was special. The illusion lasts for several years, but not forever.