Monday, May 18, 2015

Dad to Essbaum: “Why don’t you write me a trashy book and make us all rich?”

Photo by Megan Sembera Peters

Jill Alexander Essbaum’s father (a fan of Sidney Sheldon and Harold Robbins) used to tease her: “Why don’t you write me a trashy book and make us all rich?” (Bridgette Bates, The Wall Street Journal, 3/19/15)

Ms. Essbaum apparently thinks Father Knows Best: her debut novel, Hausfrau, is indeed a trashy book (in the best sense of that word, of course) and will most probably make her rich.

Booksellers are taking note. Barnes & Noble, Amazon, IndieBound and Indigo and Chapters stores in Canada have all spotlighted the novel. Random House, which is touting it as a literary ‘50 Shades of Grey,’ has sold rights in 14 international markets and ordered a third printing before the publication date – unusual for a debut novel. (Anna Russell, The Wall Street Journal, 3/12/15)

Hausfrau is a retelling of Madame Bovary (Essbaum calls it an ‘homage’), interspersed with Jungian tropes from the Hausfrau’s
therapist (“Vhat dooo yoooo sink, Anna?”), heavy-handed and ultimately tiresome observations on German linguistics, and worries about predestination:

You can tell right away that the poet Jill Alexander Essbaum’s first novel is intended as a latter-day Madame Bovary with a dash of Anna Karenina: adultery, trains, and the notion of jumping in front of one all come up in the first three pages. Essbaum gets straight down to business: ‘Anna was a good wife, mostly.’ When we meet Anna Benz, the bored, trapped wife of a Credit Suisse middle manager and mother of three, she is well established in her adulterous career. (Lidija Haas, The Guardian, 4/2/15)

But Essbaum is neither Flaubert nor Tolstoy:

‘Hausfrau’ is obviously something of a ‘Madame Bovary’/ ‘Anna Karenina’ mash-up featuring the expected secrets and lies, faithlessness and despair, the untimely end, the inability to find relief from misery even in death. Tolstoy, however, balances Anna’s perspective with the earnest sweat of Levin, the comical self-involvement of Vronsky and the spiritual seeking of Kitty. Tolstoy’s Anna is, to borrow a metaphor from ‘Hausfrau,’ the hub of a vast and fascinating wheel. In ‘Hausfrau,’ only the pitiful hub remains. Essbaum simply tells us over and over that Anna is bored, desolate, trapped, ambivalent, lonely and sad. (We know, we know.) The novel offers the distance and remove of Tolstoy’s omniscient narration, but lacks its scope; it gives us Flaubert’s insularity but without the compelling intimacy. Like her predecessors, Anna Benz serves as a morality tale: Passivity and happiness are contraindicative. To be happy one must choose happiness, walk toward it, work to inhabit it, fake it till one makes it. (Elisa Albert, The New York Times 3/24/15)

For all its philosophical and theological asides, Haufrau is essentially a soft porn bodice-ripper. Anna has sex with strangers she (literally) bumps into on the street. We are given graphic descriptions of every man’s organs – size, length, effectiveness – and every sexual thrust those organs make. Their manly powers. Her panting desire. We are in the land of romance novels.

Take this example: Stephen Nicodemus, a U.S. scientist, is lost. (He’s a pyrologist specializing in fire. Get the metaphor?) Anna stops to give him directions:

There was an upsurge in Anna’s heart.
Is it possible to fall in love over a single look? Anna couldn’t say. But at the behest of a glance tossed casually down upon her, she was made witness, victim, and slave to the culmination of all her mythologies. And every heretofore moment in her life, the ones that mattered and the ones that only seemed to matter, had added up to the sum of this intense instant, this instant alone. In the short, sharp span of a single heartbeat, she knew that nothing she’d ever said or done, and nothing she would ever say or do again, would carry even half the tragedy of this.

And this:

…Her heart had exploded in her chest when they met. Or it felt like it. She would do anything for him. She’d set herself on fire if he asked her to. Or told herself she would at least.

Nicodemus dumps her and heads back to MIT:

In the difficult months following the affair, Anna had ample time to consider the symbolic implications of Stephen’s work and the effect the man had had on her. Anna’s conclusions were these: That fire is beautifully cruel. That fusion occurs only at a specific heat. That blood, in fact, can boil. That the dissolution of an affair is an entropic reaction, and the disorder it tends toward is flammable. That a heart will burn. And burn and burn and burn. That an ordinary flame’s hottest point cannot always be seen.

And afterward:

To the night, to the cold autumn air, to the stars, to the trains in the distance, to the forest behind her, and to the sleeping inhabitants of the town below, Anna confessed: I love him. I love him. I love him.

Dad, to whom the book is dedicated, would be proud.

Jill Alexander Essbaum is a poet. On her website, she refers to her work as “Christian and Erotic Poetry.” ( Her debut collection of poems, Heaven (2000), won the 1999 Bakeless Prize. Other collections include Harlot (2007), Necropolis (2008), and the long-poem chapbook The Devastation (2009). Her work has been included in the anthologies Best American Poetry and Best American Erotic Poems (2008). She has won two NEA literature fellowships and is a member of the Low Residency MFA faculty at the University of California, Riverside. Hausfrau is her first novel.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! I can't wait to read this one! But I have a stack of six ahead of this one...thanks to you!