Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1483
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 variety of her work. As in some of her other collections, the variety is indicated by groupings of stories under subheadings: “Stories of Working Life,” “Four Tales from Abroad,” “Tales of the New Age,” “Stories for Christmas,” “Three Tales of Country Life” (showing the Somerset influence), and “As Told to Miss Jacobs” (stories narrated to a silent psychoanalyst).
One of the tales from abroad is a favorite of literary anthologists, “Ind Aff or Out of Love in Sarajevo.” The puzzling abbreviation in the title is one John Wesley, founder of Methodism, used for “inordinate affection,” a sin “which bears the spirit away from God towards the flesh.” In the story a twenty-five-year-old Cambridge graduate student feels “inordinate affection” for her professor and thesis director, even to the extent of sharing a vacation with him in Sarajevo and paying for her share. The aptly named Professor Peter Piper, a forty-six-year-old married man and father of three, is a male chauvinist pig of the old school. While the peerless Peter imposes his opinions on his young charge, from tastes in food to theories of history, he does not pay any attention when she speaks. The setting finally brings her to her senses when they reflect on the local hero Gavrilo Princip, the young assassin credited with starting World War I by shooting the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and when a handsome young waiter smiles at her:I smiled back, and instead of the pain in the heart I’d become accustomed to as an erotic sensation, now felt, quite violently, an associated yet different pang which got my lower stomach. The true, the real pain of Ind Aff!
“Ind Aff” can be interpreted as a prototypical feminist story, but other stories in Moon Over Minneapolis poke fun at extreme feminist attitudes. In “Subject to Diary” a middle-aged career woman, who is close only to her diary, cancels her third abortion at the last minute on a sudden motherly impulse. In “I Do What I Can and I Am What I Am” a daughter disappoints her feminist mother by being sweet, by getting an A in her housecraft course and F’s in chemistry and physics, by dressing in frilly women’s clothes instead of pants, and by becoming an airline stewardess and winning the Miss Skyways Competition. Finally, in “Au Pair” a “big-busted, bovine” Danish girl gets a position with the Beaver family in England, cleans up the messy house, starts cooking good meals, takes care of the children, starts sleeping with the husband, and eventually replaces the neurotic Mrs. Beaver.
The title story, “Moon Over Minneapolis,” is disappointing, which is probably what one should expect from a title that contrasts with the romantic song title “Moon Over Miami.” In the story, romance fails when an English woman calls off her wedding to a Minneapolis man in order to return home and take care of her dependent extended family. This story, like others in the collection, makes use of some interesting techniques, such as symbolic uses of settings, plays on names, and experiments with narration. “Moon Over Minneapolis,” for example, is narrated by the English woman to her psychoanalyst, Miss Jacobs, and “Au Pair” is narrated secondhand by the girl’s mother back in Copenhagen (assisted by letters and phone calls) while the mother entertains sailors from around the world in bed.
“Pains,” subtitled “A Story of Most Contemporary Women, 1972,” appears in the collection Wicked Women. Like some other stories in the collection, it uses engaging women’s voices and narrative techniques, but the fireworks are perhaps most brilliant here. The story features not just one woman’s voice but a whole cacophony, as the local Women’s Liberation Group meets downstairs while upstairs, in ironic juxtaposition, Paula undergoes labor and eventually delivers a son. At the very moment she gives birth, her husband is downstairs trying to kiss a neighbor woman. These ironic situations are only the framework for the dazzling display of voices ranging from radical-sounding feminists who quote Vladimir Ilich Lenin to Audrey, the neighbor woman, who opines,I like being a woman I mean, what’s wrong with it? I mean, it’s all a bit ridiculous, isn’t it, all this bra-burning and why do they make themselves so plain. Present company excepted, of course.
A Hard Time to Be a Father
A Hard Time to Be a Father, a collection of nineteen stories, continues with some of Weldon’s familiar subjects and techniques. Even some of the titles are reminiscent of earlier stories, but the stories here are just as entertaining as earlier ones. Jealousy and revenge are still a part of “Once in Love in Oslo,” in which a former wife seeks retribution against a present one, and in “Come on Everyone,” in which the protagonist returns years later to savage her popular college roommate. The media’s feeding frenzies are satirized in “What the Papers Say” and prenatal testing in “A Libation of Blood.” Other stories, however, have less of a satirical edge, as if Weldon is willing to concede the possibility of happy turns of fate, if only by luck or chance. Such stories include “Spirits Fly South,” “Noisy into the Night,” the title story, and “GUP—Or Falling in Love in Helsinki,” in which a young woman meets her long-lost father, and GUP means “Great Universal Paradox.”
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