‘that strange echoing fear’ How to be a Good Wife – Emma Chapman

The distant mountains rise higher and darker, surrounding us: shadowed blue-green masses capped with white snow.

On the surface Emma Chapman’s debut novel is a cool, controlled, and compact account of the apparent psychosis of Marta Bjornstad in a nameless Scandinavian town as her husband and son look on in increasing despair. Yet beneath this is a deeply intelligent consideration of the destabilising effects on identity and the experience of time caused by the absence of a framework of memory.  Marta’s narration relates a scraped out experience related by Chapman’s chillingly direct and economical language which always points beyond itself and the starved atmosphere of her character’s mind. An unstocked mind in which things reverberate: sounds, images, memories, desires. These oscillations colour everything. Shapes rise and fall in the wan twilight of a Scandinavian Autumn, the rays of the Sun playing on the surface and, although attenuated, penetrating the depths. From those depths rise visions or memories of a blonde girl in dirty pyjamas, a forgotten grace of movement, a prison. Each one confuses or casts doubt on the life Marta has led, cleaning, cooking, and caring for her husband Hector and son Kylan. The accepted narrative of their meeting and marriage is that Hector saved Marta from drowning and nursed her back to health after her parents died. And yet, as she once again stops taking her medication, the sunlit uplands of an apparently blissful marriage begin to fracture.

 Now it’s as if I can see shadows for the first time.

Marta’s experience of time is episodic because she lacks the kind of structure required to secure its continuity. Hence, her narration and experience is insistently present tense, which is why knowing the time is so important to her: it’s the only structure she has. The only structure, that is, apart from the book given to her on her wedding day by Hector’s overbearing mother – How to be a Good Wife – which contains such commands as ‘Never hurry or nag him along. His time is precious, and must be treated as such’; ‘Always wait for him before you begin eating: he should always come first’; and ‘Never question his authority, for he always does what is best for the family, and has your interests at heart.’ This guide and framework simultaneously secures Marta in a stale home and erodes any sense of agency and selfhood she might have possessed or developed. The question the reader must ask is whether it is in reaction to this diminished selfhood that Marta’s developing assertiveness arises.

The passivity of Marta’s narration is broken by insistent voices which, whether excerpts from a domestic guidebook, fragments of memory, unattributed threats and entreaties, or external attempts to constrain through dismissal and psychiatric diagnosis, serve to reinforce and then undermine her fragile structure as the of tone each develops throughout the novel. ‘If you do what I say, there’s no reason for anyone to get hurt.

And there it is again, that strange echoing fear, slipping through the cracks that have formed in the memory. It’s easy to look at a photograph, and to tell yourself things happened in a certain way, that you were happy. Easy to talk about until it seems that it really happened that way. But as I looked out through that gauzy veil, the petals of my bouquet quivering in my hands, as  I made those steps towards Hector standing at the altar without my father’s arm to support me, I remember being frightened, not excited.

This passage might stand for the whole novel in apparent simplicity and uneasy allusion: that gauzy veil a symbol of Marta’s desaturated experience, a filter on her perception, her understanding and memory. Her marriage has framed and constrained her entire being, completely externalising her identity such that it is dangerously dependent on feminine roles: wife, mother, housekeeper, cook. Are her insidious doubts a reaction to this constrained and hollow existence?  Marta tries to lift her veil, which immediately speaks to Shelley’s sonnet and to the collapsing marriage of Maugham’s novel.

Lift not the painted veil which those who live

Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,

And it but mimic all we would believe

With colours idly spread,—behind, lurk Fear

And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave

Their shadows, o’er the chasm, sightless and drear.

What lurks behind the veil, the story of her marriage, and that phantom girl, whose image seems to efface Marta’s each time she washes or gazes into the mirror? Reflecting surfaces herald the loss of one self and the glimpsing of another. Mirrors lack depth and yet mimic it. Waters can be deep and yet hide their extent. Marta’s certainties drain away with the bath water. Where is her father? Why was she so afraid on her wedding day? Perhaps most compelling: Is this veil her medication, forced upon her by Hector? Or is she actually ill? Or both? Of course, that very suspicion of Hector’s story should alert the reader to doubt Marta’s voice as keenly as she does her husband’s. Fear and hope begin to bleed into one another as her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic.

What if I wasn’t myself before?

Chapman probes how we treat individuals diagnosed with mental illness. There is an implicit challenge here to the view that a mental disorder should entail a corrosive departure from oneself; a challenge to the narrative of unreliability and the distrust of memories of potentially significant trauma. In many ways I prefer this book to Sebastian Faulk’s Engleby which shifts the ground very sharply beneath the reader’s feet toward the end. In its apparent simplicity How to be a Good Wife contains multitudes. It is not devastating and its development was far from a surprise, but I don’t think that is the point of this book at all. Chapman has done something far more interesting than just write a competent thriller: the landscape of the novel and Marta’s mind is submerged, but an emergence from those depths, an ascent to the mountain peaks that shelter the fjord, is not straightforwardly liberating, as the ambiguous relationship with water throughout attests. Her compact and allusive resistance to reduction and the complex archaeology of memory and despair make Emma Chapman’s debut novel very impressive indeed.

