Nothing suffices to the disaster…If all things were reached by it and destroyed…and if nothing were substituted for everything, it would still be too much and too little.
Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster
The Confusion of Languages is Siobhan Fallon’s debut novel, and as in her extraordinary short story collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone, Fallon is less concerned with making her characters likeable than she is with making them human, flawed — like us. By succeeding, she makes them sympathetic to the point that savvy readers may find themselves saying, “My God, that’s me,” or “There, but for the grace….” Not that the story-line is unique; American couples, their marriages withering, their expectations confounded by character flaws each only sees in the other. Richard Yates comes to mind, Raymond Chandler. But Fallon has set the characters in her novel with those expectations and flaws in Amman, Jordan, where she and her Army officer husband lived, where, outside the walls of the Americans’ apartments is an ancient world with customs unlike our own, where, for a woman to touch a grocery clerk’s palm while receiving her change can be taken as language, as an invitation to sex. Where, “our American tolerance, even veneration, of the rule-breakers is not shared…where the literal translation of the name of the faith, Islam, means “submission” — that is, submission to the will of God, but in the argot of American individualism, translates as slavishness. Touching as language, words with opposite meaning, meanings that have no links to one’s own reality; understanding language is more than grammar lessons.
It is January, 2011, and Major and Mrs. Brickshaw, Crick and Margaret, arrive with their eleven-month-old son in Amman, Jordan where he will begin his tour of duty at the American embassy. They are sponsored by Dan and Cassandra Hugo, he also a major assigned to the embassy, she a bored, lonely, childless — they’ve been trying for nine years — housewife who is annoyed with Dan in general and in particular because he had volunteered them as sponsors without asking her. And annoyed that the Brickshaws have been provided with a “spectacular apartment…fully furnished from the landlord rather than outfitted with the shabby offerings of the embassy warehouse…Granite countertops. Marble floors…All this because biology favored the Brickshaws with a child,” whereas, “My apartment looks like the set of a cable comedy poking fun at the 1970’s…a cramped and scuffed villa whose fuses explode every time I try to blow-dry my hair.”
Plus, Margaret’s voice is “…too gaspy,” Cassandra tells us, “like someone doing a bad Marilyn Monroe impression…The rest of her didn’t make me feel any better. She was blond and Brahmin thin, the sort of body that denotes an entire class system in America.” When Major Brickshaw shakes Cassandra’s hand, “He held on, assessing me as much as I was him, and there was a savagery in his touch, in the way he managed to press his fingers into the soft flesh of my palm, as if signaling to me he knew his way around a woman’s body.” When Cassandra confesses how she hates being called Cassandra because “only my mother calls me that and I hate it…Margaret looked at me with those big, mournful eyes. My mom died a few months ago…She suffered from Lupus. I’d give anything for her to call me whatever she liked,” at which point Cassandra “wanted to catapult over the countertop between us, straddle this woman, and pour the rest of the Chardonnay bottle down her throat just to stop this excruciating conversation.” Margaret and Crick, recently married, have already started to correct one another in that nasty way of couples whose relationship is crumbling. Dan, who will play a minor part in the novel, says little, but ogles Margaret, and Cassandra’s complaints are registered only with herself. What makes the scene so noteworthy, even brilliant, is that, for the first nine pages of the book, Fallon has been building tension, laying emotional groundwork for what must be impending disaster. Now, almost as sleight of hand, she uses the device of a funny, kvetching, slightly erotic riff to demonstrate the flaws of character in the novel’s principle players. She’s revealing the perfect storm of personality and need that circumstance will transform into tragedy, and you hardly see her do it.
The novel is in three parts and contains two narratives, one held within the other: Margaret’s journal, which spans the four months she has been in Jordan, and Cassandra’s narration, which takes place during the eight hours she is in Margaret’s apartment, babysitting, while Margaret, after a traffic accident, and in a high state of agitation, has supposedly taken herself to the police station.
Though Margaret first presents herself as a caricature of all the blond jokes ever told, through her journal the reader finds a woman with curiosity, intelligence, and a depth that does not come through in Cassandra’s reporting of her. Until Crick, she’d led a life cloistered within the needs of her mother’s illness and now perceives her marriage and the move to Jordan as an opportunity to break out and live a larger life, an ambition fed by the selfish, unspent energies of an unlived adolescence. There are also hints of a life seen as wasted until now. All her hopes are on Crick and the new life she imagines. Either because of her inexperience with men, or conscious blindness, she doesn’t see him for what he is, a man unable, or simply unwilling, to give her what she needs.
While the book is Margaret’s story, its consciousness belongs to Cassandra, an unreliable narrator who filters her observations about Margaret through the self-doubt, loneliness, and petty jealousies that dominate her character. It is this self-doubt that makes her a target for Crick’s easy predations — a handsome, sexually desirable man who makes her feel desirable. And it makes her vulnerable to Margaret’s charms, a beautiful woman with a child who could have been friends with any number of the other embassy wives with children. Cassandra is at once repelled by Margaret and hopeful for the relationship, but she doesn’t have a clue how to be a friend. Cassandra’s greatest need is a product of her deep loneliness. She wants a baby, but can’t conceive. She wants what she and her husband had in the beginning, but their marriage is dying from years of neglect and resentment. She wants friends, but projects her own dislike of self into the minds of others, even into Margaret’s infant son. At their initial meeting, Margaret asked Cassandra to hold the baby so she could freshen up. When Margaret returned, “Mather lurched for [his mother] and I almost lost hold of him. He didn’t even glance at me; I was forgotten, his head on his mother’s shoulder now as if it had never been on mine…Mather’s total dismissal.” An infant preferring his mother to a stranger is a dismissal? Unpack the statement and you find that what’s true is that the boy lurched for his mother, didn’t glance at Cassandra, and laid his head on his mother’s shoulder. The rest — “I was forgotten,” “as if it had never been on mine,” “Mather’s total dismissal” — are Cassandra’s add-ons, her internal dialogue rising from that deep core of self-doubt.
