A Natural Curiosity.
It used to be that Margaret Drabble treated her audience with the same deferential consideration Victorian novelists showed their Dear Readers. But in A Natural Curiosity, her ninth novel, she doesn't mind saying outright that readers get on her nerves. When she feels them pressuring her for plot resolution or consistent characterization, she starts hurling whatever's handy. "I wonder," she growls at one point, "if those of you who object to the turn that Shirley's life has taken are the same as those who objected to its monotony in the first place. If you are, you might reflect that it might be your task, not mine or hers, to offer her a satisfactory resolution." And no more out of you, Dear Reader, unless you want a typewriter upside your head.
Besides authorial snarling, interruptions include moments of muttering, self-referential jokes, a little essay on Arnold Bennett's virtues as a novelist, and tosse-off asides. A Natural Curiosity is not, moody Maggie warns, "a political novel. . . . No, not a political novel. More a pathological novel, a psychotic novel"; then, pulling herself together, "Sorry about that. It won't happen again. Sorry." Even so, between fits she continues to provide the kind of tidy novel we've come to expect from her: witty dialogue, a tightly webbed plot, men and women whose concerns are contemporary but who have the feel of characters drawn from old-time British fiction. Drabble's last novel, The Radiant Way, dealt with life choices made by three bright, ambitious women who met in the 1950s as Cambridge undergraduates. In that book, the character for whom you are now responsible, Shirley, was seen only briefly, sharing a bleak, deadening working-class childhood with her sister, Liz. Unlike her aspiring sister, Shirley made an escape through sexy adolescence and early marriage. As a middle-aged woman, though, she finds herself in A Natural Curiosity responsible for a half-mad mother, two beefy sons and a closemouthed, resentful daughter. Eventually, the children go off, the mother dies, the husband commits suicide (yet another victim of Thatcherite economics) and Shirley, free again to choose, impulsively runs away to Paris.
By contrast, her sister, Liz, enjoys the luxury of speculation. "I want to know what really happened," she tells a friend, "at the beginning. When human nature began. . . . And I know I'll never know. But I can't stop looking." A fashionable London psychiatrist with grown children and a divorced second husband on the threshold of return, Liz must decide whether she can bear to probe the family mystery her bizarre, agoraphobic mother had concealed--the identity and fate of her hown (and Shirley's) biological father.
Liz's best friend, Alix, is also trying to puzzle out a mystery. When she and her husband both lose their jobs to education budget cuts (she taught in a women's reformatory), they must leave London for a depressed industrial town in Yorkshire. There Alix takes to visiting a nearby maximum security prison and an utterly isolated inmate whom she calls her "murderer." She wants to know what made Paul Whitmore kill, then ritualistically decapitate, a series of women, including one of her former students. Is Paul an aberration, a historical product or simply evil? "He is like a theorem," explains the anonymous narrator at the beginning of the novel, smoothly entering Alix's stream of thought:
When she has measured him, she will know the answer to herself and to the whole matter. The Nature of Man. Original sin. Evil and Good. It is all to be studied, there, in captive P. Whitmore.
This novel is also crowded with secondary characters: a solicitor-land developer dreaming of grass-girded industrial parks (Astroturf will do), an ancient poet with a recently resurrected reputation, adulterous suburbanites, media mavens, a beleaguered socialist politician and, of course, the painfully growing or already grown-up children of the questing women. Like a Victorian novelist, Drabble loves to pack the stage. Nineteen eighty-seven in England, the narrator warns us early on, "will be a psychotic year, the year of abnormality, of Abuse, of the Condom." The commonweal is also in some respects a character.
How seriously does Drabble take the emotional devices and physical violence she identifies as typifying the England of 1987? Sometimes she seems urgent. At one point, the narrator sits Alix down in front of a TV set in order to make vivid nine newsworthy acts of cruelty--from a murder committed by friends as a joke to a skinhead's torturing of a homeless person for cash. "Spot the one invented story, if you can," she proposes dourly. "No prize offered."
This is an attention-getting moment. But it rapidly comes to seem just another instance of grouching, its effect dissipated when the narrator speeds on to other matters. Drabble never commits her narrator to a slow, sinking down through the surface of a character's consciousness. Missing is the step-by-step constriction of available choice that in, say, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye makes sense of the violent rape of a child by her father. Missing is the evolving capacity for violence that convinces us a Dickens or Dostoyevsky murderer is always more human than not. Because Drabble seeks out levels of observation that put characters at a far distance, they diminish in importance, and their scurryings and activities seem grotesque. Violence remains something far off, referred to or talked about. Alix and Liz speculate about cruelty in the ancient world or recall the death exacted from the Roman poet Lucan. Even Paul the murderer, it turns out, has a scholarly interest in those British tribes that mixed a bid of decapitation with their religion.
Consequently, the novel fails whenever it is time to explain why a character has acted violently. From the distance Drabble maintains, such an act seems random rather than characteristic or, as it might appear from the perpetrator's perspective, inevitable. Paul's compulsions are not felt to result from his mother's insane cruelty; they are merely ascribed to this cause. When Drabble shows us his macabre, dog-torturing mother, the suspense rivals moments in a Hitchcock movie. Without doubt it's a neat trick. But it is, unfortunately, a trick. Like Anthony Perkins's taxidermied mother in Psycho, Mrs. Whitmore is a prop, wheeled out to spook us into belief. We leave her knowing no more than we knew at the outset about what it is like to be Paul or how, among all the possible actions for securing safety and redress, Paul's selection narrowed precipitately down to murder.
"One wants a theory that fits all occasions," says Liz at the end of the novel, "but there isn't one." It's pretty late in the day for Liz, who is supposedly a psychotherapist, to be discovering the inefficiency of explanations that ignore the particular in favor of the general. Psychotherapy, after all, consists of the disclosure of idiosyncratic meanings, the deeply personal ways we make sense of our experience. Of course, many novelists also seek out these depths, though so far Margaret Drabble has not been among them. She has preferred to remain on the surface, perfecting a display of incident and dialogue. Here, once again, she presents a group of initially credible characters who neither develop nor deepen over the course of the narrative.
She's done only what she can do easily, which frustrates success. More is needed, mre and different: more understanding of her characters' crotchets, motives and ideas, and a different, layered treatment of their development. Were Drabble to sink within the experience of her characters as they evolved, she also might be less ticked off about her job. Who, after all, wants to keep on polishing that same unrelievedly expansive surface? For Drabble, down could be the way out.
Brina Caplan is a writer and psychologist who lives in Boston.