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Pickle Me This

February 13, 2013

After Claude by Iris Owens

after-claude“‘…Harriet, Harriet,” she moaned, and it passed through my mind that of all the countless treacheries my mother had perpetuated, naming me Harriet was the most infamous.” (p. 62)

“I can’t describe how impossible it is to pronounce the name Harriet to a hidden audience. When you say it, you need to deal on the spot with the listener’s reactions. To call a child Harriet is to condemn her to mediocrity.” (p. 146)

Of all the literary Harriets, I do believe that Iris Owens’ is my favourite. In her novel After Claude, Owens’ has created an unlikeable female character who manages to be irresistible. Which is amazing, but more than that, she isn’t stupid, or scattered, or zany, and not once does Iris Owens’ Harriet fall off a chair. Here is a rare thing: a comic heroine who does not embody silliness. Which isn’t to say that Harriet is mentally stable, exactly, and she’s certainly not as smart as she thinks she is, but then that is setting a high standard for anyone. Further: she suffers precisely NO self-esteem issues. To be fair, she could probably afford to take on one or two, but how refreshing that she never does. That she’s utterly un-neurotic.

How does Owens do it? I can’t figure it out exactly. I’ve thought a lot in my time about unsympathetic female characters, and how little us readers can bear them. That we’re so much harder on the women than the men who fall into the loser-lit genre. Part of it could possibly be that Owens gives us just a few days in the life of her Harriet so we can bear her that long, and moreover that we can discern that underneath of veneer or self-assurance (and really, it’s a voice that wins you over to it) that Harriet is absolutely powerless. She gets as bad as she gives. As was Jim in Lucky Jim, just say, whereas the unlikeable characters in Christine Pountney’s The Best Way You Know How or Kate Christensen’s In the Drink, for example, were characters with enough agency who’d just squandered it by being irresponsible, by making stupid decisions, by having dreams of Bohemian grandeur that don’t add up to much. Perhaps the problem with female loser-lit is that authors are rarely brave enough to situate their character at rock bottom.

“I left Claude, the French rat,” the book begins, and a careful reader will note a wide gulf between Harriet’s perception of matters and what appears to be reality. We figure out quickly from various cues that Harriet is a parasite, lazy and irresponsible, a person who makes up her own history as she goes along. She’s spent the last six months living with her boyfriend Claude, but he’s had enough and wants her out. He’d first encountered her crying on the doorstep of their building after the friend she’d been staying with the on the first floor had tossed all her belongings out the window (after Harriet had snuck a strange man into the friend’s bed to enact a rape fantasy. Clearly with Harriet, no explanation is ever straightforward). She’d spent a period of time in Europe which she attempts to define herself by, though it’s clear that some kind of similar drama to the others is what had sent her back home to America. And now Claude wants to be rid of her, but Harriet’s not budging, even going as far as to get the locks changed, which is far for Harriet who can’t usually summon the initiative to get out of bed.

Oh, she is horrible and scathing, one of those people who calls the world as she sees it. Likes like this like, about her friend, the former roommate, “How often I used to tell her, ‘Rhoda, stop brooding about your size. Having a perfect figure may be a blessing but believe me, it’s not the only thing in life. A saint may come along who is not primarily concerned with with proportions, but when he does, if you drag him in here, be prepared to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.'” There was just something about the voice that won me over, lines like, “Unless he had magically transformed himself into a book of matches stuck to my ass, he was definitely not in the bed.” Humour, as always, is a relative thing, but I found After Claude absolutely hilarious.

Harriet is one of those women Caitlin Moran writes about in How to Be a Woman, a woman who enacts entire relationships in her mind, except that in her mind, Harriet has reinvented the entire world. Her point of view nearly unbudging–that she is is smarter than everybody around her, envied, beautiful, and that she’s going places even when she’s stopped. And it’s true that many of the people around her are so obnoxious that you start to see her point, that she looks good on them, really. Harriet is so sure of herself that the reader can almost believe it.

But not quite, however much we’d like to. The novel’s final third takes place at the Chelsea Hotel where Claude has finally been rid of Harriet, and she falls into strange company across the hall, an odd party populated by members of a cult and she latches onto their leader as she does to every single man she ever encounters, and he gets the better of her, but not without giving her something in return. The novel ends with Harriet back in her room in her single bed: “I had no thoughts, only a dim awareness of myself listening and waiting.” Which is actually the strongest awareness of herself that Harriet has ever shown us that she has.

Iris Owens’ biography contains the detail that she was “the daughter of a professional gambler”. She made her reputation as a pornographer writing under the name “Harriet Daimler” for the Olympia Press in Paris during the 1950s. After Claude, published in 1973, is one of two novels she published under her own name, and the other was based upon her marriage to an Iranian Prince. So that is Owens, who is anything but boring, and I promise you that her novel is even more ever so much so.

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