Dead Poets Society: Plath/Hughes Friction Fiction

Little Fugue, by Robert Anderson. Ballantine, 384 pages, $24.95.

Edgar Allan Poe wrote that the death of a beautiful woman “is the most poetical topic in the world.” There could hardly be a less wholesome assertion in American criticism (unless it’s Camille Paglia’s assertion that children are sexy), but it’s true that the profound lyrical appeal of Sylvia Plath’s suicide at 30-the final drafts of her blistering new poems typed and on her desk-goes a long way toward explaining why she and not another of the brilliant women writers and betrayed wives of the postwar period became an icon of modern female wrath. Death was Plath’s own great theme, both personally and artistically: a correspondence too rich not to lift her pitiable, vengeful exit to the level of poetry, so that her life-especially in its last months, during the breakup of her marriage-forms a unity with her art.

Plath critics, biographers and readers have seized on this final period with, well, a death grip. And now that the fallen giant, Ted Hughes, has joined Plath in the poets’ graveyard, both of them are fair game for fiction. This season’s contender is Robert Anderson’s debut novel, Little Fugue, which begins on Plath’s last day and carries the story forward from the well-documented marital strife and separation into an afterlife Plath might have wickedly anticipated: the living hell that she willed on her chief survivor, her unfaithful spouse Ted Hughes.

This is a novel of fading echoes, a book of memory in which the recalled event is the suicide of Plath. It’s divided into two story lines-one originating in the Primrose Hill flat where Plath took her life in February 1963, and the other in New York, where a stripling writer (named Robert Anderson, by postmodern coincidence) nurses a lifelong obsession with Sylvia Plath. Both stories are inventive and stylistically dazzling. For most of the book, they are like two sides of a zipper that only intermittently match up. The Plath portion is further divided into three: Plath’s by-now familiar tale; part of the Hughes sequel (the seven years after Plath’s death); and the story of Hughes’ lover Assia Wevill, the woman for whom he left his wife.

Like other novelists of Plath, Mr. Anderson seems steeped in her rich literary remains. But where he has most evidence, he’s least convincing. His Plath-who signs off by page 100-has an internal voice so densely poetic that it’s a wonder she could order a pork chop. Her every action is fraught with meaning, or with the appearance of meaning. On the morning of her suicide, she writes a line or two, then drops her underpants, climbs up on a table and grinds her vagina against the cold stone of a sculpted head. “Bad-self Sylvia, as she has termed her twin, is orbiting the room, powerless, or more accurately too bemused to intervene. There is something distinctly feline in the elasticity of Sylvia’s spine. One might expect her to leap to the higher perch of the rosewood bookshelf at any instant. Instead she grinds down with the withering rhythm of a weary metronome.” This act of statuary rape, followed soon after by her fateful meeting with the gas stove, is seen as both a farewell to her father, whose early death made him a god to her, and a reunion with him.

In the way of some more recent Plath scholarship, Mr. Anderson’s treatment of Hughes is sympathetic. His Hughes is initially intrigued by Plath’s inscrutability, and his interest is sustained by her verse; he doesn’t cheat out of boredom alone, but out of “a submerged terror that he might have married a phantom, and that, by extension, all women might be phantoms.” I don’t know how closely Little Fugue follows the actual events of Hughes’ life in those years, but nothing jars in Mr. Anderson’s depiction of him. He’s a suffering mortal like the rest of us.

The strongest character in the novel is the historically shadowy Assia Wevill, a Holocaust witness who abandoned her third husband (the poet David Wevill) for a chance at achieving some sense of reality with Hughes. This is an almost unbearably intimate portrayal of a woman whose notoriety rests on having stolen Plath’s husband and then having killed herself and the daughter she’d had with Hughes-by putting her head, like Plath, in a gas stove.

When Mr. Anderson eventually draws connections between each of these stories and the New York–based narrative of “Robert Anderson,” the results are hugely satisfying despite their complete implausibility. After the gravity and lyricism that precedes them, these coincidences -magical encounters between “Anderson” and Plath’s survivors-may feel like eating whipped cream from the can. Happily, Anderson has earned his fanciful flourishes, and those who praised his collection of short stories, Ice Age-which won the Flannery O’Connor Prize in 2000-will feel they’ve earned them as well.

Regina Marler is the author of Queer Beats: How the Beats Turned America On to Sex (Cleis Press).