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Ménage by Alix Kates Shulman

Published by Other Press on May 15, 2012 

Zoltan Barbu, former dissident and dried-up writer who, in his better days, was lovingly reviewed by Susan Sontag, meets Allerton "Mack" McKay at the funeral of Maja Stern. Maja was Zoltan's lover before she committed suicide, an act that thwarted Mack's plan to seduce her. Mack and Zoltan go to dinner together and the confrontational Zoltan quickly exposes Mack's innermost secret: his fear that he is a fraud, an imposter undeserving of the success he has achieved. Hoping that Zoltan will show him "how to live honestly," Mack invites Zoltan, who is on the verge of homelessness, to live with him. Mack also believes that bringing home a writer will be "a major coup" in his ongoing struggle to impress his wife and improve his marriage. He hopes that Zoltan's presence will "fill the void" in his wife's life while he is gone from home.

Mack's wife Heather suspects Mack is having an affair with Maja ... or if not Maja, with someone. Heather's many resentments include her decision to quit her position as an assistant editor to become a stay-at-home mom (with the help of a nanny and maid), thus diminishing her "power" as Mack's increased. She wants to write but she can't summon "the will to work." Heather initially welcomes the arrival of Zoltan (like the death of Maja) as a needed boost to revitalize her marriage, or her writing career, or at least her sex life. She quickly enough comes to regret Mack's decision to invite Zoltan into her house.

Zoltan's promise to teach Mack and Heather the secrets of life is arguably fulfilled by the novel's end, although not in ways that Mack and Heather anticipate. Therein lies the charm of this character-driven novel. Zoltan is something of a fraud, ill-equipped to teach anything to anyone, while Mack and Heather are incapable of recognizing the lessons they should have learned.

The characters in Ménage are not particularly sympathetic although Zoltan is likable enough in a roguish way. Zoltan, the self-defined exile, spends most of his time feeling sorry for himself instead of writing. He has a low opinion of women (all of whom, he thinks, are conspiring against him), but fails to consider whether he might be responsible for their reaction to him. Heather is a rather demanding drama queen. Mack is utterly self-absorbed.

Alix Kates Shulman's biting characterizations of Zoltan and Mack a bit heavy-handed. It is difficult to believe that Zoltan, who seems comfortable in the progressive environs of LA and New York, would regard women as property, as if he were a throwback to an earlier generation ... or century. Even more problematic is Mack, a wealthy philanderer with an enormous ego, the kind of smug, deliberately shallow character who makes an easy target. Shulman failed to convince me that Mack was a real person rather than a foil for Heather, although as a foil he is a useful character.

While Shulman's portrayal of the relationship between Mack and Heather is uninspired, the dynamic between Zoltan and Heather is more interesting. Zoltan is not well positioned to fill the void in Heather's life. He is convinced of an "irreconcilable difference" between men and women: Zoltan needs solitude, women need company; what Zoltan sees as intrusiveness women regard as sharing. That conviction is sharpened by Heather's clinginess. Moreover, Zoltan is confused by American women -- they "routinely objected to being valued for their sex yet shamelessly put themselves forward" -- and by the American husbands who "allow themselves to be led around by the nose by their outrageous wives." Zoltan is reflexively flirtatious with all women and Heather is something of a literary groupie, so it comes as no surprise when Heather puts herself forward to Zoltan. Nor is it surprising when she becomes suspicious and jealous, ultimately reacting to Zoltan as she does to her husband. Although Zoltan is an entertaining caricature, Heather felt very real to me.

I admire Shulman's prose style, particularly her precise attention to word choice. Her good-natured mocking of New York's literary scene and of the pretentious class is priceless. She pokes fun at writers who, like Zoltan and Heather, don't really write, who succumb to (or invent) distractions rather than practicing their craft. More importantly, her skillful depiction of a husband and wife as manipulators who use a third party to jockey for a better position in their marriage is deliciously acerbic. Despite my reservations about the cartoonish depictions of Mack and Zoltan, their three-way interaction with Heather is sufficiently entertaining, and Shulman's prose sufficiently keen, to make it easy for me to recommend this novel.


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