By Arthur Phillips
Random House. 331 pp. $25.95
Angelica, Arthur Phillips's spellbinding third book, cements this young novelist's reputation as one of the best writers in America, a storyteller who combines Nabokovian wit and subtlety with a narrative urgency that rivals Stephen King's. Phillips's acclaimed first novel, Prague, examined a group of American expatriates in Budapest toward the end of the last century. His second, The Egyptologist, set in the 1920s, upended the conventions of an archeological mystery with a delirious homage to Pale Fire.
In its creepy 19th-century setting and balanced interplay between supernatural and psychological menace, Angelica at first seems as though it's a trope on Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw," a slightly hoary choice for a writer of Phillips's originality and cunning. The scene is an upper-middle-class home in 1880s London. An emotionally fragile, sexually timid woman named Constance nearly died giving birth to Angelica and has since suffered three miscarriages. The doctor who attends the latest (after three years of sexual abstinence) makes it clear that Constance will destroy not just herself but her loved ones if she continues to succumb to her "lascivious and intemperate will."
" 'Mrs. Barton, do you wish your daughter to be motherless? Do you?' . . . Dr. Willette had berated her without cease, even as she held her face in her hands and her belly twisted in pain. . . . 'You pursue your own desire at your family's expense.' "
Constance's final descent into madness begins when her controlling, perhaps brutalizing husband, Joseph, decides that it is time for 4-year-old Angelica to stop sleeping in her parents' room. Constance's strangling love for the child tilts into full-bore obsession. Fearful that some dreadful thing will overtake Angelica, Constance slips from the bed she shares with her husband and spends each night standing guard over the sleeping girl. Nearly psychotic with exhaustion, bedeviled by nightmares (a process exacerbated by the horror novels she keeps on her nightstand), Constance believes that her own dreams and night terrors are being visited upon her daughter; that she and Angelica share a soul; that the wounds Constance suffers in her dreams have become physically manifest in her child as terrible stigmata. "Dreams were restless and scattery and sometimes seeped from one sleeper to another in close proximity," Phillips writes, "or to one whose heart was tied to yours by God. Quiet tendrils sped from her to grasp Angelica even in sleep."
Yet Angelica is not a straightforward supernatural story or even a supernatural story at all. The events are recounted by the same narrator, but in four parts that each purport to show the point of view of a different character. The novel thus unfolds like some infernally complex piece of origami to reveal an increasingly ominous pattern at the end of each section. As in films such as David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive" or Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation," phrases and images that flit through Constance's increasingly fragmented consciousness turn out to have unexpected nuances, both sinister and benign. When Constance pays an unscheduled visit to the laboratory where her husband works, the revelation of his actual employment strips away what's left of her sanity.
Phillips tips his hat to "The Turn of the Screw," but the claustrophobic nature of Constance's horrific breakdown, its roots in feminine sexual ignorance and the smugly monstrous oppression inflicted by the era's masculine medical authorities evoke a lesser-known literary work, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," first published in 1891 and now considered a masterpiece of psychological horror. In a brief essay titled "Why I Wrote 'The Yellow Wallpaper,' " Gilman explained how an alienist treating her for "melancholia" ordered her to " 'live as domestic a life as far as possible,' to 'have but two hours intellectual life a day,' and 'never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again' as long as I lived. . . . I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over."
The final, disturbing chapters of Angelica could stand as a morally ambivalent corrective to the protagonist's fate in "The Yellow Wallpaper." But Phillips is not just trotting out the familiar, gibbering spectacle of "the madwoman in the attic." Instead, his profoundly unsettling achievement is to demonstrate the terrible hold that childhood traumas have not just on their victims but on those who seek to help them: the slippery and dangerous nature of memory, and the futility of believing that we can ever exorcise a demon when the demon's story is our own. ·
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"Generation Loss" will be published later