Austin Wright: Tony& Susan
First published in 1993 and then forgotten for nearly two decades, Austin Wright's posthumously acclaimed novel-within-a novel is a fascinating read. For once, the ecstatic praise given to the book, by pundits such as Ian McEwan and Ruth Rendell, is almost justified.
The first section dealing with the kidnapping, rape and murder of a middle-class mother and daughter - and the attempted murder of Tony, husband of Laura and father of teenage Helen, is a triumph of spare, tense prose. The assassins are absolutely chilling in their calm obedience to their cynical leader, Ray, an unforgettably repulsive hoodlum. The reader is so caught up in the story that he or she forgets the soft beginning of the novel, in which Susan Morrow has received this story from her ex-husband Edward Sheffield. The horror story is thus not real, but an invention of a man whom she had years ago dismissed as a failure and a wimp, one who thought he could write but would never, in Susan's eyes, amount to very much. Now he proves her wrong.
Like all good stories, Tony & Susan is about motivation. Why should Edward send his ex-wife such a horror story? Was he trying to show her how wrong she'd been about his talent? Did he just want to shock her with a grisly yarn, perhaps to threaten her, to tease her - or did he want to finally win her approval, even to bring about reconciliation? The reader needs to know, and that is what sustains our interest up until the final stage of the novel. Will Edward ultimately appear and explain himself?
The title is, of course, ambivalent. Tony is a fictional character in Edward's narrative, but a sensitive soul (rather like his author); one who is involved in helping the police to catch three ruthless killers. The reader first sympathises with Tony's grief in losing his wife and daughter in such appalling circumstances and then roots for him in his somewhat reluctant pursuit of the killers. Susan is a reader surrogate who cannot but admire her ex-husband's talent as a novelist and would perhaps reconsider her dismissal of him as a loser - especially as her present husband, the professionally successful Arnold, is, she suspects, having an affair when he goes on his repeated conferences.
That basically is the crux of the matter: will Edward return to hear Susan's verdict - on him as a writer and as a man whom Susan could appreciate and perhaps even love? Or has she fallen in love with Tony rather than his creator?
The novel began brilliantly, but then began to sag as Susan drowns in floods of self-questioning. She imagines scenes of what the returning Edward might say and how he will respond to her critique. The writing here degenerates not only into a plethora of rhetorical questions but into literary posturing; heavy metaphors and similes, and banalities such as `Forgetfulness follows the trail of her reading like birds eating the Hansel and Gretel crumbs.'
The prose at times becomes either irksomely vague or over-explicit: `She sees Tony looking at it [their Maine cottage] in his dim archetypal blindness, and she feels meanings around her which she cannot see. She wonders if they are real or only her imagination and how long it will take her, if ever, to know.' Yes, it's confusing, but why tell us what we already know: that the fictional Tony seems more real to her and more lovable than either of her two husbands ever had been? And isn't it Susan rather than Tony who suffers from that `dim archetypal blindness'? What's a dim blindness, by the way, and how is this blindness archetypal?
Despite these reservations and the fact that the book would improve greatly if cut by at least a third, this is a gripping and many-layered story, which says much about the way that fiction interpenetrates our `real' lives; and it has an unpredictable but highly satisfying conclusion.