by Muriel Spark
Lise is thin, neither good-looking nor bad-looking. One day she walks out of her office, acquires a gaudy new outfit, adopts a girlier tone of voice, and heads to the airport to fly south. On the plane she takes a seat between two men. One is delighted with her company, the other is deeply perturbed. So begins an unnerving journey into the darker recesses of human nature.
This is one seriously odd little book. I enjoyed reading it-- for me, it has a flavor similar to the works of Shirley Jackson, only darker-- but please, don't ask me to explain it. Bits and pieces can be untangled into some semblance of sense, but as a whole... Well, there's much that remains a mystery.
It's eerie, surreal, and unsettling, with a perverse vein of humor running right through it.
After turning the final page, you'll probably find most of your questions still unanswered, but if you're okay with that (and with moments of horror and ugliness), it's a quick, fascinating read.
Specifics (with SPOILERS):
-- It's clear from the very beginning that something's not quite right about Lise. She takes offense at innocuous comments, makes off-kilter statements, blithely lies for no apparent reason, laughs too long and too loudly at inappropriate moments, and just generally gives off an intense vibe of volatility-- an undercurrent of instability. And yet many of the other characters she encounters are also strange. Bill, the macrobiotics guy, for instance. He's just plain creepy-crawly gross! Even the kindly Mrs. Fiedke makes some oddball remarks and seems to have trouble with her memory. My point: Yes, Lise is cuckoo, but apparently she lives in a world thickly populated by bizarre characters.
-- Mentions of Sweden/Scandinavia always interest me: "...I never trust the airlines from those countries where the pilots believe in the afterlife. You are safer when they don't. I've been told the Scandinavian airlines are fairly reliable in that respect."
-- Then there's Mrs. Fiedke's strange, satirical commentary on the modern man: "'They are demanding equal rights with us,' says Mrs Fiedke. 'That's why I never vote with the Liberals. Perfume, jewellery, hair down to their shoulders, and I'm not talking about the ones who were born like that. I mean, the ones that can't help it should be put on an island. It's the others I'm talking about. There was a time when they would stand up and open the door for you. They would take their hat off. But they want their equality today. All I say is that if God had intended them to be as good as us he wouldn't have made them different from us to the naked eye. They don't want to be all dressed alike any more. Which is only a move against us. You couldn't run an army like that, let alone the male sex. With all due respect to Mr Fiedke, may he rest in peace, the male sex is getting out of hand.'" (If Mrs. Fiedke was that upset by the men of the 70s, what would she have thought of the off-putting "metrosexual" movement? Or is that even still "a thing", anymore?)
She goes on: "'Fur coats and flowered poplin shirts on their backs. ... If we don't look lively,' she says, 'they will be taking over the homes and the children, and sitting about having chats while we go and fight to defend them and work to keep them. They won't be content with equal rights only. Next thing they'll want the upper hand, mark my words. Diamond earrings, I've read in the paper.'"
-- I'm not sure why Lise hides her passport in the taxi. Is she trying to obscure her identity to give her murderer more of a head start in his get-away? (Would that even help?) That's the sort of thing that made me think she was looking for a victim of her own-- someone she was planning to murder-- except that we learn fairly early on that she herself ends up dead. I thought she had specific reasons for drawing attention to herself-- choosing such garish, clashing clothes, for example-- but in the end, none of it really makes sense to me...
-- Lise's comments along the lines of "I won't be needing these now" are casually chilling. Her carefully selected souvenirs for "Papa" and "Olga"-- labelled with her lipstick-- tragic! She's not at all a sympathetic character, but though we never meet him, I feel pity for her father.
-- Giving him her book-- because, of course, she has no further use for it-- Lise tells the hotel porter "it's a whydunnit in q-sharp major and it has a message: never talk to the sort of girls that you wouldn't leave lying about in your drawing-room for the servants to pick up"... Whatever that means!
-- The biggest unanswered question (in this "whydunnit") is WHY Lise wants to be murdered. I didn't pick up on a single clue. She seems to have a decent (if unexciting) life. On the surface, she's an ordinary, boring woman. Why did she decide to actively seek out such an especially violent end?
-- My next-biggest question is how Lise instantly recognized the man on the plane (Richard) as "her type". I suppose I shouldn't care how she scents him out so easily-- it's not as though the rest of the novella is particularly ultra-realistic!-- but I can't help wondering about it.
-- Does Lise have any last-minute regrets? For one thing, Richard ignores one of her more important instructions ("You can have it afterwards. Tie my feet and kill, that's all."), and for another, she screams at the end, "evidently perceiving how final is finality".
-- Yes, this is a truly weird book. It's not the sort of thing I'd want to read exclusively, but a little now and then serves as a reinvigorating tonic.