Tony Hastings is a mathematics professor. When his daughter, Helen, suggests he continue driving through the night toward their summer house in Maine he agrees, and so does Laura, his wife. But things quickly take a turn for the worse when, on a desolate stretch of Pennsylvanian highway, an altercation with strangers in a couple of cars quickly gets out of hand. Before Tony knows it, he and his family are in danger.
Tony & Susan alternates between Susan’s responses to her ex-husband’s first novel and the novel itself. As Tony struggles in an environment very different from the rarefied, civilised academic world he’s accustomed to, Susan recalls the beginnings of her relationship with Edward as a teen, through to the ending of their marriage. She analyses the novel for hints of the Edward she no longer knows, clues to the man he once was, and for an idea of how he sees her.
I picked Tony & Susan up at Heathrow and was caught by both the premise and the first chapter of Nocturnal Creatures, which conveys an amazing sense of suspense, danger and foreshadowing. I decided against buying the trade sized recent release, and was delighted to find, on returning to Melbourne, that my fabulous local library had it.
It is therefore doubly disappointing that I so disliked the novel as it progressed. I had issues with both halves of the novel, too. So I found the chapters of Nocturnal Animals, initially so engaging, increasingly frustrating – Tony is constrained from acting by his class and values, and the aftermath of the abduction just didn’t resonate at all for me. And good god, the focus on his identity:
He catalogued the idiocies of punks and hoods... who would play chicken with real cars on a highway and kidnap a college professor and dump him in the woods...
Tony Hastings was insulted but refused to be humiliated. My name is Tony Hastings, he said. I teach mathematics at the university. Last week I gave three students Fs for the course. I gave great pleasure to fifteen others with the grade of A.I have a Ph.D.
I get that holding on to his identity is a key component in his character, but enough already – those two extracts are from contiguous paragraphs, but the theme is hammered over and over throughout the novel. I wanted to kidnap him and leave him in the woods.
And there’s a lot of that full name business – he’s almost always Tony Hastings, and she’s almost always Susan Morrow, as though the reader might forget who the protagonists are. Not only is this the case when they’re being referred to in the third person, but they themselves frequently think about, address and are addressed by others in first and last name, so that Tony’s flirtation with a student is never with Louise but always with Louise Germane.
For the Susan sections my ire was directed more to the Literary writing style than the characterisation:
Electricity, like Selena at the picnic, Selena with the purring cat’s voice, whose matter seemed fully convertible to energy in the Einsteinian sense: e=mc2. Selena the electric, altered into Susan the electric, as if Arnold were a transformer, thinking how easy to be free, what delicious things could be done in Edward’s absence if you were the kind of person who did such things. Susan was not that kind. Susan was Susan, from Edgar Lane, teacher of Freshman English, well organized, coherent, grammatical, unified, with margins on all sides, always ready to revise and improve herself. This Susan had delicious wild thoughts full of mountains and forests and floating streams, with fish on the wing and birds at sea, thoughts concentric and phallic, with penis hunting in the mists and cave exploration in the hermaphroditic clouds, but they were only thoughts, unacted, unuttered, the absent underside of Susan the Good.
And then there’s the self-aggrandising sections, where Susan (Wright’s character) is marvelling at the brilliance of Edward’s writing (by Austin), and reflecting on the experience of reading his work.
Susan Morrow thumbs ahead, trying not to see the words, finds PART TWO not far ahead. How sad it is, she thinks. Sadness in the news to come, which nobody mentions but all expect. She gropes for the loophole Edward might have allowed, but finds none. Meanwhile, despite the sadness, she feels this energy and does not know if it’s her own chemistry or the book, Edward in a state of excitement, enjoying his work? She likes to see Edward enjoying his work, it sparks her up. She awaits the horrible discovery her soul deplores, she awaits it avidly.
Maybe I’m just not a very conscious reader, but I don’t think anything like that while I’m waiting to return to a book I’m excited about. Plus I found it a little self-serving, given that the work Susan is responding to, as described by Wright, is the book written by Wright (in the person of Edward). It all felt a little ego-driven, in a way I found grating but may have accepted if I liked either of the characters or felt compelled by the plot.
There are also endless little recaps by Susan as she picks the manuscript back up, which I found annoying – I remembered what had happened on the previous page, having an attention span occasionally longer than that of a parakeet.
I did finish Tony & Susan, though less out of any interest than a combination of mild curiosity, resolution, and discomfort about my recent run of unfinished reads. I did find the penultimate line amusing, albeit not (I suspect) in the way Austin intended:
She wanted to punish Arnold too, but the only thing she could think of was to make him read the book.