Book Review: A Woman, in Bed (Anne Finger)
Reviewed by Michael Northen
There may not be a writer working in disability fiction whose total output has been more significant than Anne Finger. Her book Basic Skills, published in 1988 is arguably the first short story collection focusing on disabled characters. Her follow-up collection Call Me Ahab in 2009 demonstrated through its numerous experimental techniques and breadth of source material that the short story as a form of disability literature had really come into its own. Along the way she has also tried her hand at full length novel Past Due and autobiographical narrative Elegy for a Disease. Despite all of her accomplishments, there may have been some who would argue that Finger was a niche writer whose work only appealed to those who had an interest in disability. With the publication of A Woman in Bed (Cinco Puntos Press, 2018), however, Finger demonstrates that she is definitely ready for prime time.
Jacques Melville, the main male figure in Finger's novel, is a dilettante who writes reviews and literary essays, and fancies himself a lady's man, though he has no other interest in women than their bodies and considers them his intellectual inferiors. Therefore, the irony of putting myself in the position of reviewing a book in which a woman's body is the central character is not lost on me. But here goes.
A Woman, in Bed is first and foremost a book about the primacy of the body, but by implication it is also about history and a philosophical materialism that underlies both. It follows the life of Simone, a French woman born of parents whose social status was just above peasantry, from the early days of her marriage just after World War I until her old age in 1968. It should be no surprise that in the work of a writer as skilled as Finger, the structure of the novel, the development of the main character and what the work finally seems to want to say about the nature of human existence are all intimately linked.
I'm being a spoiler, but the book's ending invites comparison with another character whose existence is primarily about the body and for whom sex is a driving force – Molly Bloom. At the end of the book's long journey, Molly, in bed with her husband famously responds, "yes I said yes I will Yes." Simone is also in bed with her husband in the books last lines, "she rocked against him, ancient, cumbersome, slow, grunting, finally letting out a string of ah, ah, ah ah's, that syllable that means everything and nothing." These lines not only differentiate Finger's view of what can be said about the body from Joyce's but even in their brevity encapsulates the entire novel.
As the novel begins, Simone is an indifferent mother working for her mother-in-law at a boarding house and married to a man who is indefinitely away on a job that is clearly more important to him than Simone is. That monotony is disrupted when an old friend brings a traveling companion with him, Jacques, whose "eyes fixed upon her, like those of a raptor on its prey." Jacques slips into her room at night and she is moonstruck. It's a relationship that seems unlikely to endure. Jacques is older, worldly wise and perceives himself as headed for literary stardom. He is also married, has decidedly patriarchal views about women and sums up his view of love by saying that the word is not in his vocabulary. None of this deters Simone, whose physical need for him becomes the driving force in her life. She moves to Paris, where Jacques lives, becoming his mistress and eventually his wife. Their lives resemble bumper cars coming together and careening off each other through Jacques' career as a critic, their work in the French resistance, and, eventually, the deterioration of their bodies.
One of the first things a reader notices about Finger's novel is the way in which the senses take precedence – especially the more primitive ones: taste, touch, and, above all the others, smell. Almost any page reveals this. On page 198, for example:
The smell of roasting bones filled her with – there was no other word for it – lust…Once or twice she'd taken the bones from the oven and gnawed at them, working her incisors at the bits of flesh still clinging, licking up the oozing marrow. It was one of the few times she really betrayed Jacques. When the bones were roasted, she'd stew them with water and perhaps a bit of sour wine, celery leaves, onions, skins and all, vegetable pairings and salt – the long, slow tendons, the cartilage, the bones going backwards in time, becoming soft and fetal, the soup amniotic.
If Williams Carlos Williams' credo was, "no ideas, but in things," for Simone (and perhaps for Finger), it is no ideas but in bodies. Ideas and even feelings might well be thought to be an epiphenomenon of the corporeal body that traces its evolutionary path back to that primordial soup.
Finger does not let readers off the hook by simply appealing to the smell of foods. If anything, she tends to push our faces into the fact that our bodies – in control and contrary – far from mirroring any Platonic ideal that we may wish to embrace, reveal our real nature:
It wasn't just this one poor man who had been unable to control his innards as they worked at the beans. The station filled up with a sewer-like smell that suggested the stench of the ocean, reminding them that we humans are, despite being builders of the Sphinx and the Eiffel tower, despite armies back and forth across Europe, despite having produced a Voltaire, bags of stinking wind.
Finger's insistence on the decaying nature of the body is not always used as a verbal reprimand to idealists. One of her finest descriptions comes in a sequence that is at once repelling and heart-breaking. Simone unwraps the feet of her son, who has been held in a German prison camp, only to see the flesh peel off with his shoes and socks. As she takes the small pieces in her hands she imagines him saying, "This is my body."
