We all know the refrain, “Money can’t buy everything.” No, but it certainly is nice to have it on hand, just in case.
But having too little or too much can be a corrosive force, and when money becomes the only commodity in a society’s interaction, the results are bound to be corrupt and warped. They are also, in the hands of Alix Shulman, bound to be hilarious.
Read the last Bookslut on Héctor Abad’s memoir Oblivion.
In Ménage, Heather and Mack are members of what is now blithely referred to as the 1 percent. Pampered, ambitious and utterly bored. Zoltan is a poor writer from an unnamed Eastern European nation, now looking for his big break into Hollywood. (Everyone knows there’s no money in publishing anymore.) When Heather and Mack see Zoltan, they see purity. A peasant’s simple wisdom and humble nobility. When Zoltan sees Heather and Mack, he sees their giant house on the hilltop, the cars and the works of famous artists on the walls. Each one wants what the other has got.
It’s a sharp little satire, and it goes down quick like a stiff drink. Shulman, well known as a feminist writer, plays this one quick and dirty, skewering everyone who wanders into her view from the publishing world to the artists to the would-be patrons. I talked with Shulman about her satiric view of high society, and how her political stance as a feminist influences her writing.
The word “feminist” appears three times on the back of my galley copy of Ménage. I know you've written feminist nonfiction before, but I'm wondering what the word feminist means to you in the context of fiction.
My debut novel, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, was called “the first important novel to emerge from the women’s liberation movement” [Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing] and was reissued by FSG on its 35th anniversary as a Feminist Classic. In it I set out to present a new “feminist” view of some of the predicaments women face and advanced that goal in three subsequent novels.
Nevertheless, as a fiction writer I have always balked at restrictions imposed by various prescriptions about what feminist fiction should be. In fact, I wrote an essay exploring what feminist fiction is, “The Taint,” reprinted in my new collection, A Marriage Agreement and Other Essays. In it I quote Naomi Weisstein’s broad definition: “Feminist fiction is fiction that does not admire patriarchy or accept its ideology. Nor does it accept its male characters as necessarily more exciting, important, or valuable than its female characters. In addition, the female characters... whether they be villains or heroes...are neither necessarily nice nor necessarily beautiful. In this way feminist fiction challenges the patriarchal belief in the fixed and eternal nature of men and women.”
With Ménage, I decided to portray my three protagonists as equally bad and see what happens. Since it’s a comic novel, I had lots of fun making my characters outrageous, each in a different way, and I deliberately avoided favoring my female protagonist over the men. One thing you can say about Ménage is that it definitely does not admire patriarchy or its ideology; it makes fun of them.
Heather has essentially opted out, as we now refer to the act of women leaving their jobs, to stay at home and raise the children. Were you trying to be political by making Heather a stay-at-home mother?
I did want to show the frustrations of a woman whose ambitions are thwarted and who is financially dependent on her husband, but to me that’s not the main political angle of the book. With two of the three main characters rich and the other one a famous but penniless writer, I conceived Ménage as a satire on the lives of the 1 percent and also on the literary establishment.
It’s a bit like Heather and Mack believe that the old patronage system of the arts is still in place, that by housing an artist, they will get access to that writer’s world, or will get to have some sort of say in how the book proceeds. In fact, I kept thinking of Caravaggio and his patrons in the Church, both in the setup and in their displeasure. What were you getting at by making them Zoltan’s patron?
Artists have always been dependent on those with money, and the wealthy have always tried to acquire cultural cachet by patronizing art. Nowadays it seems art is more commercialized and artists more marginalized than ever, dependent on such chancy sources of income as galleries, publishers, collectors, grants and prizes. Although all this is touched on in the book, I was more interested in showing the corrupting power relations among my three protagonists than in making a statement about art.
Zoltan remains something of a mysterious figure—his home nation is never mentioned, just vague references to Eastern Europe. His future also remains open ended. And yet he’s the toast of literary New York, due to his political exile that no one seems to know any specifics about, which gives him some sort of authenticity, whatever that may mean. But really what I want to know is why you chose Susan Sontag as Zoltan’s champion, as you mention her specifically on several occasions.
Having Sontag endorse Zoltan came to me in a sudden inspiration as a means of showing his status among the literary crowd. It tickled me because in real life, many important writers, including from Central and Eastern Europe, were little known in this country until Susan Sontag championed them. Not that they were undeserving; I loved almost every writer whose work she introduced me to.
As for Zoltan’s murky origins, that is frequently part of the aura of gurus, making mythologizing him all the easier.
What sparks all of this off is Mack’s desire to know, despite the fame and success and wealth, how one should live. And Zoltan becomes the Magical Other here to answer that question for him and his wife. A satire of this trope, the magical minority who is more humble and pure and teaches the white man true happiness, has been desperately needed for some time. Was that your intention?
That’s such an interesting observation! I wish I had thought of it. Indeed, many powerful people have turned to spiritual gurus, and in my story, Zoltan is compared to such famous historical charismatics as Rasputin and Gurdjieff, often considered charlatans.
But what I had in mind was somewhat different, though not contradictory to your interpretation. To me not only does Mack want something he thinks Zoltan can give him; all three characters have something the others covet: Mack has wealth, which Zoltan, like many artists, secretly longs for but publicly repudiates. Zoltan has literary celebrity, which Mack knows his wife, Heather, values above his own achievements. Heather has unearned wealth and unrealized talent, which she longs to legitimize as her own. All three are skilled at manipulating the world to get what they want, and all think they can game the others into giving it to them.
Traditionally, the woman is a pawn in this power game among men, but in Ménage, Heather is fully as adept at going after what she wants as either of the men. The lengths to which all three will go to achieve their desires form the basis of the comedy.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.