I was not expecting to love this novel.
I’m not totally sure why I picked it up in the first place, except that someone from my Book Riot crew had mentioned it was pretty good and that the main character is unlikeable.
Me, I don’t mind unlikeable women characters. Usually the reason that women characters are unlikeable is that a) they are not what we think they should be, or b) they are not what men think they should be. I always give myself permission to drop a book that has a truly unlikeable character at its center (spending too much time with someone you don’t like is a sure way to incur psychological damage) but I will usually pick them up because, often enough, an unlikeable woman is a very interesting woman. In fiction. As in life.
In some reviews, this debut novel by poet Jill Alexander Essbaum is cited as part of the new breed of housewife/mommy books, including recent works like After Birth, Eleven Hours, American Housewife, and Little Labors. But, of course, while there seems to be a surge of women writing about what it’s like to have too many brains and too little time to use them (spoiler alert: it’s like a bottomless jello cup of melancholia), this theme has a long and very rich history.
Boredom is not an invention of the 21st century middle class. Like one of those viruses that have existed since the days of rats hopping hopeful ships to the New World, we seem to immunize it into submission until one day it rears up again. Probably the boredom most famous to our generation is 19th century ennui, that abiding existential syndrome of being a European male. But the boredom of women in the home is something different. Dark and passionate.
I steered away from this novel, in all honesty, because it is very forthrightly about such boredom, and that seemed a rather dull premise. In Elisa Albert’s snide NYTimes review of Hausfrau, she implies that, if Essbaum’s main character Anna – an American expat living in Sweden with her three children and severely unpleasant husband – is bored, then this is because she is boring.
Not. So. I say.
Anna’s boredom is not boring at all. Boredom in this book is a fierce, flagrant companion that is both debilitating and galvanizing. Boredom makes passivity active. Boredom is a brush fire that cannot be extinguished. It eats her life, it eats her soul, it eats her family. None of her boredom is boring.
The most obvious heritage of this book is, of course, Anna Karenina. The trains and sex alone would have made that plain, so the name of the main character is almost overkill. But Tolstoy’s Anna is not the only Anna in this book. You would have a harder time catching it, and after reading several interviews, I’m not even sure the author intended it, but Essbaum’s Anna is also reminiscent of Doris Lessing’s Anna Wulf of The Golden Notebook fame, who is sometimes considered the Nobel Prize-winning South African author’s most biographical character.
The most notable similarity is the presence of an analyst in Hausfrau, who – much like Mother Sugar in Lessing’s novel – is taken in turns seriously and lightly by the protagonist. And in both novels, the analyst provides a significant structuring device for inner dialogue. But the analysts (Lessing’s Freudian as per the time, Essbaum’s Jungian, as per the culture) both also bring with them a certain set of psychological premises that encourage certain readings.
[Interjection: HO. LY. CRAP. Have you guys seen this??? http://thegoldennotebook.org/ I’m gonna go back in time to 2008 and know about this.]
So Anna Benz is reminiscent of two other fictional Anna’s.
On the one hand, Anna Karenina is the choice between passion and passivity. Yet this is rewritten in Hausfrau as the coexistence of the two, which Anna meditates upon in one of Essbaum’s brilliant observations about the structure of the German language:
“‘We make the passive voice in German with the verb werden. “To become.” So the bicycle becomes stolen, if you will. Or the woman became sad.’
“Or the body would become ravaged. And the heart will become broken. Somehow it made more sense this way to Anna. “To be” is static. “To become” implies motion. A paradoxical move toward limp surrender. Whatever it is, you do not do it. It is done to you. “Passivity” and “passion” begin alike. It’s only how they end that’s different.”
Anna Wulf, on the other hand, is about compartmentalization. She is a being split into many parts, keeping track of her different aspects/lives in the physical delineation of different notebooks which will eventually become bound into one. This is rewritten in Hausfrau as a compartmentalization that has become uncontained:
“It is possible to lead several lives at once.
