Dear friends and readers,
Over on WomenWritersAcrosstheAges @Yahoo, quite a number of us have read (or tried to read) some of Jane Smiley’s novels, and two of us have just finished her mystery-crime novel, Duplicate Keys, with three now going on for 13 Ways for looking at the Novel. Having once tried 13 Ways where Smiley defends “the virtuous and good character” (though on what grounds I no longer remember) and remembering the ferocious quarrels that once flared on Austen-l over Fanny Price, I thought those of Smiley’s novels I’ve read thus far a good opportunity for discussing the good or exemplary heroine. All three novels I’ve read have at their center, Private Life, A Thousand Acres, and now Duplicate Keys, have such a presence as their point of view.
Duplicate Keys may be said to be centrally about whether such a heroine is really “good” or is she a fool (cannot see the world in front of her), a “free rider” (she — horrors! — lives off a man or someone else), “dependent” on others, unfairly entangling them with her devotion, idealization (so much emotional blackmail), in reality a “passive-aggressive” (what could be worse than the hypocritical bully in disguise?). It’s also a Radcliffian sort of gothic (heroine terrorized by locks and doors), a woman’s novel re-engineered to look like a crime/mystery book, similar to Hughes’s TV film, Five Full Days, and is reminiscent Jane Elizabeth Howard’s Falling & Winston Graham’s Walking Stick.
First, about the book: the commentary on it online suffers because people stick to this anti-intellectual and silencing idea we are not supposed to tell the ending (or in some versions anything about the book the person doesn’t know) especially stubbornly when the book is a mystery. If you can’t tell anything or the ending, you can’t discuss its meaning. A book’s meaning includes the whole design. (See What do spoiler warnings spoil?).
Far from being like a Hitchcock story (though why this should be a term of praise is beyond me, Hitchcock being a mean film-maker who loves to do cruel things to women), it’s a woman’s novel re-engineered to be a mystery; or mystery-crime-detective re-engineered to be a woman’s novel. Rather like Gwyneth Hughes’s Five Full Days or Prime Suspect featuring Helen Mirren — with the detective, whose name is Detective Honey (perhaps a joke) marginalized. And I liked it for the reasons I liked her others: a deep-feeling study of a cultural milieu through the eyes of a heroine: the difference is this time we are in a big, no a world city, and the time is contemporary. I long for books to be getting on with, a kind of friend to be dialoguing with someone and I can go for quite a time without finding a new one, but admit I’m now sure Alice, her heroine, was quite someone I could identify with. Bond and care about her, but not love and be intensely anxious for. I had the same problems with her previous two heroines.
It has a story which swirls around the friendship of two women: Alice Ellis and Susan Minehart. Alice comes to Susan’s apartment one day to find murdered in two chairs next to one another Susan’s husband, Denny and his best friend, business partner in a firm making and marketing popular music, and hanger-on, Craig Shellady. Who did it? and why? we slowly hear about a tiny circle of friends, associates and meet Noah Mast and his wife, Rya, whom it seems he bullies, while she clings to him. I realize now that they are a weak parallel for Alice and her ex-husband, Jim Ellis, who left her for a younger woman, Miranda, because he couldn’t stand her idealization of him, her “goodness,” her dependency; at the same time we learn, through the phone calls he sets up, that he continues to encourage this dependence, is himself still sexually jealous of any other suitors. The back story as Alice remembers away in one chapter tells something rather different: Miranda was an idolizing beautiful and much younger student, and Jim preferred her as a rebel, as a romancer, and because Miranda never asserted herself in any way whatsoever, not even achieving the minimum of job and profession.
There is also the homosexual Ray, doing well in his music businessman, big spender in expensive restaurants for all, and a drug dealer, with a cool (nasty-minded) lover, Jeff. The cast of characters is small: the last is Henry Mullett, a man who lives in her apartment house, and whose window faces hers (he has been watching her for an undetermined time) and with whom she commences a sexual affair and friendship. Craig is a domineering abusive type and both Alice and Rya have become his mistress-punching bags for a time.
Did I say Alice is a librarian? but perhaps gentle reader you guessed that. It seems in the cliched universe of popular novels librarians are characters who embody “good girl messages” by their love of books, lack of ambition (librarians are assumed to be without ambition) and typical activities (shelving books, cataloguing, and worse yet, helping other people to find and read books). In a way she reminded me of the heroine of Graham’s The Walking Stick, also a mystery: Deborah Dainton is a kind of cataloguer and librarian for an expensive art-jewellry-antiques shop.
