After Claude by Iris Owens

I think After Claude by Iris Owens was titled by its narrator, a late-twenties pathological liar who deceives herself as much as anyone else. The bulk of the novel, you see, very much does not take place after Claude, but during Claude. Like with many other things in her life, Harriet may be telling herself it is after Claude, but we can see that it’s not.

Just as we can see through every other story Harriet tells herself, us, and anyone else who will listen about what’s wrong in her life, how persecuted she is, how she is always the victim and only tries to do good for her friends and lovers, &tc. You know the type. Take the story of how Harriet and Claude get together. She’s been living with her childhood friend Rhoda-Regina, who very much needs Harriet’s help and who is extremely depressed. Harriet does what she can for her friend, but ultimately Rhoda-Regina rejects this aid and throws Harriet out in a fit of rage that gets her landed in Bellevue. Poor crazy Rhoda-Regina. Claude, an upstairs neighbor, finds Harriet with all her worldly goods thrown into the street, and takes her in.

Bits and pieces of this story are let drop until we get to the main Rhoda-Regina-Incident flashback and find out that Harriet was probably eating her out of house and home while spending her days and nights lounging on a mattress in her studio. When Rhoda-Regina tried to get rid of her moocher friend, Harriet heard “[a] deeper voice, a cosmic voice, if you will,” whisper, “Help Rhoda.”

Up from the deep trenches of my unconscious floated an insight. The insight was that Rhoda-Regina had never experienced your average sexual bliss. She was waiting for me to take her by the hand and lead her into the real world. …

Clearly I had not achieved my enviable consciousness in a roomful of shrieking malcontents[*] but in the arms of the ultimate taskmaster, an insatiable man.

The ensuing “help” does not come to much good, but it would spoil a riotous scene to say more.

What she may lack in sanity Harriet makes up for in self-esteem, even when she fairly debases herself in her efforts to grab and hold on to men. That’s a bit of a strange combination, and an even stranger one is how perceptive Harriet can be when she’s not being insane, and how good at rankling the tastes of her petty “friends” who really aren’t as brilliant as she is…despite her many flaws.

Here, Harriet is being difficult when out to dinner with Claude (who has already effectively broken up with her), his friend, and a perfect, blonde, Nebraskan flight attendant.

“Has anyone ever told you that you look just like Barbra Streisand?” [the flight attendant]

“No.” [Harriet]

“I once had her on Flight 47, coming out of Vegas, and really, you’re the spitting image.”

“I’m a foot taller than she is, and my nose is a foot shorter.”

“Not so much her actual looks…”

“I’m not Jewish, if that’s what you’re insinuating. [She is. —nicole] But Lauren Bacall, Rex Harrison, Piper Laurie, Claudette Colbert, Natalie Wood, Charles Boyer, Tony Curtis, Dinah Shore, Sammy Davis, Paulette Goddard, Kirk Douglas, Paul Newman, Laurence Harvey are.” I had a list of Jews as long as your arm.

“Not Rex Harrison,” she wailed. The rest I was welcome to.

“I had him on Flight 912, coming out of Heathrow, and he bought champagne for all of us.”

“Tough, honey, that was Jewish champagne you guzzled.”

Now, this brings up a few problems itself. First, it’s a bit dated—and I don’t just mean the list of celebrities. More important, it also points to another of Harriet’s flaws—an over-the-top brassiness that really seems to go too far most of the time—and one that seems maybe just a bit stereotypical. Jewishness or lack thereof is a bit of a touchstone throughout, along with Americanness or lack thereof. It’s the seventies in New York City and everyone’s seeing an analyst or joining a cult. Harriet’s paranoia about being mugged or raped isn’t quite as insane as it would be now. But a lot of it adds up to something like a Woody Allen movie.

The novel is driven by Harriet in every way. The narrative is pushed along by the train of her thoughts, as she goes through a few days in her life and flits around in her mind through memories near and far. To some extent her life seems to be happening around her, but she refuses to be passive at any turn and can’t rein in her personality. And it’s her voice we’re reading, without much to safely triangulate to a sane, outside truth except our own common sense. The key, then, is that despite her weirdness, unreliability, and partial repulsiveness, Harriet must be ultimately compelling, and she is. She’s so self-confident, so like a whirlwind, so melodramatic; it can be a bit like watching a train wreck, but certainly an interesting one.

*Rhoda-Regina’s feminist group therapy friends

Read about more NYRB Classics during NYRB Reading Week, hosted by The Literary Stew and Coffeespoons.

The US Federal Trade Commission compels me to note that I received an advance uncorrected proof of this novel from the publisher via Librarything Early Reviews.