Austin Wright, Tony & Susan

Austin Wright, Tony & Susan. Atlantic Books, 2011. First published in USA 1993.

Austin Wright, who died in 2003, was for many years an English professor at the University of Cincinnatti. There he had the reputation for minute critical analysis of literary texts. I’m afraid this shows in his first novel, Tony & Susan, not entirely in a good way.

It’s technically superb: a taut thriller is embedded in another novel that struggles to emerge from its shadow.

 Austin Wright, Tony & Susan coverSusan is sent the MS of his first novel by her ex-husband, Edward with a request that she provide a critique: something is lacking in it, he says in his letter. They’d divorced after the wreck of their marriage, precipitated by his abandoning a budding law career to indulge his desire to become a writer. Susan wasn’t pleased: she thought he took for granted her complicity in this (to her mind) deluded dream, supporting his fantasy with her salary as a college English teacher.

You see what’s coming: Susan, a self-confessed severe literary critic, especially of Edward’s apprentice work when they were married, reads the novel that forms the basis of this novel. It’s a metafictional, self-reflexive premise that I never fully bought.

The novel-within-a-novel is called Nocturnal Animals – which is the title of Tom Ford’s 2016 film version (I haven’t seen it: I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has). Mild-mannered maths professor Tony, his wife Laura and teenage daughter Helen are driving to Maine. They get involved in a dangerous game of chicken on the highway that culminates in a minor accident. The occupants of both vehicles get out, and it all goes horribly wrong from that point.

The three men from the other vehicle turn out to be nasty individuals, and they force Tony and family into a terrifying ordeal. Tony is forced to question his adequacy and agency. The plot manipulates him into increasingly destabilising positions.

All of this is narrated with alternating sections in which we get Susan’s back story and her reactions to Edward’s novel as it develops. Here’s where I started to lose engagement: as a teacher of literature she evaluates Edward’s narrative that I’d just read, and her analysis occluded my own. I felt placed in a position of uncertainty in my own judgement. This is probably what the author intended, but if that’s the case, I didn’t care for it.

Susan also inevitably looks for a personal message in this rather gruesome story. Is her ex suggesting that she is represented by one of the characters in his novel? If so, which one: the academic, unheroic Tony, who feels guilty and ashamed that he can’t act more decisively to protect himself and his family? Or, even worse, the leader of the men who threaten them? Or the detective who tries to help Tony find the thugs, eventually by resorting to dangerously unorthodox methods that expose Tony to even more menacing dilemmas and confrontations?

Similar questions arise about Edward: is he represented in some way by one of the characters? If so, what might be his cryptic message to Susan?

Wright manipulates Susan’s response, and my own. I was assessing her assessment of Nocturnal Animals and attempts to interpret it in terms of her two experiences of married life – after divorcing Tony, she’d married Arnold, a philandering doctor and had three children – and Edward’s: he’d remarried too. Is his novel really an allegory of their two lives: is he suggesting that they made a mistake by divorcing, or is he just taunting her for leaving him?

As a postmodern puzzle dressed up in a noirish tale of violence and menace it’s entertaining in patches, but ultimately rather cold and…I don’t know, kind of pointless.

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20 thoughts on “Austin Wright, Tony & Susan

  1. Hi Simon! Believe it or not, I’ve actually read this, albeit some time ago. Most of it has faded but I do remember “sort of” liking the main/thriller part but being rather puzzled by the book as a whole (it may have been my first exposure to auto-fiction). Hope all is going well with you & Mrs TD and you’re all set for one of those lovely walks with photos to follow! (I’m quite relieved myself to learn this morning that my government hasn’t been overthrown . . . . only two more weeks to go . . . hopefully they’re hiding the nuclear codes somewhere good . . .)

    • I didn’t even like the thriller part much – just seemed rather nasty. But I guess not much different from much of the police procedural stuff we get on tv these days – especially from Scandinavia and other continental European companies. Mrs TD are just back from our daily permitted walk; we’ve changed routine this week, and go after lunch. Previously it’s been in the mornings. We watched the storming of the Capitol on tv last night with horror. What a scary time for your country (and the rest of the world – as you say, DT is still C-in-C and has the buttons). We thought we had it bad enough with our PM here, but he’s quite a mouse compared with your guy. Let’s hope he doesn’t continue to tear down the democratic edifice before he heads back to the golf course for ever.