It seems there has been drug dealing and someone murdered Denny and Craig over money and/or drugs — Ray is a suspect; so too Noah who is at one point arrested. Susan has throughout a severe tongue, apparently hating Craig, whom she characterizes as a predator a neurotic abuser. Alice (as ever, traditional good heroine again) tries to understand which means excuse, even justify Craig. Alice also turned to Ray after Jim left her; as a gay man, she was a companionable friend and he a support. This feels sinister feel as Ray is one of those people who took keys from Susan and gave them out. While Susan spent for the funeral, she defied other taboos too: she will not leave the large comfortable apartment and after she and Alice do a ritual cleaning out and throwing out, begins to return to sleep there. Denny who seems to have loved Craig has a Catholic family who insist on an expensive burial and Susan feels she must make a Catholic funeral and has to go yet further into debt to pay for it, about which she is endlessly bitter. Never made explicit after a while the reader realizes Susan has turned to Alice for friendship because her husband, Denny, made Craig his alter ego.
The title refers to how Susan has been in the habit of making duplicate keys and giving them out to everyone who has a relationship with Denny and Craig as a matter of business policy, a way of networking. Those given duplicate keys can of course make more copies. So anyone could have gotten into the apartment and murdered Denny and Craig. Alice has followed suit (she often imitates Susan) and given keys for her apartment to others. The cover illustration to my book show two doors that seem to be at right angles, an old-fashioned glass-looking doorknob on one, the other in shadows, both having reflective light glancing over them.
What there is of suspense is as Radcliffian as the business of doors that can be opened by others at will, doors Alice cannot lock: it’s the result of Alice hiding from Susan and everyone else her growing relationship with Henry.
18th century illustration for Radcliffe type novel
Duplicate Keys reminded me of The Walking Stick because of the way Henry Mullett quietly pursued Alice. We see he watches for her from the window; she half realizes this and does not (like Deborah trying to avoid Leigh Hartley) want the man’s company. She is though reading her ex-husband’s poems to his second wife as a substitute for phoning him, which she has not quite got out of the habit of doing still at the crises of her life. Henry insists she come downstairs as a much better way to pass the time. He cannot get her to go to a movie with him as she has to work tomorrow — to to her librarian job her basis for support.
Heny’s slow moving into Alice’s life is worrying — because of the way he is insistent, from the time he got her to pick him up (and we realize now that he was aware they lived near one another so he was watching her go in and out of the apartment house), and from her dropping the remark that she did not know why she had not told Susan about him.
This feels like a Hitchcock motif and to be sure he uses it, but I’d like to suggest it’s more endemic of women’s books. A very powerful one I read a couple of years ago, Falling by Elizabeth Jane Howard has another Henry insidiously take over a woman’s life to the point she is in mortal danger from him; it was made into a chilling film by Andrew Davies. The man can take advantage of this divorced woman now in the country, partly retired. At the core of Graham’s Walking Stick: the lame or crippled heroine discovers that she has been a target for the man whom she regarded as so beautiful and the rare friend; we don’t learn of this quiet stalking and plan all along to use her to steal jewels form the firm she works for until the very end.
Tricky this business of caring about, being anxious about characters. On Trollope19thCStudies we talked about how this is central to our love of particular books or authors …. Remember when we read A.S Byatt’s Imagining Characters where Byatt and Sodres talked about how filmed characters can get in the way of people’s memories or they can be very disappointed in the choice of an actor as he or she interferes with a previous conception. What happens to me sometimes is the actor almost replaces the preconception or character as I’ve felt it before I saw the movie.
Alice is carrying on a genuine affair with Henry (going to bed with him) and hiding this from her friends. This spells disaster: how will they know to help her or where to find her if he should spirit her away? Smiley accounts for her hiding where she’s been by her fear of a new failure or rejection. Alice fears Mullett will desert or hurt her as have all the others. The heroine of Falling is saved because her friends know of her Henry (hmmn the same name) and find out about him and are there to help her if she should phone.
This hiding reminds me of how Ginny in A Thousand Acres kept getting herself pregnant by not using contraceptives – and telling Tyler she was – and when she’d miscarry hiding this. Come to think of it this is a bit improbable. But Margaret also kept secrets in this way.
Remember the trio of lies, secrecy, silence as the way women get through life — and also the pathologies that result – this begins with Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, it’s central to Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters and many a woman’s novel. In the 2002 film adaptation of Forsyte Saga we see that after sex with Soames, Irene goes to take a bath, and uses a syringe to push up into her vagina vinegar (and whatever else she can think of) to stop any conception.
