Fay Weldon could be called the contemporary Jane Austen, an entertaining, satiric chronicler of today’s rude manners centered around sex and self. As befits an admirer of Jane Austen, Weldon focuses on the matings of women and men, almost always from the women’s point of view. In keeping with the contemporary world, the matings are often shallow, insecure, and unhappy. Awful events occur in Weldon’s short fiction: seductive women break up marriages, pregnant women are abandoned, babies are abused, and ghosts rattle through old houses. Yet, for the most part, Weldon maintains a comic tone, though again her black comedy is consistent with the times.
Weldon is able to deal with awful events and still maintain a comic tone through manipulation of narrative technique and voice. She experiments with discontinuous and fragmented narration, making sudden leaps in her characters’ lives. To attain this out-of-breath pace, she sometimes sacrifices depth of characterization, especially of the male characters. What else is an author to do in an age of shallow people? The shallowness of her characters may be seen as another symptom of the times. Her narrative techniques also reflect her background in writing advertising copy—the transfer of sound bite technology to short fiction. Her stories would probably not be convincing enough to entertain if they were not also narrated in highly believable human voices, the colloquial, confused voices of single mothers, suburban housewives, daughters, and feminists.
Since the voices in Weldon’s writing are almost always female, she has sometimes been claimed as a feminist writer. Her writing does not, however, express a consistent feminist ideology or agenda. There is no shortage of oppressive men in Weldon’s writing, but neither is there a shortage of wicked women. In fact, some of the targets of Weldon’s satire are misguided women who have constructed their identity around feminist ideology and who behave accordingly. Weldon’s work does not so much express an ideology as, in the classic mode, hold a mirror up to nature.
“Watching Me, Watching You”
“Watching Me, Watching You,” which gives its title to Weldon’s first collection of short fiction, is ostensibly a ghost story, the first of several stories set in old houses where strange noises and happenings occur. The ghost here is rather lethargic, mostly reacting to stranger happenings among the house’s living inhabitants. Echoing stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, curtains rustle, wine glasses tip, walls sweat and cry, and mirrors crash to the floor only to comment on human behavior. The real story is of how Vanessa steals Anne’s husband Maurice and marries him, only to have Audrey steal Maurice from her in the end, as if some crude sense of cosmic justice operates in the old house cursed by human failings. Meanwhile, two children are born to suffer, and Maurice does not make a good impression himself. The gothic conventions are used to justify the narration, which covers fifteen years, since presumably the ghost can see the past, present, and future all at once. The story’s comic tone is rather tentative, except in the characterization of the ghost and in a little satire at the end, in which Anne and Vanessa are communing with each other amid posters “calling on women to live, to be free, to protest, to re-claim the right, demand wages for housework, to do anything in the world but love.”
Moon Over Minneapolis
Perhaps Weldon’s most popular collection of short fiction, Moon Over Minneapolis represents the...
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