The Confessions of Edward Day is Valerie Martin’s ninth novel, and it’s a triumph of her unique art. As usual, it’s easy on the ear—Martin writes with amplitude, precision, grace, and wit—but it’s hard on the characters. They do not spare one another, and their author doesn’t spare them. None of Martin’s books ends with kisses all around and happy feasts, and The Confessions of Edward Day is no exception. Reader, be warned: you won’t end up in Cinderella’s castle. But you’ll have a fine time not getting there.
Martin’s distinguished career began with the publication of Love, a collection of stories, in 1977, and continued with her first novel, Set in Motion, in 1978. These have been followed by two more story collections— The Consolation of Nature, in 1988, and The Unfinished Novel, in 2006—as well as a life of Saint Francis of Assisi and six more novels. Of the novels, the best known are Mary Reilly, a look at Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as seen through the eyes of Mary Reilly, Dr. Jekyll’s adoring quasi-literate housemaid (played in the 1996 film of that name by Julia Roberts), and Property, which won the United Kingdom’s Orange Prize in 2003.
This latter is an astonishing take on the gruesome and emotionally incestuous lives led during the antebellum years of the American South, not only by the plantation slaves but by the white wives of the plantation owners, who were also considered “property”—albeit of a slightly higher order, since they couldn’t be sold. Most of Martin’s novels have at least one character in them who is likable or charming or admirable in some way, but Martin does not flinch: slavery deforms everyone involved in it. Property is Gone with the Wind and Uncle Tom’s Cabin rolled into one and turned upside down. Nobody comes out of it well, although of the two female leads—one black, one white—it can be said of them that they are brave and resourceful, and also long-suffering; they put up with a colossal amount of sadistic abuse and hypocrisy, not that they have a choice.
The Confessions of Edward Day takes place in a very different setting—the milieu of young East Coast actors in the 1970s. Any title beginning with The Confessions of… raises the specters of Western literature’s two most eminent confession-writers. The first is Saint Augustine of Hippo, whose Confessions—written in 397–398—is considered to be the original of the form. The second is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who cast a backward glance at his predecessor by stealing his title, while embarking upon his own supposedly no-holds-barred, bare-all, would-I-lie-to-you Confessions (completed in 1770 but published in 1782, after the author’s death, by which time no one could contradict his version of events).
In respect to Rousseau, it is worth mentioning that Stéphane Audeguy’s novel The Only Son, narrated by Rousseau’s ne’er-do-well older brother, appeared in a 2008 English version by the much-respected translator John Cullen. Cullen is the life partner of Valerie Martin; thus it’s legitimate to speculate that a knowledge both of Rousseau’s autobiography and of Audeguy’s novel may cast some light on Martin’s title. The Only Son is a highly entertaining antidote for those who may have had the virtuous version of Rousseau crammed down their throats: in it, the neglected elder brother portrays little Jean-Jacques as a spoiled, sanctimonious, self-admiring suck-up. Not only that, he tells lies. He waves his lesser sins about as a way of deflecting attention from his greater ones—especially his lack of generosity—making himself look good by appearing to come clean. We’d do well to mistrust him, and indeed all writers of “confessions,” especially if they are successful and famous. This is a caution we should heed while reading The Confessions of Edward Day.
Before delving further into Martin’s novel, however, I must make a confession of my own. (See “confessions, well to mistrust,” above.) I know Valerie Martin quite well. We’ve been friends since 1985: we met in Alabama, where both of us were teaching. We read each other’s work. We are the same height. Being a believer in the sociobiological theory of book reviewing, which compares the age, gender, and height of the author with that of the reviewer (this theory has not yet been written, but it will be), I feel that readers of book reviews ought to be informed of such connections so that they can add whatever grains of salt may be merited. Thus: perhaps I like Martin’s work because she’s my friend. Or: perhaps I’m a friend of Martin because I like her work. On the other hand, perhaps you should believe in my professional objectivity, which compels me to tell the truth unaffected by personal considerations.
Having confessed, let me turn to The Confessions of Edward Day. Book titles are important, being the first trumpet blast of the text. I’ve already said a little about the import of the word “confessions,” but what about “Edward Day”? Our confessor does not call himself “Ed”: for an American who was young in the 1970s, he’s curiously formal. It should not escape notice that the first name of Mr. Hyde—the very unpleasant alter ego of Dr. Jekyll in Stevenson’s novella, and thus a personage well known to the author of Mary Reilly—is Edward. (Edward Bear of A.A. Milne’s children’s verses and Saint Edward the Confessor are probably both false positives.)
