Tony and Susan – Austin Wright (filmed as Nocturnal Animals)

7 May 2008
To the end of Part 1 of the ‘Tony’ story: Chapter 10 of Susan’s story that frames it

Susan is the main character. Tony, on the other hand, is just a character in the novel that she is reading. Ah. I came across this book by accident – by looking up the word ‘metafiction’ in an online version of the OED. A quotation from a review of it was cited and I ordered a  copy -second-hand, because it’s out of print. I’m glad I did.

I’m enjoying it. There’s a real mystery/thriller at the core of it, Nocturnal Animals, one of those ‘what if’ stories that the film critic Philip French called yuppie nightmares. A nice, middle class man finds his world suddenly turned inside out when he happens to be slightly outside his normal sphere. At the end of Part 1 the worst has just been confirmed: his wife and daughter, who’d been taken off by the bad guys, have been found murdered. The story is a page-turner: we’re inside Tony’s head, living the events of an awful night and worse morning with him.

But that’s not the point, or not entirely. Because this thriller has been written by Susan’s ex-husband, and he’s sent it to his her to read. So… she’s the Susan of the novel’s title, and she’s reading about Tony, an invention of the man she hasn’t been married to for twenty-odd years…. So, as we read, she’s reading it as well, living the nightmare as well. This creates another layer of – what? – engagement: she’s wondering why he’s sent it, why he’s subjecting her (specifically her) to the awful events she’s reading about. So, of course, we’re wondering as well.

You can see why it was cited in the entry for metafiction. We’re alert to what’s going on, aware that Susan is also a fictional character, and that her judgments of the story aren’t ‘real’ but a sort of game being played by Austin Wright. She’s hooked – and he’s betting that we’re hooked as well. Ok, we might not be the sort of readers who normally read this stuff: the story of Tony is hardly Pulitzer material. But it’s ok, because it isn’t only that. We’re in some fictional space that’s not quite the same shape as what we’re used to: instead of sitting inside a comfortable circle with the author, where we know exactly where we are, there seem to be concentric rings. In this novel we’re usually on the outside ring, looking in at Susan being manipulated in some possibly malevolent way by her ex. Every chapter begins with her reaction to what she’s just read and we’re interested by this. Which is ok, quite close to the usual comfortable carry-on we have with an author. But… sometimes, when we’ve been carried along by the nightmare for a while, we’re suddenly inside looking out, wondering what Austin Wright is doing to our heads through these intermediaries. It makes me, for one, feel quite vulnerable. In this reality, the normal rules of engagement don’t apply; we wonder where the next disorienting strike will come from.

9 May
To the end of First Interlude
Did I mention how formal this novel is? The ‘First Sitting’ was just that, with Susan’s reactions coming at the end of each chapter in Nocturnal Animals, the story she is reading. Now we’ve had this First Interlude, where we get the back story: how Edward and Susan met in childhood and, after a long gap, got married. Susan is definitely not a pulp fiction creation. She’s arthouse through and through, questioning her own motives, her memories of her first marriage, the true value of her second (while her husband’s away, and while she’s trying not to suspect he’s being unfaithful)…. We begin to think back to Tony’s story: ok, the bad guys are straight from stock, and do what bad guys do – but Tony’s reactions are frighteningly well imagined. Before he finds out the truth he relies on a conventional, bourgeois stock of comfortable notions about how things like this don’t happen to families like theirs – but he knows he’s doing this, knows he’s letting his mind slip along roads he can travel without thinking.

Maybe this is why it doesn’t read like a pot-boiler, and why Susan is worried about her ex-husband’s motives in writing it. She’s an English lecturer for goodness’ sake, he wouldn’t hook her with a piece of crap. (At this point I remember that one of the best known – what in this decade of the 21st Century we call ‘iconic’ – books of the 80s was Bonfire of the Vanities, which gets a kick-start from exactly this kind of yuppie nightmare plot when the main character drifts into the wrong part of town. So we shouldn’t be surprised that the interior life of Tony the fictional character is as well realised as Susan’s. Despite the fact that according to normal novelistic conventions, she’s ‘real’.)

And above all of this is Austin Wright. If Edward’s hooked Susan, Wright’s hooked us. And why is Susan the ‘real’ character linked in the title with Tony the ‘fictional’ one? Better carry on reading.

16 May
To the end of the Second Sitting
Strangely, I don’t feel I’ve got much more to say than I did nearly 100 pages back. Sure, things have moved on – I’ll tell you about those in a minute – but the uneasiness of the First Sitting (and First Interlude) has lessened. We’re used to it now, used to Susan giving herself – and therefore us – a critique of the chapter that’s just gone. We’re also used to her questioning of her husband’s motives. Why is he, nerdy Edward – cold fish that he was – rubbing Susan’s face in this particularly sordid little tale?