In some of her previous stories, Finger has alluded to her sympathy with Marxist theories of history, and it is certainly easy to make the jump from the body as the driving force in an individual's life (if conceived of as a narrative) and the action of collective bodies of individuals as comprising history. Rather than any sort of Hegelian influenced materialism, though, Fingers novel seems much more committed to the view that history is "just one damned thing after another." Despite her apparent willfulness and sense of agency, Simone's life seems to be pretty much orchestrated by the needs of her body, often via the emotions that it produces. Similarly, the actions of all the players during the World War II French resistance to German occupation, both occupiers and occupied, seem to be a bodily response to the social and cultural condition in which they find themselves. However uncomfortable one may be with the implications of Finger's viewpoint for their own personal weltanschauung, it is hard to deny that she has made a powerful case.
One of the successes of A Woman, in Bed is the way in which it is able to avoid what disability scholars David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder termed narrative prosthetic. In its short form, this is the view that when disability appears in a novel it functions as a deviation from social normalcy which must ultimately be brought back into the fold by cure, conversion, overcoming or some other means. By using a meandering plot in which events are more like ping pong balls than orchestrations and there is no specific problem to be solved, Finger is able not only to present her view of the way life and history work, but also to avoid narrative tropes about disability.
Disability does, in fact, become a subject in A Woman, in Bed, even though it does not come into prominence until about two thirds of the way through the book. It's appearance does give Finger a chance to critique the way disability has historically been perceived and treated (medically and psychologically), something that should come as no surprise given her strong advocacy for accurate portrayals of disabled people and the countering of stereotypes in the past. It also gives her an opportunity to portray the person who may be the most endearing in the book, Pierre Laurent, the ultimate absent-minded professor.
Laurent, who stammers and continually distracts himself into Minoan-like mazes from his original thought, gives Finger the opportunity to truly show off her talent in dialogue and character portrayal. It cannot truly be captured in a few sentences, but here is a sample. Simone is speaking about a Doctor Nalson when Laurent breaks in.
" It was Dr. Nalson who—"
Finger's familiarity with the lived experience of disability is no more evident than when Simone is diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. So convincing is her depiction of Simone's gradual warping of time and language in her protagonist's thinking, that it is hard to believe that Finger has not lived with Parkinson's herself. The mindset that the author is able to create for readers as they are lead through the progression of the disease is worth the price of the book itself, many times over. And that is even without taking into account her descriptions of Simone's physical adjustment to the changes of her own body. Simone's experience with Parkinson's is intensified by the reaction of Jacques, who is so self-focused and committed to his perception of honesty that he is incapable of any show of compassion, verbal or otherwise. As unsympathetic a character as Jacques can be, however, readers who have found themselves in the sudden role of caretaker may also realize that at times, he may be holding up a mirror.
If her insistence on the primacy of the body makes it appear that Finger as author relegates the intellect to a subordinate position, this is pure illusion. Language in particular, whatever its limitations, is extremely important in A Woman, in Bed. How could it not be for a writer who, at the novel's end, can only offer the syllable ah? Readers of Finger's previous books are aware that the use of cultural and literary references is a hallmark of her writing, and such references are also present in her current novel. But Finger's engagement with language goes far beyond literary name-dropping. Over the past few decades it has become increasingly common for scholars to make the claim that without language there is no thought, but Finger makes a counter assertion, that the body knows what it knows regardless of the availability of language.When Simone receives her diagnosis of Parkinson's Jacques responds that he is trying to make "sense of, this news, this, this that certainly neither of us wanted to hear."
[indent]This. This. The word became sponge, immense. It swelled up and enveloped them. This, this, there was nothing but this.
As an editor of a journal of disability literature, Wordgathering, I'd love to be able to claim Finger for one of our own, but A Woman, in Bed transcends any attempt to confine it to a sub-genre. It is probably beyond dispute that a reader with a woman's body is going to come away with the greatest appreciation for the novel. Still, the book has a great deal to say to any reader. While Finger unearths many of our follies as human beings, the novel has no particular feminist axe to grind nor can Finger by any stretch of the imagination be accused of writing "chic lit" (a phrase I hate even when used transgressively). Like any book of substance, it keeps the reader engaged even when the engagement, at times, may be the uncomfortable recognition that they too are not being let off the hook. One of the ways I know that a book has really seeped into my consciousness is when the writer is so skilled that I find myself beginning to think with the cadences and rhythms of the work I have been reading. A Woman, in Bed is the kind of book that does that to you.
While Anne Finger is a widely recognized literary pioneer within the disabilities community, her publisher, Cinco Puntos Press, also deserves some credit for bringing A Woman, in Bed to a wider public. Cinco Puntos initially took a chance back in 2011 in publishing, the now well-respected anthology of disability poetry, Beauty is a Verb, and followed it up last year with a companion anthology of disability fiction The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (which also included Finger's work), but this is the first time that they have contributed to that field with a single author book. It was a great choice and, with luck, there will be many more authors to follow.
Title: A Woman, in Bed