Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Reading group: In the Cut by Susanna Moore

Warning: plot spoil.

I've been getting way behind with my reports of our reading group discussions. Furthest back in the past is our discussion of In the Cut, the 1995 novel by Susanna Moore, later made into a film with a very changed ending. It is the story of Frannie, a young, single female New York teacher of English with a free-wheeling and adventurous attitude to sex and an academic interest in New York gangster slang with its conflation of sexuality and violence. One night, looking for the toilets in the basement of a bar, she comes across a man being pleasured by a redheaded woman, his face hidden in shadow but clearly aware that Frannie is watching. The next day the redhaired woman is found dead in Frannie's neighbourhood and Frannie is interviewed by the detective, Malloy, investigating the case. Immediately attracted to Malloy, she becomes sexually involved with him, while the threat of a serial killer gathers and Frannie herself seems to be in danger.

I suggested the book as, although I'm not keen on crime thrillers, I had heard that this book was very well written. What it turns out to be is an attempt, via a first-person narration, to inject female subjectivity into a genre that has historically omitted it - the viewpoint has traditionally been that of the detective rather than that of the victim. (In this way the book bears similarities to Jane Smiley's Duplicate Keys which we discussed previously - and there are other similarities between the two books - but we thought this far superior.) There was general agreement that it is indeed exceptionally well written, in stark, acute prose. Several of us were very taken with the gangster slang theme and the interspersed glossaries that slyly promote the plot with its own conflation of sex and violence. (Although some wondered about some of the language - did New York detectives such as Malloy really still refer to women as 'broads' in the 1990s?).

There was deep division in the group concerning the sexual character of Frannie as evidenced by her involvement with the sexist hardbitten Malloy - mainly between me and Jenny. Jenny strongly thought that Frannie was simply sexually curious, but I felt there was something of masochism in her attitude and behaviour - especially as there is reference to her cold distant father and an emotionally arid colonial childhood - and that the author may be making the point that sexual violence towards women is to some extent facilitated by a female masochism induced by a patriarchal society. An important point, I think, is that the intelligent Frannie is quite clear-sighted about Malloy's machismo yet almost matter-of-factly accepts it. The novel indeed begins with Frannie's criticism of her students' disapproval of the machismo in Hemingway and Naipaul, and the fact that it blinds them to 'the intelligence of the books'.

There was also division about  the character of Malloy: some, mainly the men, felt that Moore showed the vulnerability behind his machismo but others strongly disagreed, and it turned out that Clare had failed even to go on reading the book because she had been so put off by the character of Malloy and by Frannie's capitulation to him. Others felt that there was however authorial irony in the treatment of this (indeed there is a self-conscious discussion of literary irony on the first page of the novel).

There were a few quibbles about structure and plot. We are teased as readers to begin to think that Malloy could be the murderer, and Frannie eventually entertains the suspicion, which ratchets up the tension in her relationship with him. However, we thought that the red-herring clues planted to cause us to make the link weren't well handled: why does she not notice that they are  also associated with the real murderer, whom she has known all along? Everyone thought that a long speech by Malloy after sex, explaining himself and his history to Frannie, was almost embarrassingly out of character - which is why, perhaps, it was felt by some that the novel failed in portraying his buried humanity.

Although the book is billed as an 'erotic thriller' everyone agreed that that there was nothing erotic whatever about the extremely explicit sex portrayed in the book, and that on that level it was immensely successful in its mission. The final scene, in which Frannie is trapped by the murderer, tortured and about to die, told as it is from Frannie's viewpoint, is truly horrifying, with nothing whatever of the danger of salaciousness in  more objective narrations.

Trevor, however, couldn't accept the validity of this ending. As the novel comes to a close Frannie remembers lines from a poem about dying she has seen on the subway. The novels ends with these lines:
I know the poem.
She knows the poem.
a sudden, final change of grammatical person. In my view this cleverly manages to present the subjectivity of the victim while deflecting the question, But how did she live to tell the tale? as well as to create an ironic objective authorial comment on the situation and indeed the genre. However, for Trevor this felt like a cheat, and still left him, after the subjective immersion of the final scene, with the question hovering.

Admiring as most of us were, there was nevertheless a lingering sense that in the brilliant replication of the tropes of crime fiction and its language and atmosphere, there was after all something of collusion with the violence of the genre, and for this reason Ann said that, like Clare, she hadn't liked the book at all.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

No comments: