Can you please run out and read this right now, so we can talk about it?
It’s so good. This is what I wanted Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs to be, although it never quite rose to those heights. Like that book, it circles around a woman artist (why so many good books recently about women artists?)
The novel proceeds as if an editor has compiled all the relevant information about a late female artist who, after her death, has been revealed as the artistic genius behind three celebrated shows, each purportedly the work of male artists. Her journals, interviews with her friends and critics, and other documents show that Harriet Burden arranged with those male artists for them to “wear” her art as if it was theirs in order, ultimately, to show the pervasive male bias of the art world.
But Harriet is far more than your typical cranky middle-aged woman who perceives bias. This book explores all aspects of artistic celebrity to show that this isn’t just feminist bitchiness but a true uncovering of how we — as a culture — see art through the artist (or, dare we say, through the author). Harriet’s agonizing frustration at her treatment is so astute that by the time I finished the book I wanted to start all over again. She is my favorite protagonist in months and months and months — and I’ve read some great books during this time.
Take, for example, her assessment of one of the artists she uses as a mask for her own work:
It is so easy for Rune to shine. Where does that effortlessness come from? He is so light. I am earthbound, a Caliban to Ariel. And I must watch his weightless flights over my head, while I lurk underground with brown thoughts that roil my guts. “Himself is his own dungeon.”
God, I loved this book, which just shines brighter and brighter like a blazing world from beginning to end. Read it and tell me what you think.
After agonizing a while about yesterday’s angry/ desperate post on a guerrilla response to rape culture, I opened up a new novel last night.
After reading the first five pages of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, I want to kiss her on the lips. Here’s how it begins on p. 1:
How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.
I’m a good girl, I’m a nice girl, I’m a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody’s boyfriend and I never ran out on a girlfriend, and I put up with my parents’ shit and my brother’s shit, and I’m not a girl anyhow, I’m over forty fucking years old, and I’m good at my job and I’m great with kids and I held my mother’s hand when she died, after four years of holding her hand while she was dying, and I speak to my father ever day on the telephone –every day, mind you, and what kind of weather do you have on your side of the river, because here it’s pretty gray and a bit muggy too? It was supposed to say “Great Artist” on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say “such a good teacher/ daughter/ friend” instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave, too, is FUCK YOU ALL.
Don’t all women feel the same? The only difference is how much we know we feel it, how in touch we are with our fury. We’re all furies, except the ones who are too damned foolish.
And with that, I’m now 5 pages in and feel as if I have a new best friend who’s also a Betty Friedan version of those visionary doomsayers of days of old, who looks a little disheveled perhaps but then lapses into otherworldly trances like Sybill Trelawney in Harry Potter and scares the shit out of you. Just wait till you read (on pp. 4-5) what she means by The Woman Upstairs (and those of us whose first thought was Madwoman in the Attic are on the right track).
This is going to be scary and awesome, like having to run through a house on fire. I feel like I’m being tugged by the hand by my new unfiltered visionary friend, and I might have to dedicate the afternoon to her.