Then there’s “Day.” The names of characters in books, unlike those of actual people, are never entirely accidental, and “Day” gleams with mysterious significance: What does it portend? For people of my generation, and probably Valerie Martin’s as well—she’s a decade younger—the man who first springs to mind is Dennis Day, the handsome big-eyed singer on the Jack Benny radio and television shows. In propria persona Day always played a good boy, innocent and naive, but he was also an actor—in particular, a mimic who did imitations of other people. Could the deceptively nice and ever-smiling many-voiced Dennis Day have been at the back of Martin’s mind, or even at the front of it, when she was creating her character?
Or is there another association, drawn from Hamlet, the play that provides Edward Day with his first hefty role? “To thine own self be true,” says Polonius in his well-known homily on the subject of moral behavior, “And it must follow, as the night the day/Thou canst not then be false to any man.” But what is Edward Day’s “self,” and if he can’t find it or define it, how can he be true to it, or indeed to anyone else? Untruth, and indeed treachery—intended and inadvertent—lie at the heart of his story. And if Edward is “day,” who is the “night” that must follow him?
Some novels begin with epigraphs—these act as key signatures in music, setting the tone and dispensing hints of what is to come—and The Confessions of Edward Day has two. One is by Stanislavsky, the Russian acting guru much in vogue at the time when Edward Day is training to be an actor. This quotation has to do with the difficulty of penetrating another person’s soul using only “our ordinary type of attention.” Actors are of course always bent on penetrating the souls of others, but not of real others: the others they want to penetrate are fictional ones, whom they must then channel through their own bodies and emotions so that the audience believes them to be real. (“Truth in acting” is much striven for by the young actors in Edward’s set, though when viewed from a distance this phrase becomes an oxymoron: How can any kind of “truth” be portrayed by pretending? But such are the paradoxes of art.) The second epigraph is from Macbeth—“False face must hide what the false heart doth know.” Whose face will turn out to be false, we readers wonder?
The story opens in true Confessions mode—in the same way Saint Augustine and Rousseau do—with the narrator telling us about his childhood. Day’s was complicated: the youngest of four boys, he was supposed to have been a girl. Having thus disappointed expectation at the outset, he grew up eager to please his cold, withdrawn mother—a mother who was, however, adept at reading stories to him, taking all the voices. She shattered the family by decamping with another woman just before Edward graduated from high school, and the two women committed suicide while nineteen-year-old Edward was having his first all-night college sexual experience. Had he been studying at home he might have fielded one of the phone calls his mother made to him before departing from the planet, thus preventing the tragedy; as it is he’s left with a burden of guilt, the Freudian associations of which are not lost on him. “I wasn’t so naive as to equate sex with death,” he muses, “though my experience certainly suggested the connection forcefully: have sex, your mother kills herself.”
Thus supplied early in life with a boiling cauldron of raw material, Edward sets out on the path that leads to his career as an actor. “My emotions,” he tells us,
at that point were the strongest thing about me; they did battle with one another and I looked on, a helpless bystander. This, I realized, mirrored the position of the audience before the stage. I wanted to find a visceral way to give an audience everything they needed to know about suffering, which is, after all, the subject of most drama, including comedies….
The account of his mother and her death constitutes Edward’s prologue. The main action begins in 1974. Edward has graduated from college, and is now living in a tiny Greenwich Village apartment—still affordable, then, for those with low incomes—and studying at “Sanford Meisner’s professional program at his studio on Fifty-sixth Street.” For those not acquainted with the New York acting scene of those days, Sanford Meisner was one of the most respected and influential American acting teachers of the twentieth century. He was also a disciple of Stanislavsky, which explains Edward’s familiarity with the latter’s words and methods.
Here I will pause to say that Martin has done her acting-world homework thoroughly—so well, in fact, that her book comes equipped with encomiums from two veteran actors, Blythe Danner and Ben Gazzara, both of whom are well placed to judge the accuracy of her rendition. If Martin can convince the professionals, her sleight of hand must be pretty good. In fact, the artistic milieu portrayed by her is very close to that of the 1970s New York dance scene as described in Joan Acocella’s 2007 book of insightful essays, Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints. There’s the same highly serious dedication to art at the expense of personal happiness, the same bed-hopping, the same over-the-top behavior verging on craziness, the same kinds of improbable liaisons and unaccountable infatuations.
