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.


  1. ‘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.’

    Marvellous! It could almost be recent Roth, that…oh dear etc.

    I recall your review of Ordinary Thunderstorms having similar reservations, and I know what you’re driving at, I think. There are great examples of the ‘enjoyable thriller with intellectual bite’ out there, but this (and the Boyd) surely won’t trouble that small collective. I’m not sure, either, who this is being aimed at?

  2. Well, I still liked it!

    It’s funny that this book, which is so much about the experience of reading, should inspire a review which shows up the differences in reading experience between you and others (like me). I was into it right away and felt compelled to read onwards in much the same way that Susan does herself. I had no expectations of ‘Nocturnal Animals’ being any good as we soon gather from Susan that the seriousness of Edward’s writing had been the source of friction between them. Maybe that’s why it didn’t feel awful whilst reading it and perhaps even perversely enjoyable. The way in which it develops from revenge thriller into psychological study was interesting I thought – in fact you mention a few positives yourself which illustrate what works.

    It was Susan’s experience of reading that made the book for me. Her reflections after each chapter give the novel as a whole a rhythm that reflects the pace of the thriller and its moments of reflection. You’ve picked a stinker of a quote near the end there! I make no excuses for it, although there’s something to be said of context and the way in which the relationships between couples old and new are altered by the reading of Edward’s book and his impending arrival.

    Glad we don’t agree all the time though…

  3. Yes Will, I did choose the worst sentence in the book (indeed, the only obviously bad sentence in the book) – but it made me laugh so much I had to include it.

    Lee, I don’t think I’ve ever read something promoted as a “literary thriller” and liked it. I’ve just given up on Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out Of Here, sold as a sort of pacey satire, but which just comes across as a rewrite of American Psycho with no self-awareness.

    1. I don’t know if this is fair or not, but I’ve got it into my head somewhere along the line that ‘literary thriller’ often means a book from someone not quite up to being considered literary or indeed particulalrly thrillsome, or a skint writer’s baggy, cringey effort at ‘pulsating’ being bundled into the stores with an eye on the tills. I mean, Red Dragon is, in terms of definition, a ‘literary thriller’, but I’m sure it’s never been marketed as such. It’s a bogus sub-genre in the main.

  4. Allan Massie has a historical trilogy (the third of which I haven’t read yet) in which there is a framing device of the whole sequence being a historical manuscript together with annotations by a later scholar and annotations on the annotations by a yet later scholar again.

    It works quite well as it’s not overdone and it’s often amusing. It’s not up there with Massie’s The Death of Men, but then that is particularly good.

    How does the commentary work here? It’s a post chapter by chapter review is it? Or is it comments within the text, the metastory breaking into the story?

  5. Thanks John. Eh. I like thrillers on occasion, but literary thrillers can all too easily end up being neither. I’ll pass unless I see another review somewhere which makes it sound more intriguing.

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