Has anyone ever said to you “Everything happens for a reason”? Or, perhaps, like Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow, “There is no such thing as coincidence”? We smile and nod, and pass by the cues to a better understanding of such notions of Jung’s synchronicity. But today, while reading from two supposedly widely different texts on two different library websites, I ran “smack-dab”–as people from my part of the world say–into a lovely coincidence about meanings and situations which I’d like to share with you. On one website, I was starting to read from the Nag Hammadi scriptures, the Gnostic scriptures which were suppressed from the canon of allowed Christian texts by clerics who called them “heretical.” They have now surfaced again, and have been translated from the Greek and the Coptic into English, and have stirred my curiosity. On the other website, I was finishing up a reading of Fay Weldon’s book of short stories called Watching Me, Watching You, which was named after one of the stories. And then, it hit me: the whole of Weldon’s book bore an intimate relation in its themes and structures to something quoted from one of the Gnostic texts, the Gospel of Thomas. And here’s what it was:
“Know what is in front of your face, and what is hidden from you will be disclosed to you. For there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed.” Ever hear someone say to someone else “It’s as plain as the nose on your face”? But then, in order to get a proper view of one’s own nose, one needs a reflective surface in front of one, and Fay Weldon’s short stories, with their scalpel-sharp ironies and desperate comic turns, are that reflective surface of what often goes on in front of us, but which we chose to ignore, or cannot master the trick of deciphering, simple as it might seem to others watching. The book is dated in some respects, having been a collection of stories from the 7o’s and published as a whole in 1981, and yet the situations that make up the action in them still occur today, in actuality or in shadows of actions. I would like here to give a brief summary or synopsis (not so brief, in the first instance) of each story, just to whet the readers’ appetites, and then without spoiling the adventure, go on to final comment.
1. “Christmas Tree”–A writer gradually becoming successful for his counterculture writings allows his personal life to affect his career. An old story, but told with refreshing clarity here. As Weldon writes about her character, “Writers tend to undervalue those who praise them, or complain that praise is patronising; whilst at the same time feel aggrieved if they are not praised. They never win the battle with themselves, which is why, perhaps, they go on writing.” With this writer, his first wife left him taking with her their small daughter, when he cheated on her, starting him on a lifetime of going from woman to woman. In this case, however, the womanizer finally becomes the victim of his habit, and is deceived and taken advantage of by a much younger woman who gets him to marry her because he believes she is “pure” and virginal. As he says of her before he marries her: “I’m glad she’s a waitress….I’m finally back where I belong. Amongst real people, who do real things, and live simple, honest hard-working lives.” When he finds himself amongst her whole family of small-time grifters, he is instead of being realistically downcast about it (as his art would suggest) ironically overjoyed. “He had bound himself by accident to a monstrous family in a monstrous place and had discovered by accident what he felt to be the truth, long evident, long evaded. It was that human nature was irredeemable….All aspirations and ambition had been burned away: all wounds cauterised with so sudden and horrific a knife as to leave him properly cleansed and purified.” This is a funny way to describe total failure and withdrawal from one’s own creative sphere, but thus it is, and we see it as he does not, for he is like the Christmas tree that his own family used to replant year after year, only now his “roots” have been “cauterized” as his new family does when they steal trees to sell off someone else’s land: his roots have been boiled, and he seems not to mind his fate at all.
Breakages–In this very innovative story, a clerical wife is “haunted” by a ghost who gets even with her husband for his unfair treatment of her by breaking his things. This only happens when he is in church preaching or is elsewhere occupied and she is alone, at least in the beginning of the story. The bitter issue between them of whose fault it is that they have no children comes to a head, however, and then the husband too is confronted by the “ghost,” though he funnily enough persists in blaming the wife for the noises and moving furniture up in the attic, even while she is in the same room downstairs with him. Against all the reader’s expectations as they are established by the story thus far, when the two characters finally get around to speaking to each other about their “guest,” even though they are still deluding themselves about some things, they are visited by a happy ending, which yet is not free of whimsical irony. This is thus another story in which something is obvious, yet needs to be confronted before the apotheosis can take place.
Alopecia–The topic is “sisterhood” or the lack thereof, amongst a group of women, and the lovely reversal at the end that takes place when the least sisterly of the women is suddenly put in the same position as a woman known to them all whom she has maliciously gossiped about for years. Once again, the quote from the Gnostic gospels rings true, because she has willfully ignored for years what has been right in front of her, which has been going on between the woman and her husband, blaming the wife for everything and seeming deliberately to cause hatred and suspicion to surround her. The term “alopecia,” which is a kind of diseased hair loss, stands in as a subject-replacement for the actual “bald” cruelty of the other woman’s husband, who among other brutalities has made a habit of pulling her hair out by handfuls. When the situation is reversed between the two women, the woman in the previously superior place derives the full benefit of a hateful kind of achieved wisdom, too late.