For some time, I have watched a magpie, working at the frozen earth.

 

How to be a Good Wife is out from Picador in January 2013.

My thanks to Picador for this review copy.

Fooling Houdini: Adventures in the World of Magic – Alex Stone (William Heinemann)

Out in paperback 5th July.

I have a confession to make. When I was a teenager I was something of a magic obsessive. I used to spend hours practising sleights in front of the mirror and dying for someone to ask me to do a trick (or ‘effect’ – I cared about the difference) as I sat shuffling cards at school.  I’m also a philosopher who researches the nature of our perception of the world around us: how our senses operate and interrelate, how our attention affects what we perceive, and how this all jumbles together to constitute our experiences of everyday life. So when I heard about Alex Stone’s Fooling Houdini I was rather excited. Stone is a PhD student in physics at Columbia University in New York, but he is also a magician whose ambition is to pass muster amongst the greatest practitioners the world has to offer. From abject failure on of one magic’s greatest stages to redemption on another, Stone interweaves the compelling narrative of his magical development under his brusque master Wesley James with an account of the cognitive, perceptual, and probabilistic underpinnings of the tricks of the magic trade, taking in the history of will to believe and the willingness of con-men to take advantage of human psychology. In the course of his investigation he discovers his identity as a magician and reveals the learning lying behind what many dismiss as mere trickery.

A card, freely chosen, perhaps signed, is returned to the middle of a deck of cards; that card appears on the top of the deck, is replaced in the middle, jumps to the top again, and does so in ever more mystifying ways. Perhaps the deck has a rope tied around it to prevent the magician meddling with it after the card is returned; perhaps a bend (a ‘crimp’) is put in the signed card to differentiate it from the rest: it nevertheless leaps, visibly this time, to the top once more. This is just one version of the ubiquitous Ambitious Card routine which all close-up card magicians have in their repertoire in some form. My version ends with the signed card appearing face­-up on the top of the deck, but there are many more impressive routines. It is, if you will excuse the pun, the calling card of the close-up magician. This is the effect with which the great Dai Vernon fooled Harry Houdini seven times one night in 1922. Flummoxing other magicians is the Holy Grail of legerdemain, requiring consummate skill and imagination. One of the most adept is Richard Turner. Blind from a relatively young age Turner is one of the greatest and most obsessive ‘mechanics’ in the history of magic. His sense of touch is so developed that when the United States Playing Card Company changed their production process he not only noticed but could tell them about alterations in texture, weight, and shape of which they were oblivious. They duly appointed him their ‘Touch Analyst’.

One of the major contemporary debates within the philosophy of perception centres around how we should go about determining the nature of the senses: in other words, how we go about understanding each sense and thereby differentiating sight from touch, smell from taste, hearing from sensing vibration and so on. Turner claims that he can see objects – his cards – as he handles them. This allows him to perform astonishing feats, cutting to cards in the middle of the deck by feel alone. Scans of the brains of blind individuals reveal that they do indeed seem to see with their fingers: the visual cortex is activated in a way associated with viewing objects rather than touching them in sighted subjects. This cross-modal (inter-sense) interaction undermines the traditional model of five distinct senses inherited from Aristotle. It is not only the blind who can experience the world in this way. Indeed, all magicians – myself included – come to develop a greater tactile sensitivity as they manipulate their cards, coins, cups and so on. I once rather shocked some friends at school who had sneaked two or three cards from my deck by asking for them back. I hadn’t seen them; I could just feel the difference.

‘Magic, at its core,’ Stone tells us ‘is about toying with the limits of perception.’ In perhaps the most fascinating part of Fooling Houdini Stone delves into the quirks of our attentional mechanisms which make misdirection possible. Whilst we see a great deal of what goes on around us, we do not, it seems notice everything: we don’t respond to it, and we can’t recall it. Competing cognitive tasks – counting the number of passes made with a basketball in a video, for example – can mean we miss an intuitively obvious perceptual stimulus – a woman in a gorilla suit waving her arms in the midst of all the passing. It is this kind of perceptual and cognitive limitation which makes some of the most celebrated effects possible. Such intentional blindness is at play when Stone steals the watch from the wrist of a prominent researcher into attention. Misdirection is all about manipulating attention, rather than simple distraction, and takes advantage of the potentially misguided intuition most of us have that we perceive a lot more than we actually do.

One of the real strengths of Fooling Houdini is the way it communicates the depth of learning and dedication the greatest practitioners achieve. The individuals magicians admire are not simply the rich or famous, but the most creative, penetrating, and dedicated. It’s little wonder that so many scientists, mathematicians, and intellectuals turn out to have a side-line in magic. Magic allows one to toy with perception, probability, order, and, of course, people, in a way few ethics committees would allow. Alex Stone’s judgement was flawed when, as a teenager, he thought that magic would make him less of a nerd, but he has produced a compelling and deeply interesting book on magic and the mind. I’m just never letting him near my watch.