Austin Wright’s sleeper hit Tony & Susan, first published in 1993, received high praise from a new generation of readers and reviewers when it was re-released by Atlantic Books in 2010. Now it’s coming to a cinema near you in Tom Ford’s gripping adaptation Nocturnal Animals, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams. Here’s how it al begins…
This goes back to the letter Susan Morrow’s first husband Edward sent her last September. He had written a book, a novel, and would she like to read it? Susan was shocked because, except for Christmas cards from his second wife signed ‘Love,’ she hadn’t heard from Edward in twenty years.
So she looked him up in her memory. She remembered he had wanted to write, stories, poems, sketches, anything in words, she remembered it well. It was the chief cause of trouble between them. But she thought he had given up writing later when he went into insurance. Evidently not.
In the unrealistic days of their marriage there was a question whether she should read what he wrote. He was a beginner and she a tougher critic than she meant to be. It was touchy, her embarrassment, his resentment. Now in his letter he said, damn! but this book is good. How much he had learned about life and craft. He wanted to show her, let her read and see, judge for herself. She was the best critic he ever had, he said. She could help him too, for in spite of its merits he was afraid the novel lacked something. She would know, she could tell him. Take your time, he said, scribble a few words, whatever pops into your head. Signed, ‘Your old Edward still remembering.’
The signature irritated her. It reminded her of too much and threatened the peace she had made with her past. She didn’t like to remember or slip back into that unpleasant frame of mind. But she told him to send the book along. She felt ashamed of her suspicions and objections. Why he’d ask her rather than a more recent acquaintance. The imposition, as if what pops into her head were easier than thinking things through. She couldn’t refuse, though, lest it look like she were still living in the past. The package arrived a week later. Her daughter Dorothy brought it into the kitchen where they were eating peanut butter sandwiches, she and Dorothy and Henry and Rosie. The package was heavily taped. She extracted the manuscript and read the title page:
A Novel By
Well typed, clean pages. She wondered what the title meant. She liked Edward’s gesture, reconciling and flattering. She had a sneaky feeling that put her on guard, so that when her real husband Arnold came in that night, she announced boldly: I heard from Edward today.
Oh Edward. Well. What does that old bastard have to say for himself?
That was three months ago. There’s a worry in Susan’s mind that comes and goes, hard to pin down. When she’s not worrying, she worries lest she’s forgotten what she’s worrying about. And when she knows what she’s worrying about, like whether Arnold understood what she meant, or what he meant when he said what he meant this morning, even then she has a feeling it’s really something else, more important. Meanwhile she runs the house, pays the bills, cleans and cooks, takes care of the kids, teaches three times a week in the community college, while her husband in the hospital repairs hearts. In the evenings she reads, preferring that to television. She reads to take her mind off herself.
When not forgetting, she would try to clean out her mind to read Edward’s novel in the way it deserved. The problem was old memory, coming back like an old volcano, full of rumble and quake.”
She looks forward to Edward’s novel because she likes to read, and she’s willing to believe he can improve, but for three months she has put it off. The delay was not intentional. She put the manuscript in the closet and forgot, remembering thereafter only at wrong times, like while shopping for groceries or driving Dorothy to her riding lesson or grading freshman papers. When she was free, she forgot.
When not forgetting, she would try to clean out her mind to read Edward’s novel in the way it deserved. The problem was old memory, coming back like an old volcano, full of rumble and quake. All that abandoned intimacy, his out-of-date knowledge of her, and hers of him. Her memory of his admiration of himself, his vanity, also his fears – his smallness – knowledge she must ignore if her reading was to be fair. She’s determined to be fair. To be fair she must deny her memory and make as if she were a stranger.
She couldn’t believe he merely wanted her to read his book. It must be something personal, a new twist in their dead romance. She wondered what Edward thought was missing in his book. His letter suggested he didn’t know, but she wondered if there was a secret message: Susan and Edward, a subtle love song? Saying, read this, and when you look for what is missing, find Susan.
Or hate, which seemed more likely, though they got rid of that ages ago. If she was the villain, the missing thing a poison to lick like Snow White’s deep red apple. It would be nice to know how ironic Edward’s letter really was.
But though she prepared herself, she kept forgetting, did not read, and in time believed her failure was a completed event. This made her both defiant and ashamed until she got a card from Stephanie a few days before Christmas, with a note from Edward attached. He’s coming to Chicago, the note said, December 30, one day only, staying at the Marriott, hope to see you then. She was alarmed because he’d want to talk about his unread manuscript, and then relieved to realize there was still time. After Christmas: Arnold her husband will be going to a convention of heart surgeons, three days. She can read it then. It will occupy her mind, a good distraction from Arnold’s trip, and she needn’t feel guilty after all.
