Fay Weldon's Mantrapped.

Reading between the lines.
Jan. 11 2005 10:53 AM

The Diva of Desperate Housewives

Fay Weldon's perverse power.

Spins a good domestic yarn
Spins a good domestic yarn

Fay Weldon's books have acquired a tarnish over the past couple of decades. When her first few novels came out in the early 1970s, Weldon was hailed as a scrappy feminist and a devil-may-care stylist. Somewhere along the way, though, her politics became strident and mercurial (in Britain she's called the "fickle godmother of feminism"), and her subversive narratives—peopled by clones, ghosts, and spouses running each other over with cars—grew downright wacky. But to hell with good taste. I'm reading Fay Weldon and liking it.

Her critics have tended to level four strikes against her. One: She's a sellout. In 2001, she wrote a novel commissioned by the jeweler Bulgari, in which she was contractually bound to mention the company favorably at least 12 times. The critical world harrumphed like a roomful of pipe-smoking professors: Most irregular! Two: She's too down-market. One of her novels, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, was made into a Meryl Streep film—not one of the classy ones with La Streep in schmattes and an Eastern European accent, but a blowsy comedy replete with shoulder pads and Roseanne Barr. Three: She is too readable. Her books zip along with murders and descriptions of clothes and lots of very realistic female chitchat. Four: She is too prolific, with nearly 30 works of fiction to her name.

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Her new one, Mantrapped, is more of the same—and then some. It's a funky hybrid of novel and memoir. The fictional story line follows two strangers, a man and a woman who meet accidentally on the stairs above a dry-cleaning shop and mysteriously swap souls. The two of them descend upon the man's unwitting girlfriend, and the three live together in a bizarre love triangle while they attempt to sort out who's who and what's what. Interlarded with the novel is Weldon's memoir, which picks up in the mid-'60s, where her previous autobiography, the wonderful Auto Da Fay (2003), left off. We toggle back and forth: a chapter of the novel, where the characters endure therapy sessions and exorcisms in an effort to undo their condition, then a chapter of memoir, recounting the breakdown of Weldon's marriage and the fate of her family in the same frank, nostalgic, slightly crotchety tone that made Auto Da Fay such an unexpected delight.

Mantrapped—with its half-baked parallel structure and its reliance on a Freaky Friday-ish gimmick—seems to be a symptom of Weldon's attitude toward her critics, her public, and her own legacy. At the time of the Bulgari controversy, she told the New York Times, "'When the approach came through, I thought, 'Oh no, dear me, I am a literary author. You can't do this kind of thing; my name will be mud forever. … But then after a while I thought, 'I don't care. Let it be mud. They never give me the Booker Prize anyway.' "

Let her name be mud. For the author who cakes the world in mud—every guy is a bad guy in her novels—it's a fate that in a way seems only fair. Yet the smearing of Weldon's name, whether wrought by her critics or by her own rickety plotting and over-the-top characterizations, should not obscure her literary antecedents. She is actually writing in a great tradition: the British domestic comedy. Bitter, truth-speaking, and very funny portraits of domestic life have emerged from the pens of Englishwomen for over a century. Jane Austen hovers in the background, an acerbic ghost occasionally flaring into wickedness: Mr. Collins' windbaggery, Emma's myopia. Ada Leverson, a friend of Oscar Wilde, wrote hilariously bitchy novels about the marriage of a terribly mismatched couple she called the "little Ottleys." E.F. Benson, the author of the gloriously mean-spirited Mapp and Lucia novels, wasn't a woman, but he exercised himself tirelessly over middle-aged women throwing dinner parties, so we won't be picky. Nancy Mitford softened the genre a bit, giving us more glamour, more lovable characters, but that same wonderful poking at the weak spots of a marriage, a house, a family, a friendship.

Clearly, Weldon is no Jane Austen. But she shares with these writers an obsessive interest in the domestic sphere, and a way of projecting a satirical authorial presence over that sphere. Austen did it with a dry, allusive irony that punctured conventions and exposed delusions. Weldon does it by busting into the narrative to comment, usually derisively, on a social world run amok. "Nothing surprises me anymore," she'll muse when a character behaves badly; or "Blame the gods of misrule," she'll instruct when the plot gets wildly chaotic. Weldon harangues us. It's her pointed, blaming finger that makes her books so uniquely perverse—and peculiarly exhilarating, because she's so ideologically incorrect in her excoriations of domestic messes.

As has been noted by many of her critics, her women are victims, forever cheated upon, presumed upon, dumped upon. Unlike (most) real-life women, though, they spring from victimhood to deadly action. They are wont to become murderesses and arsonists: desperate housewives, indeed. Hers is a feminism that seems not to like women very much. Men should be rounded up and shot, that's a given. But women aren't any picnic, either. For Weldon, strange creature, is both misanthropist and misogynist. She doesn't hate humans as a race, she hates men and women, as different, specific groups, for different, specific reasons.

She doesn't mean it as a compliment when she opines in Mantrapped, "Women are so vivid and mettlesome these days, so vigorous in their being. … I am surprised they do not subsume the whole male race." Meanwhile, the men in her novels are either chinless, like Mantrapped's Peter, or cheaters, like the husband in her novel Worst Fears (1996). No one is safe in Weldon's world, and her implicit message is that we're next. Our cozy houses will break apart, our husbands will leave us, our neat lives will collapse. And Weldon is not afraid to let us know what she thinks, which is something that never—or rarely—gets said in our therapeutic era: It's our own fault. She writes, "Down among the women … [w]e live at floor level, washing and wiping. If we look upward, it's not towards the stars or the ineffable, it's to dust the tops of the windows. We have only ourselves to blame."

There's an odd little passage in Mantrapped where Weldon comes clean, or so she would have us think: "All these monstrous acts I have written, all the murders, crimes I have conceived, are as good as done. I who was accustomed to saying earnestly to my audience 'If you want to write a novel you must lose your good opinion of yourself,' should repent." Then she proceeds to end the book with a wicked drive-by shooting. Weldon, for one, may be willing to accept some blame—but she's not about to renounce her power. She is in love with it. And it's her power we find irresistible. Maybe especially when she uses it against us.

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