Man With No Eyes–This is another “ghost story,” featuring “the man with no eyes,” a sort of bugaboo from an Eastern culture, who seems to visit a family purporting to be a happy one in which the husband, however, is always demanding much, giving little, and constantly and apparently deliberately misjudging his wife. He is another one not seeing what is before his eyes. It seems likely that at this point the general drift of the stories of Weldon’s labelled (and sometimes marketed) as “ghost stories” must be obvious to my readers: a number of her stories, though they all contain ironic reversals or heapings-on of fated happenings, are clearly not the cheap and simple ghost story per se (fun as that can be). Several of them, however, were in the 70’s and 80’s published in magazines and volumes which purported to be ghost story-oriented.
Threnody–This is the most mysterious, in its way, of all the stories. A female character who is seeing a therapist, another woman whose words we know only through those that the first character repeats aloud, changes her story repeatedly, ready to take anyone’s view of her as the true one. She seems to have no sense of self, but one after the other, follows other people’s views of what she is “like.” We as readers are frustrated in some ways in trying to get to know this character, because we cannot really be sure of what the truth is about what these other characters say and do to and with her. Thus, this story is in a sense a sort of defeat of the Gospel of Thomas notion that it is possible to know what is in front of your face, because as another more famous Biblical quote says, we are seeing her “through a glass, darkly.”
Angel, All Innocence–Yet another young woman, an expectant mother this time, who becomes aware of “ghosts” in the attic, hears a tale of former tenants from the kindly village doctor who treats her and senses her husband’s casual emotional cruelty and indifference. She makes a decision which is not logical at all in ordinary human terms, but which the ghost from the attic (whom she thinks she sees one day upon the stair) would understand completely. She is the character par excellence among these in the book who, though “all innocence,” yet is worldly enough in spiritual terms of a good sort to know what to do to save herself and her child.
Spirit of the House–The predominance of the characters in this story do not see what is in front of them, an abusive nanny. One character does, and must strive for justice.
Watching Me, Watching You–Cyclic wives and lovers, and a ghost who sleepily observes them all, as they take perspectives on each other, and history repeats itself. One could even argue that it’s the accumulation of repetitions through history that has made the ghost so “knowing,” that this is in fact the spirit of all the tales in the book.
Geoffrey and the Eskimo Child–This is the bittersweet story of a man who for years is a sort of feminist’s ideal man, at least on the surface, a feminist himself, and a good socialist and humanist at the same time, who yet presents his wife with a final shocking conundrum and doesn’t help her to solve it. The question is, why is the view occluded for her, his closest, and why is it likewise obscure to others on the outside? One might almost suspect Weldon of attempting to suggest that such model behavior is too hard for any man (as opposed to the women whom she celebrates in her stories), did he not have a certain charm and resilience as a character, even though he may have just a bit of feet of clay.
Weekend–This is a final picture in the book of a condensation of a family’s whole way of life into how their lives are arranged for a single weekend (one of many, a pattern) in their country home. No words are wasted; every single thing that happens means something, amounts to something, counts for something, to the characters living through it nearly as much as for the reader. Though the two creative works are so very different, and the character of the mother in this work is gentle and constantly striving to please, very different from Elizabeth Taylor’s character in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, yet the economy of the wording and the ferocious amount of energy that is released from it reminds me of that in the famous play by Edward Albee.
Fay Weldon, whom I have never read before but whose works I now intend to become more familiar with, was awarded the CBE in Britain, and is the author of the pilot for the famous PBS series Upstairs, Downstairs. She has written many novels and scripts and plays and books of short stories, and given my acquaintance with her merely through this one work I’ve written on today, I think she would well repay serious attention. It’s quite clear that though in this book the plight of women is one of her chief concerns, or at least was in 1981 when she published this work (and I can’t imagine such a devoted advocate changing her mind), she is well able to see more than just the contemporary injustice and look behind it for the historical one. As well, her male characters are not straw men, easy to knock down, but believable even when culpable or villainous. I hope to run across something else by her again soon, perhaps something a little more recent and topical. For the meantime, I hope you haven’t been totally exhausted by this long post, and welcome any comments you may have to make.