Thoughts: Tony and Susan, by Austin Wright

First things first, if you look this book up all the marketing blurbs tell you it’s a thriller. It is not. And expecting it to be a thriller does a disservice to the book.

As we’re still in “books based on films I watched in 2016” I only had vague memories of this one (the film’s title is Nocturnal Animals). The story within a story’s beginning I remembered, and some dark weirdness in the framing story. Some of it matched the book and some of it didn’t. I’ve since looked up a synopsis of the film and I can see those differences pretty clear now. Interesting choices were made!

This time, an actual spoiler warning. Also contains men raping and murdering women, if that’s something you are not in the mood for.

So the premise is, Susan gets a novel manuscript from her ex-husband Edward, who asks her to read it and discuss it with him over dinner.

The novel, at least in the book, goes like this (in the film it definitely starts and ends the same): Tony Hastings and his wife and daughter are on a trip to their summer house in Maine. They decide to drive all night, and are targeted by three petty criminals who abduct them, leave Tony out in the woods and rape and murder his wife and daughter. It follows Tony through the police inquiries and trying to continue with his life (he’s an English professor, so you will be thoroughly unsurprised to hear that once he is rendered single, he follows the law of all middle-aged English professors in literary fiction, and sleeps with one of his graduate students – she is called Louise Germane because let’s be honest, Edward the writer is kind of a hack), and eventually the detective in charge of the case reveals himself to be A Bit Of A Maverick as he has Nothing Left To Lose (due to terminal cancer), things get outside the law, and it all ends in violence. I think the film version might have cut the middle down. Anyway, it’s fine, there are some nice sequences, but it’s also pretty cliche, sorry Edward. Minus points for every time Tony talks about the deaths of his wife and daughter as though they were things that were purposefully taken from him.

The story around the story of Tony Hastings was changed quite a bit. Susan is a part-time teacher in the novel, mostly a stay at home mother, and an art gallery owner in the film. Her film husband is an unfaithful businessman, and her book husband is an ambitious and unfaithful surgeon who might not be as good at his job as he thinks he is. And film Susan has a domineering mother who disapproves of her relationship with Edward because he’s “too romantic” and so will never achieve his writerly goals, whereas book Susan and her family have a longer history with Edward, and book Edward is a hack writer when young who chucks law school and makes Susan chuck in graduate school to start a teaching job to support him while he finds himself. Film Susan however commits the ultimate crime of a secret abortion to cut all ties to Edward. In both she has an affair and leaves him.

I remember the film having very cool atmosphere (art galleries, am I right) while the book is very domestic, but I think the book’s ending was better. In both, Edward stands her up and it is revealed that his sending the manuscript to her is a kind of revenge (“look how great I am no thanks to youuuuuu!”), but in the film he has plenty of grievance. In the book he comes across as incredibly petty. Susan was supporting him financially so he could follow his dream (and screw whatever she wanted to do) and he was off writing bad poetry and being unable to take criticism, and sure, she had an affair and left him and was not a perfect person, and then he remarried and became a better writer and twenty years passed, and he still thinks he has enough grievance to send her his manuscript out of spite and stand her up? Mate, get over it.

Book Susan has also been dealing with putting her life at the mercy of her unfaithful husband, who is merrily sleeping with his secretary and deciding to uproot the family on a unilateral whim to further his career, and Edward’s revenge revealed sends her over the edge. (Consider that even in the title, even though she is our viewpoint character, her name comes second to a man’s, even though that man is double-fictional.) Instead of bending even further backwards, she pens the greatest Fuck You response possible and posts it, and that was satisfying. The book feels a lot more nuanced, and a lot more knotty in its morality, and that little twist of humour at the end where she gets to have her own petty revenge really changed the trajectory from just relentlessly dumping on Susan (who doesn’t really feel to me like she deserved it by the end, going out of her way to be fair and putting in a lot of effort to do her ex-husband a favour) to something that felt more fair game.

Books within books aren’t particularly easy, especially when they’re an entire novel-length manuscript as this one is, and I’m not sure how well Wright did with it. The style at first felt a little clumsy, which I assumed was because Edward is only newly a good writer (and for a long time was actively bad, according to the story) but quickly morphs into the exact style of the framing story, that is, presumably Wright’s own style.

Once or twice Susan thinks about things in terms that only appear in Edward’s manuscript later. Is this authorial error or to make the manuscript blend into Susan’s real life? It’s not really clear. In the end, the manuscript doesn’t blend into her real life. Edward uses names and locations from his and Susan’s life together (he even names a particularly vapid character Susan, which, wow) in oblique ways. There isn’t really a one-to-one analogue and Edward has of course had twenty years or whatever to go on and live his life with his new wife Stephanie (Arnold, Susan’s current husband, had an ex-wife called Selena who seems to have been mentally ill and not tret particularly nicely, and I found myself wondering if it was significant that all the women’s names started with the same letter).

Edward originally says in his letter that Susan is the best critic he ever had, though this may be spite talking. She is aware that he didn’t take her criticisms well back when they were together, and is relieved that the manuscript he sent her is good and she’s enjoying it (what a gamble for an author to take, to have one of their own characters praise their writing!) in a way that I felt quite keenly, as an amateur writer who has passed through various circles of other amateur writers. You want people you like or know personally to be good, and there’s an immense relief when they are.

Anyway, that’s by the bye, because I was happily reading in critic mode and especially near the beginning would have taken a red pen to a good few bits that Susan doesn’t seem to notice at all. Word repetition (there’s a sequence where every sensory input is described as being like a crowbar), an abrupt change in the imagery of the corpses of Tony’s wife and child being like lovers to then being described consistently as mannequins, just little things that I thought it would have been worthwhile for Susan to pick out among the larger currents of her enjoyment and thoughts on where the story was going and what its possibilities are. Honestly having little things for her to nitpick and engage with would have deepened that frame story, I think? Better than having her unadulteratedly love it, anyway, which feels a bit contrived.

Every now and then Wright throws in something like her being glad the middle section of Tony being sad changes its tone because she’d had enough, or she doesn’t particularly like the victimisation of women, but she also doesn’t really carry those thoughts through, especially the second. There’s definitely something about Tony’s thinking about the murders that’s… not titillating but certainly dwelling on it, with something I’m almost inclined to call “relish”, and if my ex-husband who I haven’t talked to in twenty years sent me a manuscript dealing with such subject matter I might at least raise my eyebrow or wonder if there was something behind it because all of that is a choice. Especially as it seemed different to everything else Edward used to write. I wonder if that kind of reaction didn’t occur to Wright.

A lot more to think about here than I thought there would be, and I read it in pretty big chunks. I could have done without some of (most of) the random sentence fragments, but that ending felt so good.

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