Shut Up, She Explained
The Woman Upstairs
By Claire Messud
Knopf, 272 pages
Claire Messud’s new novel opens with a rant. Forty-two-year old Nora Eldridge, “a good girl, a nice girl, a straight A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl,” is furious. How angry is she? “You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.” Whether we want to know or not, Nora’s got an earful for us. She rails against everything from “the sham and pretend of the world…on the East Coast of the United States of America in the first decade of the twenty-first century” to her professional and personal disappointments: “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.”
A few salient facts emerge between the bitter lines: Nora is a third-grade teacher of average appearance, never married, no children. She lives quietly, even cheerfully, but her jolly self-sufficiency masks a terrible rage. Moreover, Nora’s rage is not hers alone. She shares it with an entire class of oppressed and overlooked women, for whom she invents a nifty post-feminist archetype: the Woman Upstairs:
Women like us are not underground, no Ralph Ellison basement full of lightbulbs for us; no Dostoyevskian metaphorical subterra….We’re not the madwomen in the attic….We’re the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting, and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound.
The Woman Upstairs, then, aims to be both novel and manifesto. As the plot unfolds, Messud never misses an opportunity to paint Nora’s personal failures and frustrations in universal terms; any injustice she suffers is an injustice done to Sensitive, Creative Womankind. This is a sly way to claim extra drama while allowing her character to avoid responsibility; if Nora’s personal problems are cultural problems writ small, then society is properly to blame.
Nora has always believed herself to be special. Her intellectual precocity (she skipped ninth grade) enhances her feelings of entitlement and superiority; after falling in with a pretentious group of friends, she becomes convinced she’s destined for greatness. “It was in high school that I decided—or, as I would have had it, that I realized—that I would become an artist,” Nora says. Adulthood simply can’t measure up to her adolescent pipe dream, which depended on “a blissful picture of the smocked artist at work in her airy studio, the children…frolicking in the sun-dappled garden, doubtless with a dog or two, large ones.”
At 37, Nora occupies herself making dioramas, teaching, and paying occasional, grudging attention to her widowed father. The time she spent nursing her dying mother is described as wasted martyrdom instead of an act of love; mostly, Nora worries that her time as a dutiful daughter made her look ordinary. “I sometimes hoped that someone out there imagined for me a second life of glamour and drama, as a rock star’s mistress, or an FBI agent. But I wasn’t the sort of person for whom anyone would bother imagining a secret life…” Without attention from the cool kids, Nora ceases to exist. So when an exotic eight-year-old named Reza Shahid turns up in her classroom, she latches onto him and his glamorous parents like a succubus.
Skandar Shahid is a professor on leave from the École Normale Supérieure in Paris; his wife, Sirena, happens to be an artist. “A real one, whatever that means,” Nora concedes, with all the bitterness of hindsight. This bitter hindsight is a slow toxic drip that poisons the narrative; as Nora’s infatuation with the Shahids grows, Messud hints darkly, again and again, at a terrible falling out. Something Sirena and Skandar do will make Nora angry enough to contemplate murder—but as the tale is told, the Shahids give Nora a whole new lease on life. Soon she’s sharing studio space with and fantasizing about Sirena, babysitting (gratis!) for Reza, and taking long, frustratingly chaste walks with Skandar. “If it seems ridiculous to you, it’s because I haven’t properly explained to you what it feels like,” Nora tells her best friend, Didi, sounding for all the world like an indignant 13-year-old in the throes of her first unrequited crush. Didi is nonplussed. “Can’t you let go a bit,” she urges, “or at least make up a good story?”
If only. Nora is categorically unable to let go of anything—she’s an injustice collector of the first order. And her talent for storytelling is, like all her supposed talents, greatly exaggerated. In chapter after chapter, Nora cackles and preens: Some big reveal is coming, she promises, something horrifying and dark, something unforgivable, something that will make the reader gasp in astonishment, something that will explain her terrible, terrible rage. Messud aims to keep the pages turning, but the reader grows immune; when every mundane event is narrated at fever pitch, the suspense slackens and fails.
If Messud overdoes it with Nora, she phones in the Shahids. What is it about the three of them that fascinates? Reza is cute and dresses funny and has long eyelashes. Sirena wears scarves, drinks espresso, smokes. Skandar has “Byzantine” eyes and is given to gnomic utterances. (“Sirena says you’re serious. This is what matters. Not whether you sell for thousands or know the fancy people.”) They’re caricatures, not characters, and we wait in vain to fall in love with them, to understand what it is that compels poor Nora into their world and out of her head.
As the reader plows through, waiting for the payoff, uncharitable thoughts bubble up unbidden: Couldn’t Nora, with no husband or children and a job that grants summer vacations, have managed to carve out a wee bit more time for her all-important Art? And don’t her dollhouse-sized replicas of the rooms of her feminist heroines—Emily Dickinson, Alice Neel, Virginia Woolf, even Edie Sedgwick—seem a little clichéd, or even a little bit dumb? In any case, couldn’t she move on from the Shahid-driven annus horribilis with time to spare? Instead of feeling sympathetic, the reader gets impatient. Pull yourself together, Nora, you’re still young! Plenty of women reinvent themselves—forging new careers, entering new relationships, even choosing to have or adopt children—in their 40s.
And then, of course, there is the problem of Nora’s essential vileness. In an interview for Publisher’s Weekly in April, Annasue McCleave Wilson asked Messud, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.” Messud, whose last novel was the celebrated satirical bestseller The Emperor’s Children, bit her head off:
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?”
The popular novelist Jennifer Weiner retaliated with an article in Slate titled “I Like Likable Characters”; the ensuing online kerfuffle quickly morphed into a debate about literary sexism, highbrow versus popular literature, and whether female writers are honor-bound to support one another no matter what. But let us answer Messud’s own question, the question she apparently wishes interviewers were perceptive enough to ask: Is Nora alive?
Alas, she is not, nor is she interesting, memorable, or originally drawn. The Woman Upstairs’s much anticipated climax leaves the reader utterly perplexed; suffice it to say that the great injustice perpetrated by the Shahids fails completely to shock. Instead, it showcases the bourgeois conventionality of Nora’s personality, her fettered spirit that only thinks it’s free. The best thing that can be said about The Woman Upstairs is that it thoroughly fulfills its initial passive-aggressive promise: By the end of the novel we don’t, actually, care why Nora is angry. We just want her to go away.