As a fictional character, Crick is both flat and vivid. Flat because he is so very one-dimensional, the representation of a type, vivid because within that narrow range of personality, he is so vitally alive. But beneath Crick’s extraversion is a strange mix of emotional agnosticism and what Margaret will eventually call “mirthless duty.” “If you wish women to love you,” Chekhov wrote in his notebook, “be original.” But love terrifies, even repels him. When Margaret tells him she loves him, he looks away. What there is of love or soul below that surface will peak out only at the end, when it is too late. It is Crick’s duplicity and carelessness that creates the turning point in the novel. Going through his toiletry bag, Margaret finds a picture of him and Karen, a woman she’d met at a party when they’d first begun dating, and who’d obviously had an affair with Crick. For Margaret, finding the picture is what Norman Rush in Mortals called “hellmouth, which was the opening up of the mouth of hell right in front of you, without warning, through no fault of your own.” And hellmouth was Crick’s deflection when Margaret confronts him. He could have explained, could have held her, tried to comfort her. Instead, he is angry, dismissive, a response which alters the narrative of their marriage. It is the end, which he doesn’t suspect, and even she doesn’t yet realize.
Had the incident created the wound, or revealed it? The latter, I think. Self-imposed scales drop away and Margaret allows herself to see Crick in that moment, reminiscent of the moment in Ibsen’s “Doll House” when Nora finally sees Torvald, and says, “I’ve lived by tricks for you…I’ve been your doll-wife…and in turn the children have been my dolls…That’s been our marriage, Torvald.” For both women, the moment is transformational. Neither husband could grasp what had happened, or suspect his part in it, or fathom the change in the woman who now stood before him. Just as he and Dan are about to leave for a months-long assignment in Italy, Crick “…was finally saying everything I’d always wanted to hear but now those words couldn’t reach me…I didn’t trust him…I didn’t trust anything.” Unlike Nora’s new-found strength, Margaret, until now braced by her illusions, the life she thought she had, will begin to unravel.
The final act grows from Margaret’s willingness to “cling to her ignorance. Delight in it.” Against all warning, she has encouraged a friendship with Hassan, a Jordanian guard at a gate in the outer security ring of the embassy. He invites her and Mather to his village where she spends a lovely day. When she learns where Margaret has been, Cassandra is appalled. When she discovers Hassan in Margaret’s apartment, there so that Margaret could help him with his visa application, words are exchanged, an insult delivered, and Cassandra is invited to leave. Annoyance and concern morphed to outrage, she tattles to an embassy official who already may hold a grudge against Margaret. He drops the story into the embassy gossip pool where, taking on a life of its own, soon puts Hassan in Margaret’s bed. Hassan is fired. Crick Skypes her and, “For a moment, I thought he could save me…But that’s what I’d always believed and look where it’s gotten me.” “’Margaret, I love you,’ he whispered. I looked into his face. Did he? We were an illusion, he and I. We stood in front of a priest and neither of us had come clean about anything. Liars, both of us.” Finally, she sees things as they are, including her part in the failed marriage and in the disaster now surrounding her. She wants to make it right for herself, but more so for Hassan. But she can’t. It’s too late.
Fallon develops her characters, and their familiar, tiresome behavior with the skill of an experienced writer and writes with an easy prose that pulls the reader into the developing tragedy. What finally makes her characters so sympathetic is that, like most people, the moral arena in which each of them exists is shaky because it has rarely, if ever, been examined. What do they believe? What is their moral grounding? Crick is willing to die for his country — he’d proven that — yet seems willing enough to betray his wife by way of bedding a fellow officer’s wife. Cassandra, spurned by Margaret, knowingly commits an act of treachery. And Margaret, determined to do what she wants, plays an adolescently cruel, duplicitous game with Cassandra. Clouded by her own naiveté, refusing to respect the cultural language that governed the society surrounding her, perceiving this rebelliousness as kindness, “infected with our great American hubris of assuming that deep down every single person wants the same thing,” what she fails to see is how she wears her kindness as a virtue, which inevitably will shape-shift good intentions into the self-righteousness and moral blindness that creates the opposite of what is wanted. In the end, each is forced to face the result of that behavior.
What Fallon has written is a novel of contemporary marriage and friendship peppered with predictable — at least, not uncommon — inter-relational potholes, and set it all inside a pressure cooker the likes of which most marriages will never know. Here, as in You Know When the Men Are Gone, she gives us a window in the ever-thickening wall between the life-experience of American civilian families and that of American military families. At the end, it is impossible not to ponder what the outcome might have been in an American city, how the circumstances, dampened simply by occurring here rather than there, would have brought a result less tragic.