Being Nice is Tiring: An Interview with Claire Messud

Claire Messud’s brilliant new novel, The Woman Upstairs, has attracted controversy over the concern that its narrator, schoolteacher and frustrated artist Nora Eldridge, is not “nice.” There are all sorts of things wrong with this complaint, but one of the more interesting is that one of the things troubling Nora is the social expectation that women be nice. Another thing troubling Nora is  the Fun House, which is her term for America’s media culture, its obsession with celebrity and appearances. She thinks she has found a way to realize her dreams and escape from the Fun House when she becomes entangled with a student’s parents, the Shadids—Skandar, a Lebanese professor trotted out on television to give his thoughts on the rolling tragedies of the first decade of the 21st century and, even more crucially, Sirena, an artist who represents everything that Nora thinks she could or should be. Nora finds that it’s not so easy to tell the difference between a longing to create great art and a longing to achieve—or at least be close to—celebrity and glamour. In other words, it’s not so easy to tell the difference between what’s inside the Fun House from what’s outside.

Over breakfast recently, I interviewed Messud about her work. Not that it should matter, but she was extremely nice. We talked about expectations for women, the manipulations of the media, and the mountaineering story Touching The Void as a metaphor for the creative process.

–David Burr Gerrard

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INTERVIEWER

In your work, you generally have a claustrophobic central setting set against a very broad historical, geopolitical background. How do you think about setting when you’re writing?

MESSUD

You say “generally,” and I’m wondering whether that’s true. We live simultaneously in intimate spaces, relatively, more or less, and we also live in history. It’s not something we’re consciously aware of, except at strange moments. We live in Cambridge, on the Watertown line, and was it two weeks ago at one o’clock in the morning, we heard gunfire and explosions, so we were aware at that moment of living in some sort of history, but by and large, we’re living in history without being aware of it. What is the relation? Different for different people in different moments.

I’m thinking about the word “claustrophobic,” that you started with, and that’s interesting to me that you say that. Certainly, in this book, Nora’s greatest problem is constraint, and the constraints don’t emanate from any visible external source. There’s no reason why she couldn’t do anything under the sun, except some set of rules she has been living by that she doesn’t even know that she’s living by. For many people, I think some version of that is true. So many of us live in unwittingly claustrophobic lives, not just spaces.

INTERVIEWER

On the history aspect, there’s a sense in The Emperor’s Children that 9/11 is a kind of wake-up call for the characters, who have maybe been living shallow lives. This book is set a few years later, in the midst of the mire of the Iraq war, and history seems more of a Stephen Daedalus nightmare state, a sleep state. Do you think that 9/11 has essentially become part of the Fun House?

MESSUD

Insofar as the Fun House is a world of representation, I think it was almost immediately part of the Fun House, because we live now in such a highly and constantly mediated world. There was a very strange thing, to go back to the gunshots, that our impulse was to go downstairs and turn on the television about something that was taking place right near us, and of course there was the insanity of the television, which has a live feed. At the point where they get the camera set up, the suspect has escaped, so there’s nothing to see, but everybody sits and watches. The real thing is so much more boring than the cop show, and you wish they would cut to the chase and get the guy. In that sense, it’s difficult to find any experience that’s considered in any way culturally important that isn’t immediately put through some Fun House distortion or other. In the list of things we should be angry about, the manipulations of the media is one that we seem to be strangely docile in accepting. I don’t quite understand why we don’t have any ire about that.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve now written two novels and one novella in first person, and two novels and one novella in third person. A lot of writers are married to one or the other. What do you get from each?

MESSUD

I don’t really think that much about it. When my husband [James Wood] was writing his first and so far only novel [The Book Against God], he went back and forth between first and third, and finally decided on first, and once he’d written the first draft, he said: “I shouldn’t have done this. The first person is incredibly limiting and paralyzing and terrible.” He didn’t change it, but I think he was very conscious of the advantages and limitations of each.

It seems a little bit like how the children would say: “If you could only eat sweet things or only eat salty things for the rest of your life, which would you choose?” Of course, you’d regret whichever one you chose. I think there’s no question that they afford different limitations and opportunities.