In the brief period between, say, 1968 and 1980—when penicillin had turned syphilis from a killer into a minor complaint, when the deployment of the Pill had neutralized the fear of pregnancy, when drugs had not yet become a cliché of suburban high school students, and when AIDs had not yet swept through the art scene—there really was a bohemia, and its inhabitants really did carry on in these ways.
“Edward Day’s confession reminded me of how exciting New York theater really was in the seventies,” says Blythe Danner. Part of that excitement surely had to do with the vertigo induced by the release of all social brake systems: suddenly, everything was possible, if not totally permissible, and that “everything” included the varieties of sexual experience. But the excitement was also artistic—actors believed that a great deal was at stake in their art, that risk-taking was mandatory, and that every performance should be like hurling yourself off a cliff with no safety harness. How to conjure that effect was the object of much thought, study, teaching, criticism, and experiment, and we are taken behind those scenes by Martin most effectively.
But although the techniques and tics and professional chat of actors provide the genuine toads in Martin’s imaginary garden, she has other game in her sights. Over the years her work, although varied, has circled around several recurring motifs. We might identify these as quirky sexual obsession, the ruthlessness and betrayals of love, the enigmatic doubleness of the self, and the grim, sometimes fatal business of the artistic vocation. All of these are brought together in The Confessions of Edward Day.
After his mother has dispatched herself, we rejoin young Edward in 1974 as he’s packing for a weekend at the beach with a group of his acting friends. Having snapped his suitcase shut on his meager gear, he combs his hair in front of the mirror—a signature moment for him, since he does spend quite a lot of time looking at himself. Actors do: they are their own material, and must be conscious of what they’ve been given to work with.
Edward devotes a long paragraph to this episode: we readers are supposed to pay attention to it. “Stanislavsky described such a moment,” he tells us,
a man combing his hair before a mirror, as one of perfect naturalness and ease, and therefore poetic; for him it epitomized “truth,” which was the condition an actor must discover in performance. He called it “public solitude,” the notion being, I suppose, that we are most “ourselves” when we don’t have an audience. I smiled at my face in the mirror, recognizing that smile, the one I trusted as no other, which seems odd to me now because at the time I knew nothing about that smiling young man combing his hair; he was as opaque as a clay jug.
Think about that clay jug image. First, the jug is made of clay, not porcelain: it’s a thick material. Second, the jug is a container, empty in itself. What will be poured into Edward, and who will do the pouring?
The beach weekend proves definitive for Edward. During it, he connects with two loaded guns—Madeleine, a beautiful fellow actor with whom he initiates an affair during a midnight swim, and Guy Margate, another fellow actor, who rescues a drowning Edward after he’s taken a stroll in a fit of post-coital meditation and has fallen off the pier and got caught in a rip current.
Here we should note the names of Edward’s two nemeses. Real-life girls named Madeleine may be any shape, size, or psychological type, but those encountered in works of fiction are likely to be less than stable, allied as they are with Saint Mary Magdalene, who is usually portrayed as a weepy reformed prostitute, thus giving rise to the term “maudlin.” If you are a man in a work of fiction, you’d be well advised not to go swimming at night with such a girl. But young Edward doesn’t know this.
As for “Guy Margate,” as a name it raises immediate suspicion. “Guy” is surely the same “Guy” as the one in “Guy Fawkes,” the notorious seventeenth- century Gunpowder Plot traitor commemorated every fifth of November by being burned in effigy. As for “Margate,” it suggests an evil portal. No good can come through Guy Margate, the reader’s subliminal mind decides.
This is more or less what Edward’s subliminal mind decides too, upon his first meeting with Guy. Whereas the earlier encounter with Madeleine has the trappings of a dream come true, with its phosphorescent waves and moonbeams and cinematic sex, the subsequent one with Guy verges on nightmare. Edward comes out of his post-rescue faint to find himself lying on the beach with an unknown man crouching over him, “his eyes closed, his lips approaching mine like a lover.”
