Nocturnal Animals a.k.a. Tony & Susan by Austin Wright

Reviewed by Guy Savage

nocturnal-animalsThe novel as revenge is preposterous, but the idea won’t go away.

This novel was called Tony and Susan when originally published in 1993. Now, thanks to Tom Ford’s new movie adapted from the book, it has been republished, but with a title change to Nocturnal Animals matching the film, (but it is also still available as Tony and Susan).

I decided to read the book for its very attractive and intriguing premise (more of that later), and while the novel is extremely entertaining, it’s also a marvellous example of metafiction. This makes the multi-layered plot more difficult to explain.

Susan Morrow, a married university teacher in her late 40s, unexpectedly receives a letter from her ex-husband Edward. They’ve had no direct contact for over twenty years, and Susan knows little about Edward’s life except that he remarried someone called Stephanie and now sells insurance. In the letter, Edward tells Susan he’s written a book that he wants her to read as she’s always been his “best critic.” This seems an odd request that’s possibly loaded with meaning as Edward’s so-called writing career was a major problem in their brief marriage. After they wed, Edward dropped out to become a writer, but his efforts were not successful. Later, Susan, now the sole wage earner, began to realise that there was a problem. At first Edward produced short poems about their sex life, but then he began to hide his work, and at one point even retreated to the woods to concentrate:

He talked of larger projects. He had been working on a novel but had not mentioned it because it was so unfinished. It was pretty long. She gathered it was autobiographical, with twelve hundred pages so far, and had brought young Eddie up to the age of twelve.

They grew apart with the abyss of Edward’s non-existent writing career spanning the distance. Susan wrote Edward off as “phony” and they divorced.

Fast forward twenty years. Susan is remarried to Arnold, an eminent cardiac surgeon and they have three children together. Edward’s unexpected request arrives as a blast from the past, and Susan finds the prospect of reading the manuscript intriguing and disturbing. She wonders if he has a hidden agenda. Does he want to show her that she was wrong about him? Does he want to prove that he can write? All these thoughts make her recall her first marriage and she reluctantly re-evaluates the fictions she’s woven about Edward and Arnold:

There’s a gap in the saga of Susan’s official memory, almost a year between Edward’s return from the woods and her marriage to Arnold. When she looks back, she finds the time blank. It could not have been totally without event. There must have been daily drives to the college with snow scenes and slushy streets. Also grocery shopping, cleaning and cooking for Edward. And moods and arguments, movies, a friend or two. She remembers the apartment: dark walls, tiny kitchen, the bedroom with books on the floor and view of the alley.

The reason for the blockage is that the period was about to end with revolutionary change. Arnold would replace Edward with new laws, values, icons, everything. The new regime rewrites history to protect itself, burying Edward’s time like the Dark Ages. It takes Edward’s return to remind contemporary Susan of what is hidden and challenge her to rewrite the old saga through imaginative archaeology.

As it turns out, Edward’s novel, a dark thriller, which appears in its entirety here, is a remarkable page-turner. It’s not at all what Susan expected from her ex-husband. The novel is called Nocturnal Animals, and it’s a story that penetrates the unexpressed fears of any spouse, any parent. In Nocturnal Animals, mathematics professor, Tony Hastings, his wife Laura and their daughter, Helen decide to drive through the night to their holiday home in Maine, but the trip is derailed by three psychotics.

tony-susanAs Susan reads Nocturnal Animals, we go back and forth between Edward’s book and Susan’s personal life. With Arnold off attending yet another conference, the novel provides a much-needed distraction from some unpleasant things that she’d rather ignore in her troubled marriage. Edward’s novel does entertain, but it also disturbs Susan. She wonders what sort of a man Edward has become, and then there’s the uncomfortable feeling that some aspects of her old life with Edward have crept into his novel.

This is a splendid, clever multi-layered novel, a perfect example of metafiction. On one level, we get the gripping story of Tony and how one man faces his fears and inadequacies, and then we have Susan’s reaction as a reader to the tale. She’s pleased with parts of it, disappointed at others, but enthralled with the characters who are sufficiently diverting that she can shelve her problems, temporarily at least:

Well, she was a reader. If Edward couldn’t live without writing, she couldn’t live without reading. And without me, Edward, she says, you’d have no reason to exist. He was a transmitter, spending his resources, she was a receptor who became richer the more she received. Her way with the chaos in her mind was to cultivate it through the articulations of others, by which she meant the reading of a lifetime with whose aid she had created the interesting architecture and geography of herself. She had constructed over the years a rich and civilized country, full of history and culture with views and vistas she’d never dreamed of in the days when Edward wanted to make his visions known.

Some reviews of the novel have stated that while Nocturnal Animals is a gripping tale, by comparison the bits we see of Susan’s life are boring. The book within the book is a crime novel set within a contemplative domestic scene, so the pace of these two stories is entirely different.  There’s a stark contrast in tone when Susan puts down Nocturnal Animalspicks up various domestic tasks and begins to mull over her personal life. I did not find these sections boring, but while Nocturnal Animals comes to a conclusion, the dilemma Susan faces is not neatly sewn up with a tight, discrete ending. Susan’s life must continue after the novel she reads concludes.

This rich novel tackles many thematic issues within Susan’s relationship with Tony, Arnold and Edward. While exploring the subjects of family, marriage, and divorce, Wright shows that what we want, what is important, shifts with age. Through Susan’s readership of Edward’s manuscript there’s the idea of a parallel universe at play. Susan finds herself asking if she did the right thing in divorcing Edward and marrying Arnold–not that she still has feelings for Edward at this stage, but in changing husbands, did she simply swap one set of problems for another. Is Edward, on some level, for example, a more sensitive human being than Arnold?

But twenty years of marriage (no idyll, to be sure) allow Susan to wonder with an open mind what sticking to Edward would have been like. If she’d stayed with him, she’d now be Stephanie.

Not only is Wright’s novel a marvellous example of metafiction, but it’s also a superb instance of the literary theory The Transactional Theory of Reading and Writing developed by Louise Rosenblatt–a theory that argues that the meaning of a piece of literature or poetry does not reside solely in the text to be analysed by the critic, but that the work is fluid with each reader extracting his/her own subjective meaning which is influenced by a unique frame of reference.

It’s a path going somewhere, made by Edward up ahead. The question for Susan, do I want to follow? How can she not? She’s caught, just like Tony.

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Guy Savage blogs at His Futile Preoccupations. This review was revised from his original.

Austin Wright, Nocturnal Animals, aka Tony and Susan, (Atlantic Books, 2016). 978-1786490186, 352 pp., paperback .

BUY Nocturnal Animals from the Book Depository.

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