Of course, it’s all convention. I do get irritated, as a reader, with the second person. You just have to be different? In our Hunter class, we’re reading Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Good Squad, and in some of those chapters or stories, she takes a divine third person, like Edith Wharton or more recently Muriel Spark, where you can fly into the future twenty years, or you can make some judgment about a character’s limitations. “He did not see about himself…”; “If he had understood about himself…” People don’t do that so much nowadays. It’s sort of like wearing an unfashionable garment. But there’s something delicious about it. I feel as though it fell out of fashion because it became too hard to believe in a God-like unitary self that could transcend and be all-seeing. But why not? I mean, why not? It’s just a matter of finding what serves your purposes best, while knowing that nothing will serve them perfectly.

Another book we were talking about this term is Edward St. Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk. He does a very different old-fashioned thing. There’s not a God-like retreat, but there is a very fluid shifting between attachments. That, too, is very pleasing, and is not something that I think we readily propose. I think we say: If you have a third-person detached narration, you can do that, but there’s a limit to how close in you can go, or you can attach it to two people, but you can’t go in and out of ten people in ten pages. You can’t do that. His feeling is: says who? You can get away with what you can get away with, and if it works it works.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a lot about ruthlessness in this book, and how ruthlessness is necessary for the creation of art or the realization of ambition. Could you talk about that?

MESSUD

That’s Nora’s perception. There are lots of things for me that this book is about, but a lot of it is gendered. I do feel strongly—albeit without scientific backup, but just in my own life, watching my son and daughter start to move through the world—that the acculturation of boys and girls is very different. Not consciously. It’s not about opportunities. It’s more a social component. To what extent it’s about innate tendencies and to what extent it’s about social construction is hard to say, but there are certain things—a single-mindedness, a tolerance for a lack of sociability—that are fine for boys, indeed in some cases encouraged in boys, but are not acceptable in girls. You don’t have the Asperger’s-genius girl. You can follow that flippant comment out and end up at Larry Summers saying that girls can’t do science, or you can ask the question: given that we know from IQ tests that we know that there isn’t actually a disparity, what is that about? You can call it ruthlessness. There are exceptions; it’s a bell curve. But I think it’s much harder for girls to shut out the world. That has consequences. It has advantages in some endeavors, and negative consequences in others.

INTERVIEWER

On that note, you’ve mentioned that the book was inspired in part by narrators like Mickey Sabbath of Sabbath’s Theater. Nora is a lot nicer than Mickey Sabbath.

MESSUD

She isn’t a “monk of fucking”? She is nicer. She’s nicer than the narrator of Notes From Underground, too. But she isn’t less angry. And she’s angry in part because she’s nice. Being nice is tiring. It’s tiring. I don’t ever watch morning television, but I was in the hotel this morning, so I turned it on. Two made-up, grinning women, talking to people, making salads, giving the weather, smiling the whole time. I think: my God, how do you that? How do you do that job? It seems like unbelievably hard work. You couldn’t pay me enough. I don’t know whether her niceness is of blanket significance, although I think it probably is. I haven’t read Lean In yet—I had a reading last night, and someone asked if I had read Lean In, and I had to say “no, not yet, ‘not personally’”—but I think that the spectrum of acceptable male behavior next to the spectrum of acceptable female behavior is so different. To what extent is my impression of that socially based? Is that a middle-class understanding? I don’t know many aristocrats; I don’t know many homeless people. But certainly in the middle classes, the niceness required of women—and perhaps willingly given by women—you can see it in my daughter’s kindergarten class. As my husband James said, the boys come in, and it’s like they’re going to the office. They hang their jackets on the little hooks, say “Hey, Tom,” “Hey, Bob,” and then they each go to a corner and build a car-race set or whatever. The girls would all sit at the table with markers and start drawing. They say: “I like your shoes, where are they from?” Age five, right? And then they say: “What are you drawing, is that a flower? I couldn’t tell it was a flower, it looks a little bit like a boat. And you chose pink for that?” Totally bitchy, but in some official way nicer. There’s the blood wedding side—nobody’s harder on women than other women—but the official line is niceness. What is niceness? If niceness is putting out for other people, I think that there is more niceness in women in this society at this time. Not necessarily innately.

INTERVIEWER

There are also some references to Chekhov’s story “The Black Monk,” about a scholar who hallucinates a black-robed monk whom he believes spurs him to genius.

