June 7, 2010
Austin Wright: Tony and Susan
Someone has high hopes for Tony and Susan. It was first published in the USA in 1993, arrived in the UK straight into paperback the following year, and was quickly forgotten. That should have been that. The book remains out of print in the US other than as an ebook, but Atlantic Books in the UK have taken the (I think) unprecedented step of reissuing it in hardback. High praise has come from almost all quarters, including several friends of this blog. And, “the most astounding lost masterpiece of American fiction since Revolutionary Road,” says the publisher’s website. It’s a wild claim for a book which disappointed me almost from the start.
Tony and Susan describes a woman – Susan – reading a novel about a man named Tony, and we also get the full text of the novel. The novel, Nocturnal Animals, has been written by Susan’s ex, Edward, and sent to her in manuscript form. After a few pages to set up this framing device, we are plunged into the novel-within-the-novel, which takes all but about a hundred pages of Tony and Susan‘s 375-page length.
This, for me, was where the problems began. Nocturnal Animals is not a very good book. It has an explosive opening, where a ‘good’ family make a chance night-time encounter on a deserted highway with a bunch of bad guys who try to run them off the road. Immediately we are thrown into a violent thriller, complete with renegade cop, revenge dilemmas and climactic shootout. If this sort of thing appeals to you, then it’s likely that the whole book will build on this (because the whole is more complex than this) and find favour. I don’t tend to that view, feeling instead that this sort of pulp-by-numbers is not even a guilty pleasure but a waste of time; and that if an author can’t rely on a reader’s sustained interest without placing characters’ lives in peril to create suspense, then he shouldn’t bother. (Which is not to say that suspense fiction and thrillers can’t be done well, as the likes of Patricia Highsmith or Eric Ambler have shown.) So my strong dislike of the opening scenes of Nocturnal Animals fatally undermined the rest of Tony and Susan for me.
That is not to say that the book is without interest; even Nocturnal Animals has its moments. Elements of Tony’s psychology are nicely drawn, such as his tendency to a sort of protective neuroticism (“It was the habit of his mind to know the worst case, the ultimate”), his guilt as a victim (“Boy, how could you let them do that to you?” says a man whose house he goes to for help), and his very human confusion at what he wants to happen to the bad guys and why he wants it.
‘I’d like them to know what they did. I’d like them to be shown exactly what it was they did.’
‘They know what they did, Tony.’
‘They don’t know what it means.’
‘Say Ray did learn that. He’d be a different person. Shouldn’t he then go free?’
‘He mustn’t go free.’
‘He knows he hurt you, Tony. Count on it, he knows.’
‘I’d like to hurt him back.’
‘Hurt him. But not kill him?’
‘Kill him too. Both.’
But these agonies don’t strike me as being especially novel or groundbreaking. What is supposed to give Tony and Susan its depth is the fact that, running in parallel with the traditional thriller featuring Tony, we have a more subtle thriller involving Susan as she reads the book. Edward is coming to visit and Susan works herself into a lather wondering if the violence in the book is a message to her, whose marriage to Edward ended after she was unfaithful to him. (Wright is good too on the psychology of reading a thriller, where the reader eagerly anticipates the suffering of the characters: Susan “awaits the horrible discovery her spirit deplores, she awaits it avidly.”) Is the book a form of, or prelude to, revenge? Susan feels herself to be in Edward’s control: “As she follows Tony Hastings down his trail of terror she knows she sees what Edward wants her to see, feels what he feels.” This is the aim of every writer: but how much more piercing can it be when the writer is known to the reader? An interesting idea, to be sure, and one to inspire thoughts on the ways of knowing people: through personal contact, through their works.
When I did find something to like in the book it always felt inchoate, even when Wright delivers a commentary by having Susan reflect on how much she likes certain passages. Too much of the strength of Tony and Susan lies in its potential: throughout most of the book I was thinking, “This could yet come good if…” But the real-life collision between Susan the reader and Edward the writer never comes, and the interest is all in Susan’s tortured response to the book, her expectations and fears, which has no universality because of the unique relationship in the story between writer and reader. As distinguished a figure as Saul Bellow called Tony and Susan “marvellously written,” though I suspect he didn’t have in mind sentences like these:
When that young Susan on Edward’s bed saw Arnold Morrow’s alarming penis suddenly come into view with swollen purpose, she heard a gong in her head. She heard another soon after, when she decided to let it in.
I seem to be alone in my resistance to this book. Many people will regard it as an enjoyable thriller with intellectual bite, and it may well become the “living, breathing, knock-out classic” that one author expects it to. For me, though, there is less to Tony and Susan than meets the eye.