The Lady Who Liked Clean Restrooms Themes
by J. P. Donleavy

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The Lady Who Liked Clean Restrooms Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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Sebastian Dangerfield's appeal is that of a charming rogue, but as critic William Nelles has pointed out, he also "is something of a snob"; and Donleavy agrees with the point made by William Grant that Dangerfield is "a failed conformist rather than a romantic rebel." Donleavy's novels frequently cross a line separating social satire from a kind of sneering cynicism which gives a characteristic edge to his work, but sometimes makes it difficult to feel as sympathetic toward his protagonists as the author seems to. The Lady Who Liked Clean Restrooms continues Donleavy's concern for the necessity of "facing life's adversities with grace and style," but differs significantly from much of his previous work in that the narrative focus, for the first time, is a woman. This transformation enables Donleavy to reconsider some of his implicit endorsements of the behavior of his male protagonists, and then to go further to question some of his basic assumptions about style itself as a means of salvation.

Jocelyn Guenevere Marchantiere (whose name reverberates with custom and convention, like Clayton Claw Cleaver Clementine of The Onion Eaters [1971] or Darcy Dancer of The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman [1977]) is married to Steve Jones, a television executive. Their children are at prestigious colleges, their home is in the posh Scarsdale suburb north of New York City. Joy, as she is familiarly (and quite ironically) know to her "friends," is an appealing representation of Jefferson's idea of an American aristocrat. Her instinctive intelligence and inherent decency have been honed by her wise grandmother in South Carolina, then enhanced by the egalitarian emphasis on humane letters at Bryn Mawr. Fit and beautiful, she seems at age forty-two to have reached a level of satisfaction and serenity rare in the modern world. However, when her "strong, silent husband who wasn't so strong nor silent" demands a divorce to marry a younger woman, the rapid decline in her economic, social, and then psychic condition reveals the hollowness at the heart of everything that she has built her life on. She has always been able to see through the pretensions of people who depended on status and privilege for their sense of self-worth. Now, with the facade of modest wealth and social acceptability removed, she is compelled to examine the foundation of culture, etiquette, standards and personal conduct that are the legacy of her grandmother, the "Lady" who is the model for her own character. Donleavy's beleaguered protagonists have generally been able to find a comforting security (if not superiority) in their innate sense of decorum and breeding—a sensibility that is made clearly admirable to the reader. Jocelyn instinctively relies on this capacity too, but finds that it is not sufficient to keep her "as night fell" from "moments teetering between choosing life and death."

Throughout his writing life, Donleavy has placed his protagonists in an environment that leaves them, beyond whatever their individual faults might produce, "leading marginal lives as cultural outsiders," as Nelles has it. While not necessarily blaming all of their troubles on a hostile society, Donleavy has made it clear that the modern world, especially the United States, is not a congenial place for the men he has written about. In the 1950s, while he was trying to find a publisher for The Ginger Man (which was eventually issued by the semi-notorious Olympia Press of Paris), he described America in a letter as a country "undergoing a rigorous censorship. I want to go back to Europe where I can regain my dignity."

Living in a suburb just north of New York city, Jocelyn Guenevere Marchantiere Jones, when she is compelled by a radical change in the circumstances of her life to look closely at many of the things she has accepted as natural and fitting, finds that the national ethos has not improved. "What a god damn smug and insultingly snobbish country America was underneath it all," she thinks during a typically long night of worry and introspection, unable to find oblivion in forgetful sleep. As Donleavy, in his later work, has turned increasingly toward the themes of the elusiveness of love and the inevitability of death, his characters have kept despair at a distance in a bleak landscape through an adherence to some personal version of the "unexpurgated code" that he has somewhat sardonically described. For Jocelyn Jones, this is not sufficient, although she has the qualities of character Donleavy endorses in his male protagonists.

The essential theme of The Lady Who Liked Clean Reestrooms is a descent into the deepest core of consciousness as Jocelyn attempts to find out who she is and whether there is a place in the world for the woman she has become. She realizes that being "Mayflowered and in fact half assed socially registered" does not matter much; that "having a mind of her own" can result in isolation; that being sexually attractive almost reduces everything to a sort of prostitution; and ultimately, that even the consolations of culture might not be sufficient to prevent her from sinking "down so deep into the doldrums" that ascent is no longer possible. She is at a point where everything is called into question, but this does not mean that nothing remains. Jocelyn has been forced to test the components of her character against a severe standard. Only what is genuine can endure.

The seriousness of Donleavy's exploration can be ascertained by his readiness to question the value of the cultural accoutrements that have been the most prominent features of the civilized realm which he juxtaposes against the base grossness of the world. Jocelyn's cultivated tastes in music, culinary affairs, painting, architecture, and good manners—epitomized by her search for "clean rest rooms," actual as well as symbolic refuges or oases amidst the urban desert—offer a degree of relief, but do not provide a completely reliable foundation for her to rebuild her life after its customary elements have been removed. Early in the book, Jocelyn muses:

She felt she owed her spiritual survival so far to a twice monthly visit to antique auctions and the art galleries downtown.

Although Donleavy characteristically undercuts this insight by juxtaposing it with Jocelyn's similar reliance on "watching local squirrels romping all over the place" in order to avoid too obvious moralizing, the emphasis on spiritual survival is clear. The pursuit of "fresh flesh" that leads her husband toward a divorce is a familiar sybaritic symptom of a male survival strategy in Donleavy's novels. Jocelyn does not deny this sensual impulse, but her needs are located toward another dimension which requires more than the transitory narcotic of physical gratification and which, while linked to a connoisseur's appreciation of artifacts of cultural endeavor, cannot be solely satisfied there either. Approaching the subject almost obliquely, Donleavy in The Lady Who Liked Clean Restrooms has given the spiritual dimension of his protagonist's existence a more prominent place than in much of his other work.