MESSUD

 If some things are gendered, some things aren’t. The question of—who am I to make art, what legitimacy do I have, who cares about my vision—any of us embarking on any creative endeavor, however small or grand, has to settle that question for themselves. Some people don’t need anything external or ideological, some people can just do it. But I think each of us has some version of the Black Monk. There’s that story, Touching The Void, about a guy who fell into a crevasse. His partner had to cut the rope, his partner abandoned him, and he crawled out. His leg was completely broken; he couldn’t walk. He crawled out for miles, dehydrated, no food for three days. They were striking camp at base camp, because they had given him up for dead. He knew he wasn’t far away when he reached the latrine area. He couldn’t see anymore, but he was surrounded by the smell of shit, and he thought: “Almost there!” But what he said was: for a long stretch of it, he thought his companions were behind him, making fun of him, and saying: “He’s not going to make it. Look at him, he’s pathetic, he’s not going to make it!” His response was: “Fuck you, I’m going to make it!” There was also a Bony M song in his head, “Brown Girl in the Ring,” and he said: “I hate Bony M, I’m not going to die to Bony M!” But he said that the hardest time of the whole thing was when he realized that that they were a hallucination, that they weren’t there making fun of him. I think about that a lot, because I think that that’s also what religious faith is. That there’s somebody behind me or over me, somebody watching who cares, in some way.

INTERVIEWER

Even if it’s a negative kind of care.

MESSUD

Right. And this family becomes that for Nora. They become the people who she chooses to believe are invested in her in some way. And what does it mean if you lose that?

INTERVIEWER

You also mentioned a pop song just now. There are a lot of pop songs in this novel. Lady Gaga, Katy Petty, “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” comes up again and again, there’s a great scene with Avril Lavigne. What does pop music mean to you?

MESSUD

Songs date us almost more than historical events. There’s a Proustian madeleine element to it. I was in a shop yesterday, and Joe Jackson came on, and I was nineteen. The moments change fast. Avril Lavigne is when Nora is with the Shadids in Cambridge; Katy Perry is when Nora is telling the story a few years later, and then there are things like “Lucy Jordan” that have no date, that become part of our broad but shallow culture.

INTERVIEWER

When you’re negotiating the literary world, how do you know what’s the Fun House and what’s not?

MESSUD

In life, does one ever know? I don’t know. One can have meaningful encounters with readers in a bookstore. It’s not that it’s all fakery. But I think that there is something strange about promoting a book. I’m all for Elena Ferrante, who stays home and nobody knows who she is.

INTERVIEWER

The last two books you’ve written have been about unsuccessful ambition. This is as you yourself have become more and more successful. Why do you think you’re drawn to this theme?

MESSUD

They’re different for me. The Emperor’s Children was about a little group of friends, but there was a broader cultural moment, a particular sense of American entitlement. This sense of enormous privilege and entitlement and some uncertainty about what responsibilities that brings and how to direct. I think that that group of people in The Emperor’s Children—they didn’t aspire to be doctors and lawyers and change the world and save the rainforest. They aspired to some sort of media celebrity, and I think that’s a particular type of ambition. Was I trying to make a comment? I was trying to lay something out, in the same way that I say: why aren’t we angry about the fact that our lives are controlled by flat screen televisions everywhere we turn and are constantly feeding us information we don’t need and don’t want to have? I thought—that’s what it looks like, just put it there and see. I think it was taken as a—what was the expression they used? A comedy of manners. I think it was seen as an exposé of or a comment about a very small segment of American society that was understood to have virtually nothing to do with the broader society. To which my response would be: no, actually, it is actually connected to the broader failure to engage, out of which, one might say, arises the Occupy movement, which is people finally saying, “Wait a minute.”

Nora, for me at least, has a very different sort of ambition. Alison Lurie wrote a review of A Woman Upstairs in the New York Review of Books. Her reading of it is that Nora has a celebrity complex, a need to be a part of a celebrity culture, and that was very interesting to me, because certainly that was not my intention. It was almost the opposite of that. When she’s talking about the Fun House, that is the celebrity culture. Her desire, which is almost insanely naïve, is to be seen for who she feels she is, to be appreciated for who she feels she is, with the thought that that will in some sense enable her to make some kind of authentic art that will be appreciated for what it is. That’s the fantasy. The worry is that that she’s like her friend’s little daughter, who makes the little world under the table, and that people are humoring her. Hence the Black Monk. You want some sense that this can be meaningful, not just some childish indulgence.

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  1. Pingback: Being Nice is Tiring: An Interview With Claire Messud | David Burr Gerrard

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