A portrait of a reader

I realize now that Tony and SusanAustin Wright’s rediscovered/resurrected “classic,” begging the distinction accorded to Revolutionary Road—is more complex than it already seemed to me when I first read it. The premise is simple, though: Susan receives a manuscript from her ex-husband, for her to read and critique. The execution, however: We are with Susan as she reads Edward’s book, Nocturnal Animals—meaning, we read Edward’s novel along with her, we begin chapters as Susan begins them, we stop when Susan does. We are with Susan, too, in the interludes between her reading: We reminisce with her [the memories summoned are inevitable when reading work by one’s ex-husband, I suppose], we learn of her story, we learn of the disintegration of her first marriage, how she slipped into her second, and how the second, now, fills her with a dread that goes largely unexplained in the book, but ever-so-present.

Forgive me, however, for not plunging into the book itself—it’s not the best book, it doesn’t come close to fitting the “rediscovered classic,” but it’s okay. I do state, for the record, however, that were I asked to pick which I like more—Susan’s life or Edward’s manuscript—I’d rather have the former. The latter is, I suspect, deliberately flawed, by the way. However, it’s Susan I’m more interested in. Well, the thing about this book [what thing?] that has stayed with me is how Wright charts the relationship between reader and writer; reader and familiar writer; reader and book; reader and tragic character [“Poor Tony, how much her pleasure depends on his distress.”]; and also the person behind the reader confronting the reader as she reads. Susan, Susan, Susan, Susan.

* * *

Susan’s initial misgivings: They do not even concern the novel itself, but her relationship to its author. In sending Susan his manuscript, Edward insists that she has always been his ideal reader: an open mind, but harsher as any critic out there. But these two have history, messier and messier as we delve deeper into Susan’s life later in the novel.  But she needs to be reader and critic first, not [bewildered] ex-wife:

. . . she would try to clean out her mind to read Edward’s novel in the way it deserved. The problem was old memory, coming back like an old volcano, full of rumble and quake. All that abandoned intimacy, his out-of-date knowledge of her and hers of him. Her memory of his admiration of himself, his vanity, also his fears—his smallness—knowledge she must ignore if her reading was to be fair. She’s determined to be fair. To be fair she must deny her memory and make as if she were a stranger.

Susan’s more universal problem, however: That strangeness with beginning a book, not unlike the big unknown that floods you when taking a risk. For Susan, it’s not just this book in particular. For me, it’s not just Susan:

Like traveling without knowing what country you’re going to. The worst would be if it’s inept, which might vindicate her for the past but would embarrass her now. Even if it’s not inept, there are risks: an intimate trip through an unfamiliar mind, forced to contemplate icons more meaningful to others than herself, confined with strangers she never chose, asked to participate in alien customs. With Edward as guide, whose dominance she once struggled to escape.

And, later, firmly in the clutches of the book—regardless of the influence Edward-as-ex-husband—and the prospect of having to eventually say goodbye to it:

Then she was afraid of entering the novel’s world, lest she forget reality. Now, leaving, she is afraid of not being able to return. The book weaves around her chair like a web. She has to make a hole in it to get out. The web damaged, the hole will grow, and when she returns, the web will be gone.

I know exactly what you mean, Susan. With some books, we struggle, we resist. A mad, rushing embrace isn’t always the case in the reading life, and Susan knows this. Life gets in the way, but a brush of dread with holding the actual book in one’s hands is present as well. But we’re lucky, because some books pay off—Nocturnal Animals did so for Susan, as Tony and Susan did so for me [however tangentially]—even though, as Susan did, we wonder why we raised a hell of a kerfuffle in the first place, even, yes, with reason:

She feels bruised by her reading and by life too. She wonders, does she always fight her books before yielding to them?

PSA I bought Tony and Susan from National Bookstore [PhP995] as a birthday gift to mahself. It paid off, it’s safe to say.

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3 comments

  1. Well, I’m sorry to hear this one didn’t bowl you over because I think the premise of following a character as they read a book through a novel is rather interesting and fun. For that reason alone I’d be curious to pick it up!

    1. It is, it is. Although the novel [and the novel inside it] generally stopped working for me after a while, I’m glad to have been part of such an inventive exploration of the reading mind. And the reader. That’s the best part about this book so, overall, I wasn’t really disappointed.

      I do hope that if you do pick it up, it works for you. In whatever way.

  2. The book doesn’t really sound like my kind of thing but the cover is beautiful…

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