Lily Tuck’s Heathcliff Redux: A Novella and Stories
In her long career, Lily Tuck, 81, has written seven novels and two previous collections of short stories. Her third novel, Siam or The Woman Who Shot a Man, was nominated for the 2000 PEN/Faulkner Award, and her fourth novel, The News from Paraguay won the 2004 National Book Award for Fiction. Her new collection Heathcliff Redux: A Novella and Stories includes a novella and four short stories. Tuck’s prose style has been variously described as “restrained” and written with a “deliberately flat affect,” which works moderately well in her shorter stories, but the lead novella, Heathcliff Redux, a love story of sorts inspired by Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, withers and effectively falls flat. The collection’s best story is “Carl Schurz Park,” which concerns a murder and one of the murderers. In other stories, a woman finds a dead swan; people pictured in a 1950s photograph inspire a character study; and a fellow called Yann Johansen harasses a woman, once a Rajneeshee cultist, with odd and accusatory emails.
“Carl Schurz Park” benefits most from Tuck’s restrained and flat writing. The story concerns the murder of an adolescent black girl who is thrown into the East River by four teenage white boys, seniors from a private school. They are never found out. Years later, Alan, one of the girl’s murderers, is having dinner with his wife and friends when a conversation about Schurz Park begins. One of the guests tells the story of how a statue, stolen from the park and thrown into the East River, is dredged up and returned to the park. The flatness of the prose punctuates Alan’s suppression of any emotion that he might have felt about the crime, but he appears to have a twinge of conscience about the park, the scene of the murder. Ultimately, though, he chooses only to recall walking his dog through Schurz park. He feels a “moment of overpowering discomfort that manifested itself as nausea and a lack of focus” but dismissed it as “the almost visceral memory of the [dog’s] shit.” Even Alan’s wife’s suggestion that he take her to the park someday has little effect on him.
Tuck’s prose style works in two other short stories. In one, the writing reflects the restrained emotion of the character; in the other, the character’s reaction is understated. Sadie, a substitute elementary school teacher, in “The Dead Swan,” finds the dead bird on the beach. She takes it home, though she knows that her abusive addict of a husband would not permit it, but he’s in jail. In “A Natural State,” Claire gets harassing and crazy emails from a stranger who calls himself Yann Johansen, which reminds her of the recursive jingle “Yon Yonson.” Yonson tells Claire that he knows about her time as a Rajneeshee and her fucking Bhagwan Rajneesh. When Claire can’t sleep, she recalls her past lovers and counts them in order from best to worst and worst to best, but does not include Bhagwan.
Tuck’s fourth short piece, “Labyrinth Two,” is a homage to Roberto Bolaño. Like his story “Labyrinth,” Tuck’s is a story that develops from looking at a 1950s photograph. Eliane and Daphne are having drinks at the Piazzetta on Capri before dinner with their dates Franco and Sergio. They eat at Gemma’s where they run into Graham Greene and Catherine Walston. Creating a story based on a photograph is a mildly interesting idea, but it’s the sort of exercise that might be assigned to writing students: “Look at a photo, write a story about people in it as an homage…to Tuck and Bolaño.”