She’s learn of more adulteries and betrayals among her group of friends. Rya was having an affair with Craig (he got around, so did Alice, so did Denny now dead and murdered too) and her deriding husband, Noah knew. And suddenly Ray shows up and asks to stay with her.
The novel held me mostly through the my fear for Alice over Henry … What I liked about the one Susan Hill mystery, The Various Haunts of Man (a Simon Serailler novel) I read – which made me very anxious — was there too a woman was threatened who was alone. I have liked mysteries when they are comedies of manners too (Sayers) and romances (Byatt); this is combining female gothic justifiable paranoia …
Ray and his slinky boyfriend Jeff now somehow force their way into Alice’s apartment and while she sleeps they take her key. I feel for her because I know that I could be pressures this way. The screws are turned as Henry Mullett is also pressing himself on her but then suddenly vanishes from the narrative and Alice wonders where he is.
But our Alice takes satisfaction in her job as a librarian; what a release to escape to one’s job. (I knew the feeling even as an adjunct, when I would turn to what I was doing with books and writing and for my students). J. L. Carr has a wonderful line in Month in the Country about escaping into the mask of one’s job to meet others through. But as she works into the night she finds herself downstairs among the stacks. The light seems to go out after she has put it in and suddenly for a sequence we get this uncanny nervous fear that such books usually have on offer. From Radcliffe to Susan Hill this is part of what we are to feel; in Falling once the heroine lets Henry live with her in the house we have it continually.
But then Alice calms down. To me this calming down is a sign that Smiley’s real talent is not in the gothic area as she really is at play unseriously when she does it.
I should say it’s very easy reading and if you get lost on the subway (as I did yesterday on the DC metro) it is a good companion. There is Alice having her hard time and there are you lost. There is Alice unable to hold onto her keys. There are you unable to make the machine add $10 to your “smart” card (proving of course you are not worthy a smart card as you are not smart enough). Both incompetent before life’s demands. You feel not so alone …
And then it happened, I was 23/s the way through and got to what Margaret Forster called in Smiley’s Blind Horses and A Thousand Acres “the sudden pull, the shocking jerk as the point of it all pushed home …” The brutal reality that was staring me in the face all along. Alice comes to the conclusion Susan did it. And we realize how Susan has been managing Alice’s life: Susan does all the cooking when she is there, takes over Alice easily.
At first when Alice come to the conclusion suddenly that Susan did the murders we are not sure. It might be all in her mind and Smiley wisely keeps up the uncanniness at the same time as we cannot be sure Alice is right. If Susan did it, that is the sudden pull though: so now we have a picture of private life in the city as lived by people making it through the arts (or not making it as the case is), and then we get the proof. It’s also about what constitutes success and what failure and how the lack of admired success can destroy people, and when it destroys an individual it can poison the circles he’s in.
It seems that what Susan loathed was Denny and Craig’s continual “whining” over their lack of success. They had one success with one hit and never made another, and they have spent the rest of their lives trying to make another hit, to become stars or businessmen like Ray. She has had to listen to them talk about this for years, plan this networking, that strategy, watched them fail, vow to do something else, but come back to the dream all over again. And take drugs in the meantime, sell them, deal, get into worse and worse debt.
A bit improbable: Alice twice sends away a locksmith, once after Detective Honey urges her to change her locks, and again after Ray and Jeff get in and leave without permission. After the first time she is left without a door. Could Susan have engineered a “difficult” locksmith? At any rate, after the second attempt she has no locked door again — we are in Radcliffe country now. Susan thinks she again hears that same sound she did before and escapes — out the window.
Great movie cliff-hanger as she literally hangs 4 floors up form a ledge; as she improbably rounds the bend, she sees Susan looking out the window gun in hand, looking for Alice.
Things fall into place: all the bitter conversations, Susan’s disgust (for that’s what it is) with Alice’s way of coping with life and men — Susan scorns the way Alice lived with Jim and blamed Alice for Jim having left her and we are asked to take this seriously.
Alice has so dithered and insulted Henry by this time — for example at one point letting him buy an expensive set of food from Zabar’s to bring back, and then when Susan shows up on the sidewalk hurrying off with her without telling Henry. He slams the door in her face the next time she comes to his apartment. We are to see she mishandled a relationship that would have been satisfying — though at the beginning we distrusted him too (Hitchcock-like looking at her from his window). The romance is weak because Henry disappears and at the close of the book is apparently suddenly happy to start up again — to furnish us with a supposed happy ending?
