by Sylvia Brownrigg
Reviewed by Elsbeth Lindner
San Francisco Chronicle
Contemplating Sylvia Brownrigg's short new novel, the adjective quirky comes to mind time and again. Bold, dry, eccentric, Morality Tale cries out for a descriptive term that can pinpoint its oddness hand-in-hand with its likeability. Quirky it will have to be, for this curious, teasing, idiosyncratic and strangely charming book.
It's a twenty-first-century cautionary tale whose generic title also evokes the morality play, an allegorical and didactic model common in the fifteenth century. The novel's central relationship pivots on a married man's choice to start an affair because he and his lover want to save one another. "What's wrong with that?" (79) another character asks, voicing our ethically flexible era. But morality plays were invented precisely to illustrate the wrong -- the vice -- and to push for virtue, by confronting Everyman with symbolic characters as a means of enforcing upright conduct. If there's an echo of that form here, then perhaps its narrator, a nameless second wife struggling with her marriage, is a version of Everywoman.
There's certainly a lot that's Everyone about the wife, and her husband too -- "a regular, dissatisfied, married pair" (54) as she labels them, deadpan. They are five years into their marriage, having met in a café: she was "the pretty one, the one with the nice lips" (26) who was looking to be safe, warm and happy; he was a dried-out husk of a husband and father describing himself, in the traditional manner, as "just about separated". (29) Ordinary people both, who, when not straying into adultery, earn money and launder underwear.
Added to this familiar scenario is another standard character, the first wife, Theresa, also known as DDT, Mother Theresa and Plaid Living-room Set (the second wife's metaphor for Theresa's large, ugly and immovable role in the new marriage). Theresa's "clever campaign of constant, low-grade morale-crushing and money-leeching" (90) has drawn all the joy out of marriage number two, so much so that the second wife is now fantasizing about adultery in turn -- with Richard, the red-haired, bright-eyed, bearded, well-built envelope salesman who arrives perkily in the stationery store where she works. "I understood immediately that there was more to Richard than mere envelopes," the second wife comments, with matching comic understatement and extreme relevance.
Richard, however, is not your average love object, more a combination of preacher, teacher, guru and guide. He listens, offers endearments and adoration, and takes the second wife to lunch in the Promised Land -- no, not a stop along the Pilgrim's Progress but a Falafel house. As affairs go, this one is something of a farce, especially when the couple is discovered by the husband holding hands on a park bench. Indeed its effect is less disruptive than restorative, offering an eventual revelation to both the second wife and her spouse (called Alan, it emerges, a dozen pages before the end): namely that they are still in love. If changes can be made, a warm, safe and happy future together still seems possible.
Unconventional in content, Morality Tale is also oddly packaged, in ten chapters labeled with actual or metaphorical scene-setting titles: Footbridge, Ferry Boat, A Hard Place. (If you ever wondered what this looks like -- as opposed to A Rock -- page 133 supplies the answer. Plaid Living-room Set, illustrated on page 23, has the appearance of a vacated New Yorker cartoon.) And the chapters come with prefaces too, savage little apercus which could easily be lifted from the dark novel that the second wife was writing when Alan first met her, A Dictionary of Betrayal, -- "a collection of words and their meanings that would gradually build a story, a world. Betrayal, Abandonment, Grief, Sex, Lying, Revenge." (17)
Morality Tale isn't A Dictionary of Betrayal, although there may be some genetic overlap between the two. What it is is a witty parable, a slight but subtle dissection of modern marriage, its ideals and banalities, ghosts and bit-part players (including a laughably ineffectual marital therapist named Puffin). Illuminated by its empathy towards its oddly innocent cast of characters, it presents the dilemmas of daily duty, commitment, and redemption in a form that even burnt-out twenty-first century-cynics might find palatable.
This is Brownrigg's fourth novel, following The Delivery Room, which was not only highly praised but also noted by some reviewers for its pin-sharp realism. Morality Tale is clearly a different kettle of fish and seems to fit alongside an earlier work, Pages for You, Brownrigg's second novel which evoked the bipolar experience of first love. These two chamber pieces, with their brevity, virtuosity and egg-like completeness, sit in a kind of equipoise: songs of innocence and experience. This author can do them both, and rather more besides.
Elsbeth Lindner is a New York writer. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.