In fact, it is impossible not to.
Sometimes these lives overlap and interact. It is busy work living them and it requires stamina a singular life doesn’t need.
Sometimes these lives live peaceably in the house of the body.
Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they grouse and bicker and storm upstairs and shout from windows and don’t take out the trash.
Some other times, these lives, these several lives, each indulge several lives of their own. And those lives, like rabbits or rodents, multiply, make children of themselves. And those child lives birth others.
This is when a woman ceases leading her own life. This is when the lives start leading her.”
Somehow, the themes of passivity, passion, and the multiplicity of a single life are working together here.
While I won’t hazard a full interpretation, I want to take a guess at a path one might go down. There is a scene in which Doktor Messerli, unabashedly frustrated with her patient, decries Anna’s behavior on the grounds of feminism. Anna – who does not work, nor handle money, nor engage in any productive activity except for her German class which she often skips – is living the life of a woman in the past. [And I’m paraphrasing this because, forgive me, it is late and I am tired and I cannot locate the quote.] She is not emancipated. With all the rights and privileges at her disposal, how could Anna remain so inactive? So utterly housebound? The Doktor claims that Anna lives the life of a woman decades or even a century ago. This is a significant nod to the past that I don’t think we should over as a kind of simile. She is not living like women of the past. She is living a life in pastness. More on that in a minute.
A book with so many trains has no choice but to be about mobility. Here, Doktor Messerli claims that Anna has social mobility she is not using. Indeed, she won’t even learn to drive, and there is a kind of geographic and psychospiritual limitation that is noted in the first two pages:
“Her world was tightly circumscribed by the comings and goings of locomotives, by the willingness of Bruno, Anna’s husband, or Ursula, Bruno’s mother, to drive her places unreachable by bus, and by the engine of her own legs and what distance they could carry her, which was rarely as far as she’d have liked to go.”
But it is also worth noting that Anna’s parents died in a car crash. This event is barely mentioned in the novel but it is important. There is nothing that more readily signifies social and geographic mobility – and individualism!- than an automobile. So in a way, their death is due to the exact kind of active transportation of the self (socially/geographically) that Anna is refusing. She refuses to be active. What would be the point? As Anna well knows, active motion leads to death as much as, if not more than, passive non-motion.
I don’t see a lot of critics talking about this crucial point. But if you’re reading the novel seriously, I would recommend looking at the different deaths and their relationships to vehicular locomotion. Some forms of transportation are active. Some are passive. This has everything to do with everything.
It is easy to see Anna Benz as the author of her own downfall. It is. And she is. There’s a beautiful (and religious! cool! you absolutely never see that anymore!) metaphor at the end of the book when Anna goes to a priest and asks him if he believes in predestination. His response:
“‘It’s God who doles out the dominos. It is we who set them in line and tip them over. We have no control over the particular lot we’re given. But we can choose how to arrange what we have. And we can choose to start over, when everything’s been knocked down and broken. Do I believe in predestination? No. A foreordained eternity effectively puts me out of a job.'”
So look, she set them up and knocked them down. No doubt. Yet, at the same time, I think it’s worth looking at Anna Benz as the inheritor of these other two Anna’s. Of their trials both social and personal. The world inherits its past. And the reason that I think it’s worth reaching back to to both Tolstoy and to Lessing to understand Essbaum’s character is that those literary milestone characters themselves were products of certain moments in history. But Anna Benz is too. And she is not all that odd of a character. She is not as fictional as she appears. Indeed, the reason that this novel is spoken of as part of a literary trend is that she is very familiar. What she is experiencing is felt by women who are dislocated and abandoned into their motherhood. That’s why most of what’s written in fiction about motherhood is about alienation and loss of self. It’s important to notice that, while she may be fiction, we do live in a world that is partially responsible for the creation of a tragic figure like Anna Benz.