  2. They are frighteningly similar to each other, aren’t they? I think your guy is smarter in that he actually earned his degree (my guy’s sister did his homework for him and there’s a fairly credible allegation that someone took his college entrance test for him). But on the whole, the two seem to be working from the same play book (admittedly, I’m not very conversant with British politics). As you no doubt have deducted by now, I am not a fan of my own fearless leader . . . . I

    • But BJ isn’t as smart as he or others think he is: his teacher’s report at Eton – super posh private school – nailed him as lazy and duplicitous. He’s a master of bluster – not quite to the scale of DT, but in the same style. Both are consummate liars. What worries me now about the USA is that most Rep voters support the storming of the Capitol yesterday by the far-right mob. They seem genuinely to believe DT’s lies.

      • *smile* I am enjoying the way this convo has segued onto events in Washington…
        I thought I had lost the capacity to be surprised by anything DT related, but I was astonished to wake up this morning and see that long list of members in the Reps who voted against. 120 of them, according to our press.
        But the real story IMO is how did the most heavily armed and pugnacious police force in the world allow it to happen?

        • Sorry about the swerve into politics, Lisa, but these are wild times. Biden has also said it’s unlikely the police would have stood idly by if this had been a group of BLM protesters. Notable too that some in the mob exiting the Capitol when it was finally cleared attacked journalists’ equipment. No doubt the film we all saw was fake new. Ok, I’ll stop ranting now.

  3. I think most autocrats, actual or wannabes, use the same tactics, adapted somewhat to their various cultures (Hugary, Turkey or the good old U.S. of A.) I share your concerns about yesterday’s events — hey, I used to work a couple of blocks from that building, which was a feature on my midday walks; to see those scenes shocked me in a way that I didn’t think was possible after 4 years of DT. I’m actually somewhat optmistic, however, that he and his enablers won’t totally escape the negative fallout, which seems to be pretty extensive (admittedly, my daily media skim doesn’t include websites associated with QAnon, Proud Boys or various white militia groups). There’s a poll today showing that most people believe Trump bears at least some responsibility for the riot, which is encouraging. https://www.politico.com/news/2021/01/07/poll-trump-capitol-riot-responsibility-455911 It’s true that DT has a seemingly unshakeable core of support that believes everything he says and doesn’t care what he does; this support is distressingly large. How large and how influential will it continue to be? Well, that’s what we’re going to find out, so keep your fingers crossed. DT is not going away & he’s never going to give up on his election claims; for one thing, his business “empire” is financially shaken and it’s generating a ton of revenue for him (several million already to “fight the steal;” the fine print indicates he can pretty much use the money however he wants). What’s that old curse about living in interesting times? (Sorry about the screed, but I’ve had four years of observing this seemingly endless horror; I suppose the bright note here is the strong incentive to escape the 21st century through all those great books filling up my shelves . . .)

    • There are similarities with the despots you mention, Janakay, but the one he resembles most, I think, even physically, is Mussolini: the pouting, posturing and preening, and the semi-literate rhetoric. As you say, let’s hope his influence rapidly fades. Back to the books!

      • My many apologies for hijacking your blog & raising political matters. I have to say (and then I promise I’ll shut up) that the Mussolini/DT resemblance is very apt. That’s it! I promise! I’m off now to try & write a review of Where the Wild Ladies Are, a great collection of contemporary Japanese short stories . . . .

        • No need for apologies, Janakay: I’ve enjoyed our little exchange. I like the sound of that Japanese collection. I’m woefully lacking in knowledge of the literature of that country. I’m just back from my daily walk and pondering a post on what I saw – maybe as a counterbalance to all the mayhem in the world at the moment.

          • Very restorative! I hope you took photos and decide to post. I’m new to Japanese lit myself; it’s a new found enthusiasm dating from Belezza’s 2020 Japanese literature month (one of last year’s few highlights). I’ve very much enjoyed exploring an entirely new area and reading others’ reviews.

          • Been busy since lunch on kitchen plans, so lack the energy to post today. Will try to do it tomorrow. And yes, I took pictures. A donkey is involved again.

    • Maybe I’ve misrepresented it: I wouldn’t describe it as all over the place, in fact it’s very tightly plotted and constructed – rather too tightly, perhaps. But the subject matter is a bit grim for these grim times, and as I tried to explain in my post, the tricksy autofiction-metafiction-thriller combination was just too contrived for my liking.

  4. This sounds really irritating. I mean, AS Byatt did novel-inside-a-novel in Babel Tower but that worked (though the novel inside is HORRIBLE). Fortunately I think I would have looked at the premise and rejected it anyway.

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