Anticipating, she wonders what Edward looks like now. She remembers him blond, birdlike, eyes glancing down his beaky nose, unbelievably skinny with wire arms and pointed elbows, genitals disproportionately large among the bones. His quiet voice, clipped words, impatient as if he thought most of what he was obliged to say were too stupid to need saying.
Will he seem more dignified or more pompous? Probably he has put on weight, and his hair will be gray unless he’s bald. She wonders what he’ll think of her. She would like him to notice how much more tolerant, easygoing, and generous she is and how much more she knows. She fears he’ll be put off by the difference between twenty-four and forty-nine. She has changed her glasses, but in Edward’s day she wore no glasses at all. She is chubbier, breasts bigger, cheeks rosy where they were pale, convex where they were concave. Her hair, which in Edward’s day was long straight and silky, is neat and short and turning gray. She has become healthy and wholesome, and Arnold says she looks like a Scandinavian skier.
Now that she is really going to read it, she wonders what kind of novel it is. Like traveling without knowing what country you’re going to. The worst would be if it’s inept, which might vindicate her for the past but would embarrass her now. Even if it’s not inept, there are risks: an intimate trip through an unfamiliar mind, forced to contemplate icons more meaningful to others than herself, confined with strangers she never chose, asked to participate in alien customs. With Edward as guide, whose dominance she once so struggled to escape.
The negative possibilities are tremendous: to be bored, to be offended, bathed in sentimentality, stunned by depression and gloom. What interests Edward at forty-nine? She feels sure only of what the novel will not be. Unless Edward has changed radically, it won’t be a detective story or baseball story or Western. It won’t be a story of blood and revenge.
What’s left? She’ll find out. She begins Monday night, day after Christmas, after Arnold has gone. It will take her three evenings to complete.
The first sitting
That night, as Susan Morrow settles down to read Edward’s manuscript, a fear shocks her like a bullet. It begins with a moment of intense concentration which disappears too fast to remember, leaving a residue of unspecified fright. Danger, threat, disaster, she doesn’t know what. She tries to recover what was on her mind, thinking back to the kitchen, the pans and cooking utensils, the dishwasher. Then to catching her breath on the living room couch, where she had the dangerous thought. Dorothy and Henry with Henry’s friend Mike are playing Monopoly on the study floor. She declines their invitation to play too.
There’s the Christmas tree, cards on the mantel, games and clothing with tissue paper on the couch. A mess. The traffic at O’Hare dies in the house, Arnold is in New York by now. Unable to remember what frightened her, she tries to ignore it, rests her legs on the coffee table, puffs and wipes her glasses.
The worry on her mind insists, it’s greater than she can explain. She dreads Arnold’s trip, if that’s what it is, like the end of the world, but finds no logical reason for such a feeling. Plane crash, but planes don’t crash. The convention seems innocuous. People will recognize him or spot his name tag. He’ll be flattered as usual to discover how distinguished he is, which will put him in the best of moods. The Chickwash interview will do no harm if nothing comes of it. If by rare chance something does come of it, there’s a whole new life and the opportunity to live in Washington if she wants. He’s with colleagues and old hands, people she should trust. Probably she’s just tired.
Still, she postpones Edward. She reads short things, the newspaper, editorials, crossword puzzle. The manuscript resists, or she resists, afraid to begin lest the book make her forget her danger, whatever that is. The manuscript is so heavy, so long. Books always resist her at the start, because they commit so much time. They can bury what she was thinking, sometimes forever. She could be a different person by the time she’s through. This case is worse than usual, for Edward coming back to life brings new distractions that have nothing to do with her thoughts. He’s dangerous too, unloading his brain, the bomb in him. Never mind. If she can’t remember her trouble, the book will paint over it. Then she won’t want to stop. She opens the box, looks at the title – Nocturnal Animals. She sees, going into the house at the zoo through the tunnel, glass tanks in dim purple light with strange busy little creatures, huge ears and big eye globes, thinking day is night. Come on, let’s begin.
Extracted from Nocturnal Animals, previously published as Tony and Susan, published by Atlantic Books, £8.99
Austin M. Wright was born in New York in 1922. He was a novelist and academic, for many years Professor of English at the University of Cincinatti, where he lived with his wife and daughters. He died in 2003 at the age of 80.
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