With The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud boldly goes into territory more commonly embraced by her male counterparts.
Your characters struggle to figure out who they are in the face of their families and events over which they have no control. What are we to make of Nora Eldridge, the betrayed middle-aged woman of your new novel? Because she is angry, really angry.
As a writer, I subscribe to Chekhov’s world view: “It’s not my job to tell you that horse thieves are bad people. It’s my job to tell you what this horse thief is like.” The more accurately one can illuminate a particular human experience, the better the work of art. I’m not an autobiographical, or biographical, writer, except in some abstract sense. If I had to summarize, most broadly, my concerns as a writer, I’d say the question “how then must we live?” is at the heart of it, for me. It can only be addressed in the individual, not in the general; each of us on this planet must come to terms with this question for him or herself.
As a reader, I’ve long felt passionately about fictions that articulate anger, frustration, disappointment—from reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, in high school, when I thought, “my God, fiction can do this? Fiction can say these unsayable things?” to reading Beckett or Camus or Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater to Thomas Bernhard—these are all articulating unseemly, unacceptable experiences and emotions, rage prominent among them. Because rage at life and rage for life are very closely linked. To be angry, you have to give a shit.
Anyway, these books I love, they’re all books by men—every last one of them. Because if it’s unseemly and possibly dangerous for a man to be angry, it’s totally unacceptable for a woman to be angry. I wanted to write a voice that for me, as a reader, had been missing from the chorus: the voice of an angry woman. So yes, Nora Eldridge is middle aged and yes, she is angry. I’m not trying to deliver some “message”—I’m not suggesting that middle age and anger are synonymous, or that being single makes you angry, or anything like that. Nora is an individual, one particular person, whose psyche has been formed by temperament and a series of circumstances. She has just emerged from a long period of suffering, the care for and loss of her mother to a hideous illness. She is trying—like each of us—to do the best she can.
As any of us approaches middle age, we inevitably come up against our limitations: the realization that certain dearly-held fantasies may not be realized; that circumstances have thwarted us; that even with intention and will we may not be able to set our ship back on the course we’d planned. This provokes different reactions in different people. Nora, thanks to [her new neighbors] the Shahids—or the Shahids and her imagination—has a glorious vision of life as she wants it to be. She feels it’s within her grasp. So you could say she indulges an illusion, for a time. The loss of which makes her angry—not just angry at the illusion, or at its loss, but angry also about the underlying limitations and failures that preceded the illusion, that precipitated it. Nora’s situation is not cozy or pretty, but it’s humanly true.
I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.
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?” Nora’s outlook isn’t “unbearably grim” at all. Nora is telling her story in the immediate wake of an enormous betrayal by a friend she has loved dearly. She is deeply upset and angry. But most of the novel is describing a time in which she felt hope, beauty, elation, joy, wonder, anticipation—these are things these friends gave to her, and this is why they mattered so much. Her rage corresponds to the immensity of what she has lost. It doesn’t matter, in a way, whether all those emotions were the result of real interactions or of fantasy, she experienced them fully. And in losing them, has lost happiness.