First off, I’d like to note that Wifey was chosen as a group read for a romance-reading group. This is seriously funny-sad, in retrospect, because I think this novel is the anti-romance. Which is not to say it doesn’t have some commonalities with the romance novel: female protagonist, concerned primarily with sex and relationships, trappings of consumerism and status. This book also shares a commonality of usage with romance in that many, many people about my age stole this from their mothers at an impressionable age so’iz they could read the sex bits over and over. Having read this as an adult, I find this somewhat hysterical, because it is possibly the least romantic book to be classed as such. If a romance novel is primarily an act of wish-fulfillment, where love conquers all and sex is cauterized through marriage, then this succeeds in only one of these things. And I can tell you it’s not the love bit.
I have a pretty severe allergy to this time period in American fiction, and I realize a bit of this is learned and a bit of it is just general cultural anxiety. Writing from the sexual revolution can’t work for me, generationally, because things that are couched as stunning revelations – women feel desire – read like cliché. Of course we do! Durr. Then there’s a boomer friend of mine likes to lean in and make jokes about that time period, in this upsetting way, because he’s the father of a friend of mine, and shouldn’t be talking about sex to me: the sexual revolution was all about getting into the pants of those not inclined. Hey baby, why do you have to be so square? I take his point: sometimes people equate free love with the sexual revolution, when I think that’s super reductive, but that equation is one that has a long history, and I think this book cuts a slash though that equals sign. The parts of the sexual revolution that I love have to do with the interrogation of gender roles and social expectations, and I think this book hinges on the equation of sex with liberation, and shows how hollow that idea can be when there isn’t a corresponding change in assumptions. There’s all kinds of social panic in this book: gay panic – apparently having a woman touch a man’s nipples makes him gay; racial panic – there are several enlightening conversations about what constitutes a “good” minority, red-lining, white flight, etc; gender panic – having sex with a woman on top makes her a “women’s libber” (god, I haven’t heard that term in a dog’s age). Sandy’s miserable in her roles a housewife and mother, and sleeping around may put those roles into crisis, but it doesn’t make those roles go away.
I recently read The Crying of Lot 49which was written roughly ten years before this, at the other end of the country and at the very beginning of the sexual revolution that is about to crash into the Jewish New Jersey suburbs in Wifey. I think that Oedipa from Lot 49 and Sandy from Wifey have strains of the same DNA in their blood. I’m feeling a little stupid comparing Pynchon to Blume here, but seriously. Oedipa is a useless housewife, as is Sandy; despite their transgressions, both are incredibly socially conservative; they both go on their little journeys of sex and discovery, and both novels fall completely apart, in the end, although one is much more personal a failure than the other. There’s other commonalities too – I think that the Nazi shrink in Lot 49 has something in common in creepiness with the gynecologist brother-in-law in Wifey, both of them trying to enact their institutional fuckery on the principles of these books. (I’m not using the term Nazi metaphorically here, although Pynchon might be. Dr. Hilarious was a bona fide Nazi doctor.) The difference may be that Pynchon treats his Oedipa with disdain & misunderstanding, in a gendered, satire kind of way – I’m pretty sure the only thing that makes Oedipa a woman is that her heels clack – Blume treats her protagonist with the pointed cruelty of understanding. Sandy does not just have clacking heels, she has an itchy vagina which she scratches to bleeding. Sorry, this is gross, but it’s the vagina-that-shall-not-be-named, the spooky specter of female libido.
There’s a moment in Lot 49 when Oedipa confronts what to any good social conservative is the inevitable horror of societal sexual permissiveness when she watches a mother and son tongue-kiss their farewells in a bus station – they’ve been using the evil, subterranean postal system to telegraph their transgressive love – and Oedipa falls into a dream-swoon, unsure if this real or imaginary. If it is acceptable to cross one line, then why not another? But Oedipa is mostly a satirical creature and Pynchon’s poking fun at her perceptions – I think it’s no accident that she ends up floating around Berkley or wherever it is running into gays and hobos and Vietnam veterans after she has her extramarital affair, because it’s almost like Pynchon is rubbing her nose in how she takes one part of the social movements going on by giving herself a pass to have an affair, and discarding the rest. The sexual revolution had as much to do with Stonewall or custodial rights or whatever as it has to do with giving already privileged people the permission to do what they want, which they would do anyway. When she finally returns to her husband, he’s lost in drug-perceptions, and the pinwheeling satire of 49 draws to its unfinished conclusion.
