Claire Messud Photo: Lisa Cohen
It’s difficult to muster fondness for a character whose opening sentence in a book is this, “How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that ... It was supposed to say ‘Great Artist’ on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say ‘such a good teacher/daughter/friend’ instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave, too, is F*CK YOU ALL. Don’t all women feel the same?”
Claire Messud’s recent novel The Woman Upstairs gives us Nora Eldridge, who at the time of writing down her story is a 37-year old single primary school teacher who once dreamed of being an artist. While to all apparent she smiles as she’s supposed to and is the cheery, sensible, reliable, clog-wearing teacher and good community member, her secret self is hungry, needy and jealous. And did I mention angry? She’s very, very angry.
When Nora meets the new to town glamorous Shahid family and befriends the somewhat successful artist wife Serena her life and heart opens up in ways that you know are going to be crushed. And one’s spirits as a reader are also crushed when you realise that the art that she creates in the studio she readily agrees to share with Serena is actually kind of terrible. Exact, miniature replicas of famous, doomed women’s room entitled "A room of one’s own?” do not an exhibition at MOMA make. But it is Nora’s anger that both sustains the novel and that stokes the seething, hissing fire in the women that Claire Messud was reaching out to.
“Don’t all women feel the same”, asks Nora of her readers. And the answer is yes, yes we do.
The unfairness of women having to 'play nice', to not be angry, lest they become unappealing, or worse, ‘bitter,’ (actually, or even worse than that, ‘crazy’) has been bandied about the internet in the past week after Claire Messud was interviewed for the book. The interviewer said that she wouldn’t like to be “friends” with Nora, and Messud fired back with a terse and perfect for re-blogging answer, Katie Roiphe wrote an opinion piece about it, and people wrote opinion pieces (as they are wont to do) about Katie Roiphe.
The best thing about Claire Messud’s answer to the poor interviewer from Publisher's Weekly about Nora not being likeable though was not Messud’s stand against sexist and silly questions. It was the defence of her fairly awful, unlikeable and relatable character.
This was Messud's response to that question.
“For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?'"
I don’t think Messud was necessarily calling out sexism in literature – a popular, enjoyable and necessary sport, and it is true that it’s hard to believe that a man would be asked the same question, just ask Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner– but instead was condemning a culture of celebrating niceness and the unthreatening. Nora Eldridge is threatening because she’s stopped playing the role of what she should be like, her desires are made bald and embarrassing, and her anger is wily and uncontained. Maybe Nora is crazy, but at least she speaks to the truth about how much we are meant to hide away from the world and what this might cost. Nora Eldridge is most certainly alive, and I’d hazard a guess that she exists in some small way in most of us.
The Woman Upstairs is published by Virago, $29.99. Claire Messud will be a guest at the Sydney Writers' Festival, May 20-26. She will be in conversation with Caroline Baum on May 24 and give the closing address on imaginary homelands on May 26.