Towards the end of the Second Sitting there have been some new elements in the ‘Tony’ story. The cop is becoming more of a character, pressurising Tony into making identifications; Tony has therefore – or for motives of his own – willed himself into recognising the lowlifes the cop has presented for his perusal. To the extent that, by the point I’ve reached, ‘Ray’ is being presented as a de facto killer. Susan is swayed by this, which makes me wonder where she’s been. She’s supposed to teach Literature to bright people, so how come she doesn’t seem to be suspicious of the narrative? Fine, it’s in the third person: we’re not hearing Tony’s own words. But the anger he feels, the horrific images of the murders that drive him on, don’t prove a thing. The narrator – who, at one level, is Susan’s long-time ex and who therefore is sure to have his own agenda – might be messing about with his fictional reader’s prejudices. And through our consciousness of this device, we – the real readers – are being forced to examine both Susan’s expectations and our own. Austin Wright is messing about with our heads as much as Edward is messing about with hers.

Anything else? One thing we’re constantly getting is a fairly straightforward account of the way reading can engage the alert reader. Maybe if I was still teaching I’d use an extract to demonstrate – what? – how good readers do it. Meanwhile the (real) author casts a wry editorial eye over his own work, second-guessing what might be a feasible response. Which is moderately entertaining, especially when taken alongside Susan’s own second-guessing of her ex’s motives…. It gets complicated, this.

1 August
The Second Interlude
We find out a lot more about how Susan’s first marriage came to an end, and how she married again. Obviously, these two things go together… but in a way, it isn’t the details of her affair that matter (while Edward was away in the woods trying, and failing, to write), but Susan’s English-teacher take on narratives and the stories we write in our heads. Or don’t write. It all happened 20 years ago and Susan admits to herself how it’s not the truth she remembers, or that memories are anything but selective. What she has is a long accretion of stories, selected and viewed from different angles at different times…. And she realises that the arrival of the manuscript has stirred up a lot of things for her. Ok, she wasn’t happy about her first marriage – but in her second marriage she plays second fiddle in almost exactly the same way. It seems pretty arbitrary that she ended up with husband No 2 instead of husband No 1….

2 August
To the end…
i.e. all of Part 3 and the 10-page section called ‘After’. Maybe it was because I’d left it so long, but I never regained that extraordinary sense of being somewhere new that I was getting in May. Bu..ut… I still enjoyed it a lot.

Wright does another clever thing in this last third: he closes down all the options, for both Tony and Susan. The Nocturnal Animals plot goes in the sorts of directions that these plots go. Tony shags the student (now an ex-student, so there’s no need to be squeamish)…. And then, just as he’s getting ready for another date with her, along comes the inevitable bad news. The real villain has been released through lack of evidence and Andes the old-fashioned cop (think Gene Hunt in Life on Mars with terminal health problems) offers Tony a choice: accept it like a mouse or be a man. No contest, obviously. So we get: Tony, and Andes’ part-time lover, holding the bad guy at gunpoint; a death in police custody (outside a hut in the woods, in fact); a nocturnal chase; a confrontation with the now overtly psychopathic murderer…. So far, so cliché-driven.

Except. It’s all told from Tony’s point of view, mediated through his comfortable certainties and his distinctly uncomfortable responses to the things he finds himself being forced to do. (Not forced, of course, as he endlessly reminds himself.) He’s the chattering classes personified, uprooted and positioned in exactly the wrong sort of plot. And it ends badly for him. Susan, reading it, wonders if that’s the only way it could end: Tony earns his own death through his own moral weakness. We don’t really wonder about that, because we’ve got other things on our mind. In particular, what’s all this doing to Susan – and what on earth was Edward doing giving her name to a minor character who briefly participates in the illegal imprisonment of the psycho?

We never find out. Because alongside the inevitabilities of Tony’s plot there’s Susan’s as well – and it’s no happier. For her – although she’s built her career around it – reading is only reading after all. Nothing’s solved – including the puzzle about why Edward sent her the manuscript. She doesn’t get to see him: if ever he intended to see her while he was visiting the city, he ends up not doing so. So all she’s left with is her marriage to the dull, dutiful, self-centred Arnold. She goes through a dark night of the soul as she decides her marriage is a sham. In a direct reference to Tony’s dying dream, a memory of his perfect marriage, she has her own memory – of Edward in an almost identical scenario. Possibly – but only possibly, because writers always recycle their own experiences – Edward had just been deliberately reminding Susan of the, ahem, good times. Whether deliberate or not, it unsettles Susan….

But she manages to sleep, and by the time she wakes up she’s ok again. Over her shoulder, we look at our own lives. I found myself looking at mine, anyway, as a novel ostensibly about the reading process finally mutates into one that invites us to ask questions about life outside the fictions we read. Like the serious reader she is, Susan writes a careful critique for Edward. But that’s not what Life demands of her at this moment, so she tears it up and sends a brief note instead.

And then what? Will she be a good middle-class girl – i.e. middle-aged woman – and let her life carry on as before? She doesn’t know… and, reader, neither do I.

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