But Oedipa is a satirical creature and Sandy is not; Sandy has an inner life much more fully realized than Oedipa. Pynchon comes to judgment on Oedipa, and Blume does not. While there are elements of social satire in Wifey, it’s not satire, a frustrating muddle of realism and satire, of burlesque and social commentary. It’s aggressively straightforward, almost to a strange degree. I’ve read me lots of genres, and there’s usually a moment, even in the most prosaic of fictions, when the writer tries some writerly zig-zag, just to make sure you’re paying attention. I don’t feel like that ever happened here, and it makes me think about the female diarist in Possessionwho never writes what she means, and that not writing it is an act of subversion. I’m groping, again, as I have been in all of this review, because I feel like a definitive reading of this book is severely impossible. But as I’ve found in reading this women’s fiction in the group, I take Sandy a lot more personally than I do Oedipa, which is sometimes a mistake. If I’d written this review the minute I finished reading, it would have been one-star outrage – I would have read myself, as a wife & mother, into Sandy, and I would have taken personally the outrages committed and perpetrated by Sandy. I never had that reaction to Oedipa, because she’s not really a woman, and I’m less sensitive to what I perceive as sexist twaddle coming from men, rightly or wrongly.
Blume writes a portrait, a character, and refuses to tell you how to read it, which is absolutely the strangest thing ever. I held off reading the intro until after I read the book, and that fucked me up in all kinds of ways. Blume wrote this after she left her husband in the 70s, and Sandy makes all the choices that Blume did not: to stay by her husband, to hide in her Jewish, suburban enclave, and fuck, I don’t know what. I hate reading books through autobiography. (I have almost zero interest in the lives of writers, maybe because I’ve been tainted by the New Criticism of my mother, who is my internalized reader, my readerly super-ego.) The subversion in the writing is the lack of gloss, in the lack of artistry. Here it is, she says, think what you will. Blume might have written Sandy as an elegy to the choices she never made, because there was a moment there, somewhere, where she could have become Sandy, and she understands and empathizes. Maybe not. There are good arguments against the polemic novel, one that tells you what to think and why, but this is anti-polemic, letting you twist wondering why choices were made and conclusions come to.
Here come the spoilers.
When Sandy and her husband come to their agreement, and choose to remain in this horrid, soul-killing marriage, I died. In a year, Sandy will kill herself too, inevitably, awfully. My husband and I screamed out this conclusion: why does it have to end like this? A shared bed is a horrible capitulation – this is not a happy choice. This may be me bringing too much literary reading to my reading, but I was horrified by Sandy’s offer to shave her puss so that her husband could endure it. I think of all the literary hair: Ruskin freaking at his wife’s pubes, Humbert Humbert and his smooth girl, the hard, alabaster Edward, J. Alfred Prufrock noting the hair on the arms of the women coming and going, and on and on. I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled, because I do not have a woman to hem them. Maybe I’ve just articulated one of those insane personal pet theories, but hair and its metaphorical stand-in for real sexuality, for libido, for the deeply anti-social nature of love seems to be a running thread not just in fiction but in life. Sandy will hem her husband’s trousers, and hem her cunt, and I hate that it comes to that. I hate that I just said “cunt”, like her husband did to Sandy when he found out about the affair. I hate all things that seem like choices but are not, or are choices but the wrong ones.
Another component of the romance novel is one of the exceptionalism of its principles: a love that knows no bounds, love that turns transgression into acceptance, the kind of love that turns someone as soulless & inconsequential as Bella Swan into the heroine of a grand plot. It is the inner life turned out, made manifest in the men who can see the exceptional nature of the protagonist. Sandy is not exceptional: not smart, not talented, not healthy or spunky or robust. But she is character with the only reality, and her rich fantasy life is almost a commentary on the dangers of mistaking wish-fulfillment narratives of love & romance with hard realities. If this were a romance, her affair with Shep would have concluded with their happy marriage and some more babies. But Shep is just some schmuck, like her husband, and wishing for happiness, hoping that love will magic away her obstacles for happiness continues to put the agents to her happiness in other people. As crushed as I was by her conclusion, for her to stay by her horrible shit of a husband after he smacks her and calls her a cunt, I can’t imagine her making the choice to run away and find a less inconsequential life. This story interrogates the idea that romantic love can change your life, and lays it bare. Sandy should, by all rights, chuck this dreary shit and strike out on her own, but she’s been bound by a narrative of domestic harmony and consumerist comfort that makes such a choice impossible. In short, she’s swallowed the barb that’s in a lot of women’s fiction: that you cannot do this on your own. Love will set you free, but if there is no love to be had, then you remain in your cage, and she does. I hate her choice. I think it will kill her in the end, but I appreciate Blume’s lack of judgment & her compassionate portrait of Sandy. Sandy is the road most traveled. May we all look on her and despair.