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.
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.”