Tuck’s flat prose style works against her in the novella-length title story that attempts to restore Heathcliff from the pages of Wuthering Heights. In Heathcliff Redux, the unnamed, elderly narrator recalls her affair at least 40 years ago with Cliff in 1963, when she was in her late 20s and married to Charlie. Brontë set Wuthering Heights in England in the early 19th century with an embedded story set in the 1780s; Tuck sets her story in Albemarle County, Virginia, on a 400-acre farm, where the narrator and her husband raise twin nine-year-old boys, cattle, and horses. They attend fox hunts and thoroughbred races. The affair begins in April of ’63 and continues through Thanksgiving. The early ’60s were an innocent time. The narrator writes, “we did not get divorced, and we did not have abortions or extramarital love affairs, or, if we did, we did not talk about them.” I suppose the tragedy of President Kennedy’s assassination is intended to denote a tragic end to the narrator and Cliff’s affair, since November 22 was the last time the couple made love, but it’s difficult to feel anything really tragic, since the writing is not only restrained, but unemotional to the point of being asphyxiating. You would think that a woman now, at least in her late 60s, would bring a bit of insight and introspection to the story. Instead, the narrator offers little motivation for cheating on Charlie with Cliff. Charlie doesn’t mistreat or abuse her; and she doesn’t seem unsatisfied with her marriage, though Charlie drinks a bit too much at parties. Apparently, she’s bored; she says, “I longed for something else—something different.” As for Cliff, he isn’t much more than an uneducated con-man, but he is handsome and possesses a personality quite different from Charlie’s. Anyway, the narrator says she fell for Cliff hard, after seeing him mount a horse at a steeplechase race. “Cliff just jumped into the saddle. Like he was a Cossack or something,” an image she says she’ll remember to her dying day. Soon, after the horse race, Cliff is buddying up to Charlie in order to swindle him, and Cliff’s coming over for dinner too. One night she serves boeuf bourguignon. On another night, she serves spaghetti and Cliff grabs a kiss in the kitchen while Charlie is outside. She has no reaction to the kiss, but remarks, “His fingers left marks on my forearm.” Instead, the narrator gives us a couple recipes, notes her Norwich terrier Nelly (also the name of Brontë’s narrator and servant) inexplicably likes Cliff, and she compares her house to the Brontë house.
Next thing you know, she and Cliff are having sex on a plaid blanket in a deserted polo field.
I have nothing against sex in a deserted polo field, especially on a plaid blanket, but the scene seems abrupt, since there is very little motive for the affair. She does tell us in a roundabout way that her naïveté and a need for adventure might be a motive for the affair. “Charlie and I started dating my freshman year in college; we got married after he graduated. I got pregnant right away with the twins and did not graduate. I had never been with anyone before Charlie. I had never slept with another man until Cliff.” But sex with Charlie doesn’t seem so bad either, since she continues to have sex with him for a while and with Cliff. She does worry a bit about getting pregnant, “whose baby would it be anyway?” But she writes that she “took precautions.” Other than possibly becoming pregnant, she doesn’t seem to give much thought to how her affair might affect her marriage or her children. In this story, like a lot of stories, one spouse cheats on the other and the other finds a lover, too, which is intended to even things out. In “Redux”, the narrator says Charlie is carrying on with Sally, a rich widow in her late forties who had been sleeping with Cliff. But the narrator never confronts Charlie and it’s possible that the affair exists only in the narrator’s mind after Cliff put it there. Duplicitous, Cliff is “reckless” and an “operator”; he not only had an affair with Sally but broke it off and owes her money.
The narrator asks Cliff if he’s ever read Wuthering Heights. Cliff says no. She, of course, has read it, and is re-reading it. As Wuthering Heights incorporates elements of Gothic and Romance fiction told in two stories, Heathcliff Redux embraces an interior story of a sort, too. “Redux” is told in short chapters, sometimes as brief as a single sentence with a footnote, but “Redux’s” interior “story” consists of excerpts from Wuthering Heights, some of Brontë’s poems, criticism of Brontë, and it integrates elements of modern fiction with culinary elements borrowed from cozy mysteries and chic lit. Not only is there a recipe for boeuf bourguignon, but there’s the reminder to use a Bordeaux or a Burgundy for the three cups of red wine. What’s more, there’s a pithy recipe for spaghetti: boil a lot of water and add spaghetti. Isn’t that why we read fiction?
Besides the recipes, Tuck includes criticism from Oates on Wuthering Heights. Oates writes about Heathcliff ’s appeal being “approximately that of Edmund, Iago, Richard III…the villain who impresses by way of his energy, his cleverness, his peculiar sort of courage.” Cliff’s reader appeal as a villain is about equal to Heathcliff’s, but as a character Cliff is shallower and there is no “good” younger Cliff to parallel to the young Heathcliff. The “Redux” narrator, neither innocent nor evil, is easily duped, and the minor characters are mostly stoic caricatures. This collection is clever, but with one exception: it leaves emotion and any kind of exuberance at the Victorian wayside and the effect of “Redux” on the rest of the book and the reader is suffocation.