A excellent thoughtful posting by Anna on our listserv awakened me to the function of this book as a woman’s novel. Anna said she was ambivalent about the book and heroine, and had a friend who disliked it — presumably because she disliked the heroine. I know I did dislike Ginny at times, not because she was good but because she was conventionally good, because she bought into the mores of her community, many of which were awful, and she hid the incest inflicted on her by her father and kept on justifying him to the end. The way for example, at the close of Persuasion Anne Elliot justifies Lady Russell.
Women’s friendship is central to this book, to me unexpectedly,
and also the good heroine. Alice is good and her goodness is
presented in this novel as under attack and somehow false — at least I suggest we are to believe Susan that Jim left Alice because Alice was”‘too dependent,” “loved him too much.” Susan shows a great deal of hostility towards Alice while dominating her, being the lead in the relationship. Susan resents this while taking advantage — as if somehow Alice were lacking and
irritating by not being aggressive and competitive. It’s false Susan thinks, a coverup for what? laziness? not seeing the truths of life. Alice is accused of not seeing the truths of life.
Ginny is similarly a good heroine and she gets some hard knocks because of it but her genuine helpfulness, cooperativeness, love and the rest are not turned into Freudian “passive-aggressive” nonsense (partly because her sister does not have the language for this kind of charge). This phrase is a badmouthing out of resentment and even jealousy. Many readers nowadays are perfectly comfortable with their more ugly and cruel impulses, told these are fine (such is the rhetoric of our time which supports unqualified competition, capitalism in the very corners of our souls). Ginny married Tyler out of her relationship with her father. He is NOT-her father, not a bully, not aggressive, not hurtful (and does get hurt for this is not a good reason to have married him just alone) Margaret is also good and has her life sluiced from her, but she is at the same time very strong and her husband lived off her.
Susan is also the bad heroine and fascinates Alice. Alice thrills to imagine Susan’s crime and for a while does not want to tell Honey what she saw. She admires Susan too. Only when she realizes that if she does not tell what she knows, Susan will kill her does she go to Honey.
The problem in Duplicate Keys for me is Smiley never defends Alice. We can see her goodness as real; how kind she is at the end to Noah, how she does the right thing to Rya. That she’s a good librarian Goodness ought to be defended more. I’ve had students write explicitly out of an assumption they’ve been taught: we are not to allow our human sympathies to decide our moral judgements. The best of judges know that this sympathy is what guides them in their determination. Yes there are pious books which teach women to hurt themselves centrally (good girl messages). And where I didn’t like Ginny was where she was this sort of good girl.
I believe the attack on the traditional heroine mostly comes out of resentment and jealousy when such a character is supported by loving people. Alice is acceptable to Susan because Jim left her. Susan then stepped in; she’d hate it if she saw Alice succeed by her goodness and it be accepted at face value — as well as having ambiguities.
People who want to be bullies and to win out at all cost want us to define the victims they make (as they often do make them) as “passive-aggressive,” and really wanting to do the same only too cowardly. Not so.
I liked Walking Stick so much better because Graham did not blame the victim. It’s true that Elizabeth Jane Howard is content to allow the villain to be simply pathological (Graham is not) while the portrait of Susan is sympathetic to her. Only it must be admitted Susan does not herself question success, she only wants Denny to get into another business, and drop Craig.
This is an important quarrel among women today. Many women just hate Austen’s Fanny Price (Mansfield Park) and call her every name they can think of including “creep mouse.” I suppose Ginny is a creep mouse, so too Alice – Esther Summerson has phases like that. This point of view hurts feminism, is anti-feminist, comes out of pride unwilling to admit women are victims, oppressed, and their goodness taken advantage of — if you want it to be socialistic, caring, supportive, a group effort for us all. I’m sure my readers have seen this “I hate the good heroine” syndrome; the good heroine is the traditional heroine from 18th century on to today. Nabokov openly despised this “type” and made her the mother of Lolita and had his Humbert Humbert kill her off.
A crime novel is a perfect place to bring out this debate as many womens’ enjoyment of these seems to be an enjoyment of femmes fatales, bad women, and the aggressive hard kind of heroine we see in Susan. There are (mistaken here) women justify violent revenge movies as feminist (these are serving the misogynist vicarious thrills of men viewers and movie-makers).
I’d like to read 13 Ways now to see if Smiley goes into this matter with insight and explicitly. I gather Smiley does what I call avoid the issues her own women’s novels sets up. She seems to treat “the novel” as if novels by men and women are seamlessly one. Myself I’ll guess it gives us more than insight into her books, but also insight into her Americanness and strong tendency as central heroines to justify (if in Private Life especially) undermine “good girl messages: Maybe though in the details she does not treat of novels and values as if they were universal and not continually gendered. Her own fiction is deeply gendered.