Constance, by Patrick McGrath
Its author’s familiar preoccupations – sexual obsession, emotional trauma, destructive relationships – feature in his slight new novel
A bitter, damaged young woman meets an older man at a literary gathering. Her name is Constance; she works in publishing and lives alone. Her aloof demeanour attracts the attention of an academic, Sidney Klein, who is struggling to complete his latest book and is also mourning the failure of his second marriage. His ex-wife is now dying, and he has a young son. It is obvious that he is open to finding a third wife, while Constance is clearly in need of a father, although a father figure may well do.
Set in the New York of 1963, as the much-criticised demolition of the original Penn Station was about to begin, this ninth novel from the English-born, US-domiciled writer Patrick McGrath has a much stronger feel for place than it does for characterisation – although McGrath is always good on place and has a particularly vivid affinity for New York, as his wonderful tribute, Ghost Town (2005), in the Writer and the City series testifies.
The themes in Constance are familiar McGrath preoccupations: emotional trauma, sexual obsession and destructive relationships. At his best, as in works such as The Grotesque (1989), Spider (1990) and his masterpiece to date, Dr Haggard’s Disease (1993), McGrath patrols the dark maze of the inner psyche with an eerie perception. He is committed to exploring how the mind preys on human sexuality at times of crisis. His characters brood, fester, conceal and react, usually with chilling consequences.
As in his most recent novel, Trauma (2008), which features two very different brothers, Charlie and Walt Weir, his new novel draws on the tensions of sibling relationships, as a pair of motherless sisters, Constance and Iris, have contrasting attitudes to their widower father. Home is a crumbling Gothic heap in the Hudson Valley in which the old man, tended to by the faithful housekeeper, Mildred, endures what is left of his life.
The narrative is spilt between Constance and Klein. It could be argued that the most powerful presence in the novel is that of the disintegrating Penn Station, which acquires a resonance reminiscent of the use F Scott FitzGerald makes of the giant billboard advertising the services of Doctor TJ Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby . Just as those eyes overlook the Valley of Ashes, Penn Station both towers and topples throughout the action.
The imagery is apt, as Klein, the slightly more reliable narrator, tends to have an intellectual response to most things, and he believes that New York is ailing. He identifies with the fall of the landmark station building: “It was neglected and begrimed, it took up two entire city blocks, and in New York it just made no economic sense, unless you believed that a railroad station possessing all the solemn grandeur of a Gothic cathedral was worth preserving for its own sake. It broke my heart to see the demolition crew arrive with their jackhammers that drizzly morning in October, the day I got divorced for the second time.”
Klein all too often lapses into the stock language of psychiatry, and he frequently speaks to Constance as if he were treating her rather than more mundanely attempting to salvage their faltering relationship. He is also a romantic and, even at moments of intense exasperation, retains a soft, if not always entirely convincing, sympathy for Constance.
It is this idealised affection that repeatedly undermines the cohesion of a weak novel that seldom emerges as more than yet another variation on McGrath’s often inspired preoccupation with sex as both a quest for and an endorsement of identity.
Into the middle of Klein’s strange relationship with Constance, who is clearly having an affair, are placed the needs of his young son, Howard. The boy is about to lose his mother and will require a replacement. Klein is surprisingly undiscerning about handing over his son to a woman as erratic as Constance.
Similarly, she is still searching for a father, as her surviving parent, old Morgan, has never much liked her, a fact that enrages her.
Having the narrative divided between Constance and Klein makes it rather like watching a tennis match between players of vastly differing ability. Constance is impossible to like, or even understand. She is presented as thin and edgy; her younger sister, Iris, is wanton, fleshy, warm and emotionally vulnerable. Iris is also Daddy’s favourite, the reason for which is obvious before it is formally revealed.
It had been intended that Iris would follow her father into a career in medicine; instead, she is working in a cheap hotel. This places her in the path of the louche lounge pianist, Eddie Castrol. Iris thinks she is in love. Eddie knows that he is not. Constance is not a person to dispense comfort to anyone, and is a natural opportunist.
The dark house on the Hudson River has been the setting for a complex intrigue, and the family secret in this book is messy by any standards. The characters move around each other as if engaged in an elaborate dance.
Constance is angry and unstable, and her dialogue is often clumsy and improbable: “It was grotesque, what Sidney proposed. My life had been devastated by a doctor and he wanted me to see a shrink. Even to suggest it – ! The idea that he should hand me off in this way, commit me to the care of a doctor , it showed the limits of his moral imagination.”
In a novel in which so many of the characters are thinly drawn, it is surprising that McGrath would dispense with the evil Eddie Castrol. Constance learns the truth – well, as much of it as can be expected from the small group of people who have cobbled it together.
This is slight, if convoluted, work from a proven artist. There is a considerable amount of repetition, not just because two narrators are telling the same story but also because of the symbolic replication of an earlier death, and it fails to achieve its dramatic intent.
McGrath’s customary urgency, daring and narrative eloquence are unexpectedly slack throughout; the heightened hysteria, despair and recrimination fail to convince.
For Constance the novel to have succeeded, Constance the character would have had to be sympathetic, not to mention believable, and she is neither. Nor is the novel.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent.