Claire Messud’s earlier, best-selling novel, The Emperor’s Children, is in some ways a longer and more diffuse version of this new one. It too highlights the delusion that without success and fame one is a nonperson. Its lively, crowded narrative moves, sometimes very rapidly, among nearly a dozen individuals (now and then I had to page back to know who was who). Three of the central characters are attractive, intelligent, ambitious college friends, all now thirty years old, who are living and trying to make it in New York. A fourth, ten years younger, is a brilliant but awkward college dropout who comes to Manhattan full of a vague but intense desire for wisdom and recognition. At the top of the imaginary pyramid they all hope to scale are a lot of rich, ambitious, successful people whose dominant quality seems to be selfishness.
For Danielle, Marina, and their gay pal Julius, as well as Marina’s clueless young cousin Fred, the ascent is crucial, and to fail and fall back into ordinary “mediocre” life seems a terrible fate. Their efforts to avoid this horror are exhausting, and also corrupting. Over the course of the novel they are tempted to lie, cheat, sell themselves, and betray each other. Meanwhile other, less likable characters circle around them, hoping to take advantage of their youth and talent and connections. In the background are a few decent, well-meaning people who are trying to comfort the afflicted and clean up their messes. These good guys are almost invariably older and female, and though admirable, they are presented as pathetic, exploited individuals who will never amount to anything much.
Even the most successful characters in The Emperor’s Children don’t feel safe. Murray Thwaite, a world-famous public intellectual with a grand apartment on Central Park West, believes in virtue and truth, or once did. But he also dreads contamination from “irrelevance, smallness, the dutiful petty life…what everyone ultimately wanted to shed.” Recently he has begun to lie to avoid speaking at small irrelevant events, and to fear that the book he is secretly writing, meant to establish him as a great thinker, is not as good as it has to be. He is also occasionally haunted by his provincial middle-class origins, and by fears that his beautiful only daughter, Marina, may not be “entirely out of the ordinary.”
The Emperor’s Children is a quite good novel that makes interesting use of the September 11 disaster and its effect on the main characters. But The Woman Upstairs does far more with a far smaller cast and no dramatic current events. Though less than two thirds as long as The Emperor’s Children, it has much greater weight. Nora Eldridge is a kind of Madame Bovary for our time, someone who dreams not of romantic passion but of personal fame, in which the envy of the less fortunate figures importantly. In her fantasies she is not dancing with a handsome young man, but “showing Sirena my artwork in a fashionable Spartan gallery,…while craven young girls in black looked on.” Nora is like Emma Bovary, however, in the conviction that she needs the love of glamorous and important individuals to give her life meaning. In her world, as in that of The Emperor’s Children, there are a few thoroughly nice people, but they are not famous, and thus not interesting or useful to her.
One particular triumph of The Woman Upstairs is that Messud’s heroine is so sympathetic, and so eloquent and convincing, that the irrational depth of her illusions is not always apparent. Partly this is due to the unconscious assumptions behind every first-person narrative. In real life, practically anyone who speaks to us often and at length, relating his or her life story and apparently holding nothing back, is by definition an intimate friend. As Nora’s imaginary confidants, we temporarily adopt her view of the world. And if we do so she is not deluded. Rather, in her belief that only famous and special people are fully visible and human, and that the world naturally revolves around these persons, she is a bit like those early astronomers who genuinely thought that the sun circled the earth.
Because Claire Messud has lent Nora her own outstanding gifts as a writer we cannot help believing what she tells us, at least for a while; believing, for instance, that she is in fact a gifted artist, though not in her chosen field. Take for instance the description of her first view of the studio she is about to share with Sirena:
I felt nothing but misgivings: the whiff of burning plastic with an undertone of mouse, or rat; the trippable hollows in the steps from decades of trudging feet; the dim, high bulbs shedding light like dust in the corridors; the spatter and rattle of the rain upon the windows and the windows in their ancient sockets,…like the rattling of…teeth before they fell.
Eventually, rather than becoming a famous artist, Nora discovers that she has been betrayed by the special people whose spotlight, in her imagination, once shone almost equally on her. She realizes that they have not befriended her but used her, and as a result she is more than ever convinced that she is completely mediocre and invisible. “I thought it wasn’t true, or not true of me, but I’ve learned that I am no different at all. The question now is how to work it, how to use that invisibility, to make it burn.”
Though she sees herself as having broken through her illusions, Nora has not escaped them. She still believes in and longs for fame, only now she is looking for another path to it, through rage:
You don’t want to know how angry I am. Nobody wants to know about that. I am furious at both of them—at the lie of their friendship, their false promises of the world and of art and of love…. No longer young, no longer pretty, no longer loved, or sweet, or lovable,…there’s no telling what I might do…. I could become the best-known fucking artist in America, out of sheer spite…. I’m angry enough to set fire to a house just by looking at it.
Fortunately, rage is not necessary to genius: some great artists have been angry, violent people and others have been kind and peaceful. If, as seems likely, Nora doesn’t become “the best-known fucking artist in America,” what will she do? The possibilities are unsettling. There have been many cases of friends of the famous who have turned into enemies, of fans who have turned into stalkers. Like deranged, disappointed lovers, these people have attacked those by whom they felt, perhaps justifiably, slighted or betrayed. They have invaded their former idols’ homes, stolen and destroyed their work, and sometimes done worse. As a result they too have achieved a kind of horrible notoriety.
It is possible that Nora Eldridge will follow this downward path. After all, her last words in the book are a scary distillation of the plea, or demand, that anyone who desperately wants to become famous always makes to the world: “Just watch me.”