Rivka Galchen on Mrs. Caliban

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Because there might also be a world in which a man-sized amphibian appearing in your kitchen would feel like a good thing. Dorothy, the central character in Rachel Ingalls’s Mrs. Caliban, is busy cooking a last-minute meal for her husband and his ideally named business colleague, Art Gruber, when she meets the amphibian: “And she was halfway across the checked linoleum floor of her nice safe kitchen, when the screen door opened and a gigantic six-foot-seven inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house and stood stock-still in front of her, crouching slightly, and staring straight at her face.” At least he’s looking at her. His name, it turns out, is Larry. He’s sexy, in his way; making out with him recalls Dorothy’s dreams of the teenage romances she never had.

Dorothy meets Larry at a difficult time in her life. Her son not long ago died of “an ordinary anaesthetic given before a simple appendectomy, and afterwards all anyone could say in explanation was ‘individual reaction,’ ‘unsuspected allergy’ and ‘drug sensitivity.’” A few months later, Dorothy lost a pregnancy; her marriage started to stumble; when she formed a close bond with a Jack Russell terrier she named Bingo, Bingo got hit by a car before he was even fully grown. This is all in the before of the novel’s opening. Further betrayals and abrupt deaths are in the wings, as Dorothy’s misfortunes escalate like a modern Job.

Yet Ingalls narrates these catastrophes with a jauntiness and come-what-may tone that recalls Barbara Pym or Evelyn Waugh. (Bingo!) Ingalls’ worldview is tragicomic, not tragic, and so is Dorothy’s. She tells Larry about a girl she once knew “who was stolen by a monkey when she was baby. Dull girl. That was her one big moment of drama, before she was old enough to appreciate it.” The idly malicious “dull girl” is perfect comic follow up to the absurd peril and helplessness of the baby in the monkey’s arms—but also it emotionally rhymes with the children boorish fate has taken from Dorothy.

In another exchange, Dorothy’s friend jokes to her that the surveillance cameras at the grocery stores are like “a Presbyterian’s dream come true—you know, God sees it all, He’s watching you no matter where you are and what you’re doing.” In answer, Dorothy says, “I bet he’s really out in the kitchen getting a beer out of the icebox.” It’s banter, but with conviction. God’s interest being elsewhere can be terrible, or a relief, depending on whether you’re Ariel or Caliban. In Ingalls’s fictional worlds terrible things happen regularly; there are prophecies, metamorphoses, and, almost always, violence. Mrs. Caliban, slim and often bright in tone, has a body count to rival a western. Ingalls has said her top favorite literary idols are Shakespeare, Euripides, and Ibsen. Yep.

Often when a story has an element as odd as a tall green frog-like man, that element appears first thing so as to set the rules of the fictional world. But here Larry doesn’t appear until we’re well into the novella. The rules of this world are set not with the fantastical but instead with the ordinary: “Fred [Dorothy’s husband] forgot three things in a row before he reached the front door on his way to work.” Forgetting is Fred’s ritual behavior before lying about needing to be out late for work. Dorothy knows Fred is lying, and unfaithful. Fred’s ritual forgetting feels like a kind of private internal machine at work, an unconscious with screws. After he leaves, she makes the bed, vacuums, washes and dresses, does the dishes and listens to the radio. When she does her daily exercises, she does the “dance exercises, not the ones you were supposed to do just to keep yourself in shape.”

Routine is one of many invocations of the mechanical in Mrs. Caliban. In a trip to the grocery store, the young women handing out cheese samples there are described as lifeless marionettes; in telling the baby kidnapped by a monkey story, Dorothy notes that young monkeys automatically cling to their mother’s fur, so as not to fall. Sometimes the mechanical is deadening, but sometimes it saves your life. In Ingalls’s work, the mechanical isn’t necessarily when we’re least like ourselves, it’s when an occluded part of ourselves grabs at power; it’s the “mechanical” in the way that Oedipus will eventually sleep with his mother, just as surely as a wound clock will toll the hour. When character is destiny, the mechanical is the deep plot.

Consider Dorothy being compared to a clock right before Larry arrives:

“She was into the living-room…and out again with such speed that she might have been one of the mechanical weather-people in a child’s snow-globe or a figure on a medieval clock, who zooms across a lower balcony as the face shows the hands on the hour.

That mechanical moment—she proceeds to chop carrots and celery, put chips and nuts in bowls—of being on a kind of autopilot, with her conscience dimmed turns out to be not just standard-speak for housewife-ly dullness, but also the necessary atmosphere for her great vision: Larry. Larry is at once strong and sexual, but also like a child in need of her sheltering, love and education. He loves avocadoes, and he needs help understanding the advertisements he sees on TV.

Larry’s arrival in Dorothy’s kitchen is, in one view, not a surprise; Dorothy had heard on the radio about a creature nicknamed “Aquarius the Monsterman” who had killed a keeper and a scientist upon his escape from the Institute for Oceanographic Research. Then again, she had heard quite a few things on the radio of late. As when, earlier, the radio, at the end of an ad for a commercial cake mix, had said, “Don’t worry Dorothy, you’ll have another baby all right…It’s guaranteed.” She had also heard a story “about a chicken that could play the violin—‘the Heifetz of the hen-coops,’” the bird had been called—and later found out through friends that the item had not been heard by other people who had evidently been tuned into the same spot on the dial. But Dorothy isn’t plain (uninteresting) crazy. Her radio is described as “a large, dark brown old-fashioned set, the kind that looked like a 1930’s Gothic cathedral.” Dorothy has a powerful imagination, but also an obedient one. The news of Larry comes through a space that resembles the religious, but in fact is just a vessel for the very real (if invisible) waves traveling through the air all around us.

