In Claire Messud's ferocious The Woman Upstairs
, middle-aged Nora, an artist-wannabe who is actually a frumpy suburban schoolteacher, announces her rage in the very first pages. "How angry am I? You don't want to know. Nobody wants to know about that
But as the book goes on, she doesn't need to announce her feelings: every move she makes signals that the overwhelming impulse that drives her is rage. What's she so mad about? Everything, it seems. Or, as author Messud said in an interview in her publisher's office, "She had perhaps accepted that certain opportunities had been foreclosed [i.e. the ability to marry and certainly have children] and all of a sudden [when she met the young family with whom she became obsessed and immersed] somebody came along and opened the doors and said, 'Well, actually, you have one more chance'... But when those relationships fall apart, she's angry in exact proportion to how excited she was. She's angry about what she has lost."
Similar but different, Noa P. Singleton, the eponymous heroine of our debut this month is also angry, although she masks her rage as a smart alecky but blasé lack of concern for her fate as a prisoner on death row. She isn't moved when a young lawyer comes to try to get her sentence reversed; she isn't impressed when her long-lost father tries to establish a relationship with her; she doesn't jump when her victim's mother comes to her defense.
Noa and Nora--hmmm. What would Dr. Freud say about the echo of those names?--are both cut off from connection, and when either woman gets close to engaging with life, by choice or by chance, she can't help screaming her head off.
There's already been plenty written about whether Messud's heroine is so unlikable as to sink the success of the book. (Messud herself says she worried that people might be turned off by this character whom she says is neither biographical nor autobiographical, but is, nonetheless, "real.") And many have opined that an angry, unlikeable voice will never attract much of an audience, especially if that angry, unlikeable voice belongs to a female. ("Women's anger, in particular, is unseemly to some people," Messud understates.) And yet, the books keep coming--and keep selling.
There are few more likable, readable, perhaps even justifiably angry heroines than, Nora (hmm...that name again) Ephron's doppelganger in Heartburn. Or Fay Weldon's in the delightfully vicious, Lives and Loves of a She Devil, arguably the most delicious revenge novel of all time. See also, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Or what about the predatory, rageful woman in Zoë Heller's spectacular What Was she Thinking: Notes on a Scandal? (Decent movie, but better book!) There are, of course, angry men, too. And while the therapists might say male rage is more societally accepted, if that were true, a novel like Kate Christensen's The Epicure's Lament, about a furious, broken down guy who decides to eat and drink himself to death, would be better known than it is.
"It is human to make choices against your own best interest," Messud says. By that definition, Noa is certainly human: she has plenty of opportunities to exonerate and excuse herself, but can't quite bring herself to do so because she's guilty of some things, if not the exact crimes for which she was convicted. Most of us, I think, would agree with Messud’s comment that "bad choices, as much as good ones if not more so, are what our lives are made of." Likewise, "bad," angry characters are what the best books can be made of.