A mouth-to-mouth resuscitation attempt would be the waking world’s explanation—if, that is, it wished to overlook the gay undertones—but Edward is scarcely in the waking world. “That was quite a performance, Ed,” Guy says, eerily knowing both Edward’s name and purporting to penetrate his soul: even when he’s drowning, Guy implies, Edward can’t tell the difference between living and acting. To add to the somnambulistic atmosphere, Guy looks a lot like Edward. Both are tall, handsome, and dark. But Guy is darker: in Edward’s later analysis of their two acting styles, brown-eyed Guy can do hot and burning, but blue-eyed Edward is better at chills. Whatever is inside Edward’s clay jug, it’s kept at a low temperature.
A Jungian interpretation would have it that Edward has just met both his Anima, in the form of Madeleine, and his Shadow—the sinister side of himself—in the form of Guy. But no sooner has the reader been lured into such speculations than Poof! The sun rises, the illusion dissipates, it’s breakfast time, and we’re back in the commonplace world of the beach house, with the callow young actors saying comforting, ordinary things like “Bread by the toaster. Help yourself.”
When Guy appears—not before Edward learns that he’s been telling the story of the night rescue in a way that makes Edward look foolish and Guy heroic—the two of them immediately begin to tussle for the slippery affections of Madeleine, who is either blown hither and thither by the restless winds of human desire or is playing the two men off against each other to display her sexual power and gratify herself. (Edward can’t ever decide which, and neither can we.)
Moreover, having saved Edward’s life, Guy decides they’re welded at the hip. Edward owes him, he annoyingly keeps insisting; but how big is the debt, and how can it be repaid? With Edward’s gratitude, his soul, the sacrifice of his acting career, his life? In some cultures, yes; but in others, it’s the rescuer who incurs responsibility: having given the rescued one a new birth, he must now take care of him. Much as Edward would like to divest himself of any connection or obligation, Guy keeps popping into Edward’s life and interfering with it, much like Edgar Allan Poe’s malign double in “William Wilson.” Those who know their doppelgänger tales will realize that there are two possible outcomes to the struggle: the Robert Graves human-sacrifice version in which one twin must kill the other and take his place as the lover of the creative though deadly White Goddess, or the Oscar Wilde alternative, in which Dorian Gray, in destroying the picture of himself that reflects his worst flaws and sins, destroys himself.
Thus Martin sets us up for a tense and stimulating tour of actorland, where mirrors and duplications abound, where artistic decisions can have life-and-death consequences, and where dedication to one’s art can distort the artist’s perceptions about “real life”—that same real life he’s supposed to be mimicking in a truthful way onstage—to a ludicrous degree. When one of the actors shoots himself in the chest, the police ask Edward why he didn’t put the gun to his head, like most suicides. “I gaped at his innocence,” says Edward. “‘An actor doesn’t want to mess up his face.'”
As for Madeleine, she turns out to be a sort of anti-Muse: whoever finds himself in a domestic situation with her sees his acting career dwindle, so as Edward waxes, Guy wanes, and vice versa. In Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray there’s a wonderful actress called Sibyl Vane, but, like the Lady of Shalott, she loses her talent as soon as she falls in love; and so it is with Edward and Guy. Real life burns Guy up—he’s the fiery type—and there doesn’t seem to be room in Edward’s clay jug of a self for both phosphorescent artistic magic and mundane morning toast. The toast is warmer, though, and Edward does get some of it eventually.
But as with every choice made in this novel, there’s a price. The Edward Day who’s still studying himself and his absurd Chekhovian mustache in the dressing-room mirror toward the end of the book is older, but is he wiser or merely wilier? He certainly isn’t the candid put-upon figure he’d have us believe: there’s something redder than water in that clay jug of his, and it’s not wine. The biggest surprise for both the narrator and the reader comes from the realization that Edward isn’t who either he or we thought he was. Then there’s the question of who other people thought he was, which is something else again. As for Madeleine and Guy, they have their own tricky and melodramatic surprises in store.
Exploring the artist’s double allegiances is one of Martin’s fortes—see, for instance, her masterful story “The Unfinished Novel”—and in TheConfessions of Edward Day she gives it her most thorough and cunning workover yet. The surface details of her prose are so accurate and so carefully crafted that the reader can be forgiven for mistaking her novel for the kind of realism favored by Stanislavsky and company, but behind the fine, clear foreground, Gothic shadows are moving. As the curtain comes down, the reader is left gasping, and also—like Edward himself—guessing. It’s a bravura performance.
October 8, 2009