Rachel Ingalls falls into that category of writers who are famously not particularly famous, even as they are somewhat famous for their mysterious lack of fame. Leonora Carrington, Jane Bowles, Barbara Pym—all are writers critically celebrated and celebrated by other writers, and all are writers that I have found myself reading in copies that are parts of series titled “Out of Print Masterworks” or “Forgotten Classics.” Rachel Holmes Ingalls was born in Cambridge in 1940, got her BA from Radcliffe and then shortly thereafter moved to England, where a great-aunt lived. Her first book, Theft (1970) won a prize but by the mid 1980s she had written several books, which sold, by her editor’s accounts, around 200 copies apiece. (“The only real money I’ve earned came from Hollywood,” Ingalls has said.) In her long writing life, she has chosen to do almost no publicity, or readings, or interviews—but just because she feels it’s not her thing, not from any principle.

Then in 1986, Mrs. Caliban, which had been quietly published in 1982, was named by the British Book Marketing Council as “one of the 20 greatest American novels” by living writers since WWII. (Ingalls was the only woman on the list; Mary McCarthy is on record saying it was a particularly silly list—for lacking Nabokov, though Nabokov was dead.) A brief bloom of fame and sales followed, after which her work returned to being not well-known. Ask even writers about her and about most will say they’ve never heard of her, and a handful will say, wait didn’t she write the Little House on the Prairie books? I used to be one of the shameful latter. Then I came upon her mechanically—via a list!—and became like other of her readers: as if struck by Cupid’s arrow, helplessly reverent.

Ingalls’s writing has been celebrated by writers such as John Updike and Ed Park. Whatever she writes has powerful momentum, and is unostentatiously—which is to say genuinely—strange. Her plots do something between motor and juggernaut along. Three of her novellas have recently been re-printed together, with an introduction by Daniel Handler, who has admired her since childhood. He wrote a letter to her with questions. After a long time, she answered him, starting with:

Please forgive the delay in answering your letter. Since the collapse of my Amstrad years ago, life has not been the same and until I acquire a laptop that prints from dictation, I’m stuck with an old machine I can’t control and a printer I don’t understand.

It seems fitting that she writes of being overruled by a machine. There is something machine-like not just within the work, but also throughout it, but again, I mean that in the best way— machine-like in the sense of the steps you go through in a Merce Cunningham dance, or a séance. A machine that prompts the arrival of a ghost. ”I write because it’s a compulsion,” Ingalls has said. In her work, one senses her allowing her imagination to be operated on by the structures of old dramas; maybe for this reason her novellas and stories have the sprung quality of theater. Interestingly, her favored length—the novella—is about the length of a play.

In Ingalls’ novella Bud and Sis, a story of two siblings who discover they are adopted, their origins determine their particular dooms. In Binstead’s Safari, the anthropologist’s under-valued wife becomes, of course, the romantic choice of a lion-god that the anthropologist is desperate to study. (Or possibly the wife is killed by the lion-god, or becomes it, it’s hard to say). These are stories in which character is destiny, in which there are sudden reversals of fortune (predictably!)—but the mood of all this high ancient drama feels crossed with mid-century radio plays, but also the goofy contemporary. Ingalls said, in her note to Handler: “When in Jaws II (3-D) a group of underwater scientists manage to kill a vicious whale and then find that another much bigger and fiercer whale is coming at them for revenge because it’s the mother of the first one, I light up with the recognition that this is Grendel’s mother from Beowulf.

Ingalls’s vision is current and ancient at once, and we see this not only in the plots but also in the curious way she handles detail. Often she chooses to give vivid details, but usually to describe minor characters and events. A taxi driver is described as “someone who looked like an eleven-year-old girl with a beard.” Of an encounter with a woman handing out cheese samples at the grocery store, we read: “They were comparing recipes for meat sauce when a figure like a huge doll came trotting down one of the aisles. It was female, dressed in a sort of drum majorette’s outfit…” In contrast, the decline of the central relationship between Dorothy and her husband Fred is described with almost no specificity:

“Each subtly blamed the other while feeling resentment, fury and guilt at the idea that a similar unjust censure was radiating from the opposite side. Then, it became easier to sweep everything under the carpet; they were too exhausted to do anything else. And so it went on: silences, separateness, the despair of thinking out conversations that they knew would be hopeless.”

Here at an emotional center, the prose becomes general, almost elemental. The pattern of shade and shine—or detailed resolution and glare—is counterintuitive. But in turning away from the inner lives of the central characters here, we have a more rather than less full sense of them. We know Dorothy and Fred’s feeling the way we know those of Ophelia, or Medea, rather than the way we those of Lily Bart.

Oh, Dorothy! Ingalls chooses for her character the name most known to us as that of the girl trying to make her way back home. Trying, oddly enough, to make her way from an enchanted land of friendship and adventure and back to a home from which it is said she “could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side.” Mrs. Caliban is a brilliant escapist, with a natural flair for detail, but where can she go? One is reminded of what Shakespeare’s Caliban says of his island to the shipwrecked fool, Stephano, who Caliban mistakes for a god:

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises.

Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twanging instruments

Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices

That, if I then had waked after long sleep,

Will make me sleep again. And then, in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open and show riches

Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked

I cried to dream again.