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52 Books #27: After Claude

July 11, 2011


In Iris Owens’s novella After Claude (New York Review Books), we join Harriet as Claude, “the French rat” and her not-quite-boyfriend of six months, is issuing her an ultimatum: get out of my house. He storms out; Harriet settles down for a quiet day at home. In a series of set-pieces which had me laughing out loud — rare is the novel which can accomplish this — we come to observe the chronic differences between what people say to Harriet and what she understands, and between how she believes herself to be helping them and the way they interpret her advice, selflessly given.

Harriet is a wonderful, endlessly entertaining creation: a being of pure self-regard, a fantasist who twists everything to her advantage; half spin-doctor, half psychiatric patient manquée, she maraudingly bludgeons her way through the first half of this book losing friends, wishing horrors on those who try to help her, vilifying those who don’t, building her own myth of herself to beyond toppling point. The great pleasures of After Claude come from watching in mesmerised horror as Harriet burns every bridge and traps herself; the great weakness is that, left with no more destruction her character can wreak, Owens has to shape the plot towards events that will shake Harriet out of her complacency.

Harriet’s vicious, solipsistic, near-deranged but incredibly funny tone reminded me of the endlessly vicious family in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s A House and Its Head (also published by NYRB), and of the endless ways Christina Stead’s Sam Politt finds to justify his appalling selfishnesses in her exquisite The Man Who Loved Children. I derive a great joy, itself rather self-serving, in reading about these monsters whose authors never let slip the faintest hint they might be ironising their creations even slightly. Harriet is a new favourite in this category: she begins the book railing against “a lousy movie” Claude has taken her to see, “a sort of Communist version of Christ’s life […] the same old religious crap about how wonderful it is to be a pauper after you’re dead.” ” ‘Thank god,’ ” she says to Claude as the movie ends: ” ‘I thought that fag would never die.’ ” (pp.3-4.) She goes on to label the half a year in which the increasingly appalled Claude has allowed her to stay with him as “sixth months of drudgery”; argues violently with her well-meaning best friend Maxine (when Maxine storms out, a furious Harriet spots “the bright-pink package of moisturiser the jealous harridan had left on the coffee table. I scooped it up, ran into the hall, and heaved the vial of venom after the descending pygmy” — p.65) and details the events which saw her former friend Rhoda-Regina throw her out her own home, one floor beneath Claude’s apartment, after ever-helpful Harriet decides to help her meet a man by inviting a complete stranger to get into bed with R-R: “A person had to live with Rhoda-Regina’s twitches, her spasms, her asthma, her blinking, her stuttering, before understanding why, on a mission of mercy, I had miraculously produced a man to appease her torment. ‘But she was fast asleep’,” cries the outraged Maxine, in response to which trifling criticism Harriet coolly explains, ” ‘Rhoda awake is unfuckable.’ ” (p.55.)

Sadly, After Claude goes rapidly downhill once Claude succeeds finally in evicting Harriet (after a further genius episode in which she has the locks to his apartment changed, to trap herself inside). Checked into a tiny, ugly bedroom in the Chelsea Hotel — “All through the room, cracks and burns exposed an underlayer of barren brown that was spreading as though blight had struck the skimpy surfaces” (p.126) — Harriet is appalled (as are we) to find herself afraid to leave her room. When she does manage this, she casts around for someone new to latch onto, or rather to bestow her wisdom and kindness onto. By and by she meets Roger, inhabitant of an adjacent room, and the charisma-free second-in-command of a cult.

As Harriet is drawn in by his new-age noodling and threadbare patter, the book’s focus shifts somewhat away from her and onto a rather forced parody of the kind of free-love cod spiritualism we think of as endemic in the 1970s and/or in the Chelsea. The intention, clearly, is to provide some form of character development for Harriet, even to make her sympathetic; she is first quasi-seduced by Roger (it’s difficult to paraphrase exactly how this happens, but the scene treads a hitherto-unsuspected fine line between empowering and grotesque), then appalled by the seduction, then becomes oddly needy. The Harriet we end up with isn’t the Harriet of the first part of the book, and I felt that this was more betrayal than development. For me, it was telling that the last joke which made me laugh out loud was one of Harriet’s final skewed, exasperated observations, which occurs just after halfway through, on p.105: “I switched on the TV, and there before a map stood a madman doing a doctoral dissertation on the fact it was raining.” (It’s the way she tells ’em.)

Then again, I feel I’d have been quite happy with four hundred pages of Harriet’s blissfully self-serving, arrogant and hilarious ‘advice’ to others, so, like Harriet herself, I’m likely railing against something quite natural and necessary, the transfiguration of After Claude into a novel from a series of sketches and set-pieces, albeit some of the funniest and most biting I’ve ever read.

Other reading in Week #37:

Craig Nova Incandescence (Capuchin Classics)

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