Puffball

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1467

The title of Fay Weldon’s novel refers to the fungus which resembles a pregnant swelling, has an evil reputation as a potion ingredient among herbalist witches and, for the gourmet, is delicious and cheeselike when grilled with meat. This symbol provides only a mild hint of the complexity of the novel.

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Other writers have packed more into shorter novels, but Weldon does not pack, in the sense of creating something dense in the manner of Stella Gibbons or Evelyn Waugh. The word “economical” has been used to describe her work. Her prose style is indeed economical: short sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. It would be absurd, however, to call a novel “economical” which has twenty-six noteworthy characters creating a tangle of plots and subplots.

What Weldon attempts to depict is a massive web of plots and characters. The novel contains a technical, clinical view of motherhood and a metaphorical view of motherhood; an omniscient authorial voice which deals evenhandedly with science and witchcraft; a witchcraft comedy of errors with misapplied potions; a guilty sex-farce comedy of errors; a town-and-country conflict with incidental urban scenes involving hippie squatters, open-marriage gourmets, disapproving in-laws, sex-starved secretaries, and wise children, as well as rustic types sillier than those of Thomas Hardy but nobler than those of Evelyn Waugh.

The series of “Inside Liffey” interchapters explain what happens in Liffey Lee-Fox’s body when she is on the pill, when she is first off the pill, why she gets pregnant at one time and not some other times, and what is happening to her husband Richard Lee-Fox’s sperm. Thorough research is diluted with dashes of whimsy. At first, these interchapters may strike the reader as “public service” padding: good information, bad literature.

It becomes increasingly apparent, however, that something new and odd is being perpetrated. If Liffey and Richard, and Mabs and Tucker Pierce knew any of this “inside” information, all their fears, jealousy, and guilt would vanish. It is not Liffey’s fault that she does not get pregnant sooner; it is not Tucker who fathers her child. The authorial voice, and the reader, know things that the characters can never know.

Clearly, women, and men, must act in massive ignorance about the minute-to-minute activities inside their bodies. The reader, however, is told more than the most expert, continuously monitoring medical team could know, more than readers will want to know, given that this information does not connect to any developed notion of fate or providence. The omniscient narrator does not control, sympathize, laugh, judge, or marvel.

On another level, the readers are asked to forget what they omnisciently know, and sympathize with Liffey as the potential victim of everything evil in the past and present that hates motherhood. Liffey is a woman of no distinction, except as a mother, and it is only through motherhood, exemplified in her unborn child mystically speaking words of comfort, that she has a chance for survival.

Liffey as a mother is trapped between the inscrutable workings of her body and witchcraft, which Weldon has researched as thoroughly as she has gynecology. The herbalism of witchcraft interacts with gynecology when the “Inside Liffey” interchapters explain what effect the potions are having on Liffey and her baby. The less rationally explainable aspects of witchcraft are given weight in the novel by the simple fact that they work. Mabs’s most notable failures are amply foreshadowed by her mother Mrs. Tree’s cautions that witchcraft directed against an innocent rebounds on the witch.

Mabs’s miscalculations create a comedy of potion errors. Richard and his homely secretary, Miss Martin, share a love potion. A drug that will cause Liffey to abort is given in too small a dose and prevents a natural miscarriage. Mabs knowingly takes a temper-unleashing drug and is surprised at how much control she loses of the situation as a result.

Richard’s loss of control of his sex drive and loss of his sense of loyalty to Liffey generate the most detailed and uninteresting comedy of errors: a tedious sex farce in the manner of John Wain’s lesser novels. Nothing Richard thinks or does as a result of looking for sexual gratification while Liffey is pregnant is new or interesting to readers of contemporary British fiction. He beds his and Liffey’s friend Bella Nash, Bella’s au pair, two secretaries, an actress, and a young prostitute. Bella’s husband, Ray Nash, has an affair of his own, and he and Richard and Bella come to blows and communal soul-searching. Weldon presents a quick flatly drawn sketch of the hippies who occupy Richard and Liffey’s London flat and their affairs which end in tragedy as one of the women has a stillborn infant. The freshest, most interesting characters in the London scenes are Tony and Tina Nash, Ray and Bella’s children. They are clearly more decent and sensitive than their parents. The same is true of Mabs and Tucker’s children.

Mabs and Tucker and their children seem researched rather than observed and are, therefore, flat in every sense. Weldon attempts to invest them with ordinariness, to show that the local witch is accepted, yet feared, as a necessary evil in the rural community. Her peers know about her “crushing spells” that have left her rivals and enemies maimed for life. The medical establishment sees her as an abusive parent whose home remedies are part of the abuse she gives her children.

It is suggested that Mabs’s mother and Mabs’s daughter, Audrey Pierce, possess sensitivity and intelligence and lack the desire to hurt with witchcraft that Mabs and her sister possess. The novel suggests that witchcraft can become a channel for thwarted opportunity and neglected education, for good or ill.

Readers will be intrigued and dazzled by the sheer audacity of attempting so much, but the most impressive juggler of diverse objects must have a finish and risks disappointment and anticlimax. Liffey, in labor, is deserted by the contemporary hardness and meanness of her friends and husband at Mabs’s home. She can be saved only by the strength her baby gives her and the slight chance that Audrey, the young witch, will bring a doctor. This scene is very well done, full of suspense, but the suspense has nowhere to go. If Liffey dies, or if the baby dies, the power of goodness and normality has been defeated and the overall lightness and liveliness of the novel cannot justify such grimness. If she lives and prospers, with her baby, the novel must dredge up some superhuman role for Liffey, surrounded by enemies, or, in the few remaining pages, reform and redeem husband, friends, witch, and all so that normality triumphs in a rather smug way. Puffball is an interesting failure. Like Kingsley Amis in The Green Man, Weldon seeks to rejuvenate the novel with lashings of the occult, but the occult does not lend itself to “lashings.” It has various workable forms from Wuthering Heights to Rosemary’s Baby, but all the workable forms involve dominance of the occult itself. The light novel of the occult has not yet found an audience.

It is only fair to add that in spite of gynecological lore and a pregnant heroine and the general ripeness of Puffball for praise and attack in Women’s Studies seminars, Weldon’s attempt deserves a different sort of label. Weldon has been called “the new Margaret Drabble,” which is just as nonsensical as calling Drabble “the new Jane Austen.” It is not clear what happened to the Brontës, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and Dorothy Richardson in this apostolic line.

Austen, Drabble, and Weldon are not any more comparable than Sara K. Knight, Edgar Allan Poe, and Sinclair Lewis. “Sinclair Lewis” is not a random comparison. Like Lewis, Weldon rushes introductory information and anything that smacks of epilogue; and, like Lewis, what Weldon hurries is sometimes more promising than what is developed more fully. With more of the interesting children and less of the dull philandering Richard, Puffball would have a quality of wise innocence which would make the witchcraft believable without making it ordinary.

For better or worse, the American sense of economy has invaded the home of the well-made and impressionistic novels. Weldon even essays the American style of “one-liner” wit. That flat wit, however, needs audacity to make its very flatness part of the joke. When Richard’s parents grudgingly concede that Liffey is improving, wearing thicker shirts so that her nipples do not show, that is flat enough wit, but not audacious enough wit.

The interplay of American, Australian, New Zealand, and English traditions and manners may beget solidity without tediousness and lightness with purpose. Weldon may become an important figure in that process, but much difficult labor remains.

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