A Writer’s Midlife Crisis Made Seriously Funny

Blue Angel , by Francine Prose. Harper Collins, 314 pages, $25.

Inside every comic Francine Prose novel is a serious Francine Prose novel struggling to get out. As with the proverbial thin-man-inside-a-fat-man, this dynamic is in no way damaging to the host. There are no signs of fracture, no tears in the seamless skin. On the contrary, Ms. Prose’s novels are powerful precisely because of the way the buried seriousness infuses and transforms works that nonetheless remain comic in their intent and effect. We get, essentially, two modes for the price of one.

Blue Angel models itself on, refers to in its pages, but is not to be confused with the Josef Von Sternberg movie of the not-quite-same name. (Like Tim Robbins’ Cradle Will Rock , this latter-day take on The Blue Angel has lost its definite article. I don’t know what this trend for dispensing with the “the” means, but I suspect it has something to do with computerized alphabetization.) The main character–I hesitate to say “hero,” for reasons that will soon become apparent–is a middle-aged writer named Swenson; his first name is used so infrequently that I had to search the book to remind myself that it’s Ted. Apparently even he thinks of himself as Swenson, because it is through his eyes that we see everything in the novel. That is, the narrative form of Blue Angel may be a conventional third person, but the viewpoint never leaves this one perceiving consciousness (the exact procedure Henry James was always advocating, though he rarely stuck to it himself).

This seemingly simple grammatical exercise has a striking effect. We can never make up our minds whether we are inside or outside Swenson, whether we are on his side or critical of him. All the pressures of the novel pull us in both directions at once. We watch Swenson walk foolishly into his fate, and we take the steps with him; we deplore his stupid actions, only to hear him voice the same doubts about his own behavior; we want him to get his heart’s desire, and we want him to get some kind of comeuppance as well. Perhaps this feeling of dividedness is the essence of the midlife crisis–and since Swenson is going through one, in a big way, we have to go through one with him.

Like so many real-life writers of his age and era, Swenson started out as a hot young novelist in New York. And then he took a cushy job at a small, rural New England college, as the writer-in-residence teaching fiction workshops to ignorant undergraduates. There’s the rub–or at least the start of it. For as every practicing writer knows, you cannot really teach anyone else to write. The economics of literature in America mean that many writers have had to find sanctuary in academia, and they are clearly doing no more harm there than most of their colleagues. Nor, however, are they doing much good, and because writers are so prone to guilt and shame anyway, there is an extra measure of guilt caused by the knowledge of their own ineffectuality. Sometimes the effect of this guilt is to dry them up as writers; sometimes it makes them antagonize their colleagues, or alienate their children, or cheat on their wives. In Swenson’s case, it does all of these things.

I am not sure how much you want me to tell you about the plot of Blue Angel , since some of the great pleasure of the book lies in riding the roller-coaster of its dramatic unfolding. Suffice it to say that Swenson, who has long been blocked on his own novel (a ghastly-sounding reworking of The Red and the Black set in the modern-day art world), and has plodded dutifully but unenthusiastically through his teaching duties for 20 years, one day runs into a student in his fiction seminar who can write. This punkily elfin creature, one Angela Argo, seems shy and damaged and needy, and also smart; he is drawn to her not only because of her physical presence, but because of her obvious literary ability. Foolishly but understandably, he underestimates her ambition and overestimates his power–or maybe he just trips into the trap set by his own 47-year-old desires. Making the mistake of falling into bed with Angela (though just once–and it is a hilarious scene, where sex ceases mid-act because one of Swenson’s teeth falls out), Swenson suffers the ultimate humiliation that the academic community now dishes out for such behavior.

I don’t know what it is about the Zeitgeist , but I have already read four novels this year about literary academics who get in trouble with their colleagues because of their sexual behavior. Can this be attributed solely to the Clinton effect? I suspect not. One of the novelists (J. M. Coetzee) is a South African writer whose Disgrace has everything to do with his own country and only peripherally to do with ours. Another (Erik Tarloff) is a friend of mine, so I know for a fact that he conceived the idea for his new novel, The Man Who Wrote the Book, long before Monicagate ever occurred. Philip Roth’s The Human Stain , due out next month, alludes directly to President Clinton’s problems, but that novel is so complicatedly far-reaching in its critiques, and so crucially linked to his other recent works about America, that one hesitates to write it off as part of a trend. And while I know nothing about the origins of Ms. Prose’s plot, I am almost willing to bet that her years of teaching and writing and hanging around middle-aged male writers had a much more direct effect on Blue Angel than the recent national soap opera.

In any case, Blue Angel itself warns us about the dangers of reading real life into fiction. One of Swenson’s earlier novels is a book called Blue Angel (a whiff of postmodernism here) in which he describes, in fictional terms, his courtship of his wife, Sherrie. He has also written in great detail–but fictionally–about his father’s public suicide, a supposed act of political solidarity with the self-immolating monks during the Vietnam War. Reading Angela Argo’s novel-in-manuscript as well as a little self-published book of her poems, Swenson repeatedly asks himself how much of what she writes is fiction, how much fact. But he is never allowed to know for sure, just as we are never allowed to decide how convincing Swenson himself is. Does his relationship with his wife seem too fantastically sexy for a marriage that has lasted over 20 years? Are his stupidity and passivity sometimes inexplicable? Does the troubled relationship with the daughter not fully add up? Yes to all of the above–but then, he is a character in a comic novel. What kind of category mistake are we making when we expect him to be as real as we are?

Exactly the kind Ms. Prose wants us to make.