I need you, I don’t need you, and all of that jiving around

March 12, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

After Claude. Iris Owens; $16.95 paper 978-1-59017-363-3, 206 pp., New York Review Books.

“I left Claude, the French rat. Six months of devotion wasted on him was more than enough.”

The splenetic, sarcastic opening lines of Iris Owens’ 1973 comic novel After Claude provide a tidy little microcosm of both the book and Harriet Daimler, its acerbic narrator. The “French rat” is a documentary producer who makes films about American life for his compatriots in the old country. Or, as Harriet delicately puts it: “Claude’s reports were like riot commercials. Student riots, antiwar riots, gay-liberation riots, convention riots, prison riots, ghetto riots; in short, Democracy at work. The only faces he ever filmed were covered with blood or gas masks.” Claude had taken Harriet in after her “ex-best friend and current enemy” Rhoda-Regina turfed her out following a “convenient nervous breakdown.” In the six months that follow, Harriet and Claude engage in a kind of psychological warfare that culminates in an argument following a movie Claude takes Harriet to see. The movie is an art film about the Passion and crucifixion of Jesus Christ that bears some resemblance to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Saint Matthew; Claude enjoys it, but Harriet sums it up in typically caustic fashion: “‘Thank God,’ I said, as we staggered toward the aisle. ‘I thought that fag would never die.'”

Harriet is a straight-shooter, always eager to speak truth to power, always looking to strip away layers of pretense to get at the unvarnished truth beneath: “[Let] me tell you about Claude’s wonderful friends, one day when you feel like being sick, all of whom are French and all of whom detest me, because instead of being an heiress, I am just an average American girl.” What quickly becomes clear is that, in addition to this, Harriet is also severely delusional, possibly insane. Her first-person narration is a marvel: angry and self-justifying, yet transparent enough to allow the reader access to the painful realities she is denying to herself.

Contrary to her own intemperate assertions, it is actually Claude who has ended things with her, having become exasperated by her constant nastiness and pathological neediness. This is something that Harriet will never be able to admit to herself; when the couple argue, she counters Claude’s straightforwardness by retreating into sarcasm:

“I want you out of this apartment. It’s my apartment. I took you in because I felt sorry for you. I found you wrecked on the stoop and brought you up here out of kindness. That was supposed to be for one night, remember?”

“Well, how do you think people get together in New York? Were we supposed to be introduced at Tricia Nixon’s wedding?”

Sarcasm is Harriet’s great weapon, which she wields as a means of smiting her opponents, but also to prop up the fiction that she and Claude share a passionate, devoted relationship:

“How is Jerry?” I asked and immediately suspected that Maxine had hypnotized me into mouthing these inane words.

Was she ready to tell me!

“He’s wonderful, he’s so wonderful. I just don’t deserve such a wonderful husband. It should only happen to you, Harriet, is all I wish. Guess what he gave me for my Norton’s birthday?” My Norton was their six-year-old deviated septum.

I was mad for her guessing game.

“A hysterectomy?” I guessed. But for a change she wasn’t paying attention. Her eyes had wandered off to her walk-in closets.

“Guess again.”

“A vaginal orgasm?” I tried gamely.

“Really.” She heard me that time and smartly flicked an ash with her ringed finger.

“A dark-brown, twelve-inch vibrator?” I was beginning to enjoy the challenge.

“Is sex all you ever think about? He built me a sauna in the dressing room,” she said flatly, sensing that I wasn’t going to fall on the floor in paroxysms of joy.

She waited for a response, but when it became apparent that I’d sunk into a wide-eyed coma, she upped the ante.

“And he’s engaged Felicia Bernstein’s masseuse to do me every morning.”

“Hmmm,” I said, “if anyone came here at nine in the morning, they’d arrest Claude for practicing unnatural acts.”

Harriet’s deluded portrait of her relationship with Claude is typical of her need for a man in her life; when Claude finally snaps and tells her that he wants her out of the apartment on a deadline, she waits until he leaves town on a business trip, then stocks up on supplies for herself, changes the locks on his apartment door, and barricades herself inside. She desperately tries to hang onto Claude despite overwhelming evidence he wants nothing to do with her; the double meaning in the book’s title, ignored by most readers, is essential to an understanding of Owens’ method (recall that the word “after” can mean both “in the time following” and “in pursuit of”).

When she is unceremoniously dumped off at the Chelsea Hotel, Harriet wastes no time falling into congress with Roger, a shady character who is the acolyte of a Mansonesque cult leader named Victor. Roger secretly tapes Harriet masturbating, which makes manifest Harriet’s unconscious need for abasement, a need that has been roiling just below the surface over the course of the entire novel. Critics who suggest that the shift in tone in the novel’s final stages, from a kind of light insouciance to something much darker, is a structural flaw miss the point: as Gerald Howard writes in Bookforum, “what lofts the book well above an amusing exercise in mad housewifery or late-stage black humor is its disturbing ending, the polar opposite of I-am-woman affirmation.”

Owens’ particular brand of feminism is perhaps a bitter pill for some to swallow, because it refuses to traffic in dishonesty. Harriet is portrayed as being highly intelligent – only a sharp intellect could engage in such corrosive wit – but also needy and masochistic. In her introduction to the New York Review Books edition, Emily Prager writes, “This predilection of bright women to twist themselves into bizarre submissive postures from which only humor can release them is something die-hard feminists will never address. But Iris and I were in agreement: there is nothing that warms a smart girl’s heart like a smile on the face of a sadist.” Masochistic Harriet clings to Claude remorselessly, even though she authentically considers him foolish and pretentious; her suppressed masochism finds its outlet in Roger’s casual exploitation. The sexual violation he perpetrates is another ironic twist of the knife: Harriet is drawn to fantasy abasement, but its real-world manifestation is ugly and disturbing. (Iris Owens had an abiding interest in this aspect of female psychosexuality: she authored a series of pornographic rape fantasies for Maurice Girodias’ Olympia Press under the pseudonym Harriet Daimler.)

Following her assault in the squalid room at the Chelsea Hotel, Harriet retreats to her own “cell,” where she lies “numb with fatigue,” smoking. “I had no thoughts, only a dim awareness of myself listening and waiting.” At the close of her corrosive novel, “a dim awareness” is all that Owens allows her protagonist. The reader, on the other hand, has been offered an incisive portrait of a potent, intelligent, conflicted woman. The awareness the novel provides its readers may not be comfortable, but it is honest and invigorating.