At first glance, Susan Tepper’s novella Monte Carlo Days & Nights seemed on the light side: an American man and woman, she on the north side of her twenties, an attractive Airline “stew,” he a fortyish executive for a music company, on a weeks’ vacation together in Monte Carlo, a place that has always seemed to me as comically ersatz and overblown as Fredonia – though I like Susan’s work, particularly her masterful short fiction.
For me the sense of lightness, however, was quickly dispelled by her control of her means, whatever else she might be up to. In this work she marries the intensity of focus, the crisp delineation and the vivid, but pruned imagery of short fiction, with the unfolding of a novelistic narrative and a long look at character, dovetailing the two in short bits that are somewhat complete in themselves but also serve as chapters in the longer narrative, which for the most part, plays out over their week in Monte Carlo.
Aside from its overall construction, the language of the book, which is in essence the voice of the woman who is the first person narrator – nameless, so far as I could tell, as is her male paramour – is terse, in short crisp not terribly descriptive sentences. This is not meant as criticism by the way, just a comment on the approach, which favors primary colors, depends mainly on nouns and verbs, and simple declarative sentences and a vocabulary that is direct and declarative, more Hemingway, say, than Edith Wharton. Which is in no way to say that the text is not complex, but rather that the complexities occur within some fairly strict limits and have to do less with exploiting language and more with representing the imperatives of an individual’s personality and desires confronting a social world that so structures and directs those desires that it is impossible to say at a given moment what they consist of, where ultimately they come from or tend toward, and not only whether they are “authentic,” but what that authenticity might, at bottom, consist of if, indeed, it could ever be plumbed.
Once on an Air France flight coming into Logan from Paris, my wife and I sat facing two stewardesses, attractive, experienced, smooth and pleasant, who had pampered us and the other passengers for the long tiresome flight back to reality from our particular stay in paradise. They were belted into seats just in front of and facing us in the economy compartment, the captain having ordered seatbelts because we were circling that grim New England airport, over rooftops and glimpses of harbor, through a thick patchy fog, speeding up and slowing down for the better part of an hour in an invisible queue of planes waiting like ours for permission to land. My fear was not at all assuaged when I looked at the face of the senior of the two stewardesses as she glanced behind her toward the cabin with her eyes showing white all around, failing for once the requirement to divert our attention from the essential fact that we were being propelled at high speed, under dicey conditions, above the safety of earth in what bore an uncomfortable resemblance to a flying coffin. The nature of the occupation being to distract means that the distractor is in the position of having to see what others can avoid.
This is spelled out in an early chapter where the narrator describes cleaning up the planes that she and the other stewardesses have to undertake when the regular cleaning crews go on strike, a task described in the most clinical and therefore squalid detail: the sweeping of gum-clotted carpets, the fingering of cigarette butts from ash-trays and worst of all, the cleaning of lavatories and the pumping out of the vile blue chemical which holds the passengers’ various digestive emanations in suspension, spattering the protagonist despite the protection of coveralls, rubber gloves, helmet and goggles.
No surprise that the various Amazon reviews I read have focused on many different aspects of the book, because one of the characteristics of Susan Tepper’s considerable art is to engender a number of possible meanings, but I was surprised by how few — only one review, I think – even mentioned the plane cleaning episode, which underpins much of the ambivalence of the work. The narrator’s struggle is to respond to the surfaces of life, its beautiful if artificial manifestations, and preserve them from the ugliness and squalor that keep thrusting in. She may be romantic in her yearnings and inclinations, but her – almost literal – immersion in such realities, won’t let her avoid them whenever they appear. She can never overlook or unsee what has been seen, except by willing herself to look away. This encircles every moment of pleasure, aesthetic or sensual, with a ruthless analytic scrutiny which undermines it: only the oblivion of sex is a reliable anodyne to disillusion, and even their lovemaking, toward the end, is infiltrated with the possibility that her lover has equated her with the Bangkok whores he looks forward to patronizing on his next sojourn abroad.
A Marxist critic might have a field day with Tepper’s book by exploring in detail how many of the incidents, how many of its reference points are in one sense or another economic. It is tempting to follow that course, for there is no escaping the transactional nature of the interactions, whether a friendly female photographer casually mentioning she wants to send the snaps of the narrator and her man out on the web; the gambler who grabs her arm to hold her near him “for luck,” and then pays her off from his winnings, sickening her, even as her lover has jovially allowed it to happen, as if temporarily leasing her out to this stranger; and the repeated shopping, comparison of this commodity or that, this pot versus that Limoges, and the pricing of all things at every level from love to breakfast …one could go on almost indefinitely.
But to go down that road would be to turn a different inquiry into something narrower, more sociological or political than perhaps intended. The true crisis of the book is the narrator’s struggle, not in innocence, for she is too knowing to be easily deceived by the surfaces all around her, to find a space – a last space, I’m tempted to say, for she has seen many – here in this little paradise of dreams, beauty and wealth where her wish to be appreciated, loved and valued for her own worth will be allowed. For if it can’t happen in Monte Carlo, with the putative man of her dreams, then where?
What is moving about the book is how valiantly the narrator struggles – with herself, as all meaningful struggle is – between her own wish to lose herself in the appearances, and to find in them romance and the honesty in her that sees the ugliness lurking cheek by jowl with every appearance. That this struggle is more than merely “romantic;” or socially aspirational, but one for the survival of the authentic self in a world where, like they say, everything, even you and me, is some kind of commodity – that it is existential for this woman and subject to despair, and therefore is the material of tragedy, you might have to take my word for, even after you have read it.
But before you dismiss the notion, consider this passage on page 34, where the narrator and her boyfriend in their bathing suits are drinking Perrier and tanning at poolside, on a hotel rooftop terrace where the luxury and calm has been disturbed by several wealthy old women enraged that their husbands have been ogling the insouciantly naked girls sitting on the edge of the pool. That the narrator’s disgust has perhaps turned on herself with the understanding that if she wants to be part of this she will have to be implicated in all of it, comes in this concluding passage of the chapter:
The pool boy comes over and I order another Perrier and pretend to be having fun. The noise and commotion increases. Two of the wives get out of their chaises and approach the naked girls. Demanding they cover up. The French girls just arch their backs laughing.
Finally I stand up, too, moving toward the railing. A long way down is the sparkling Mediterranean. Monte’s hilly streets in the opposite direction.
I’m wishing the crazy wives would just shut up. This sort of thing disturbs me. Or maybe something else. I don’t know. Being here with him is fabulous and terrible at once. I think about diving off the rail. That might stop all this racket. Woman buttresses off hotel roof the newspapers would say.
Here no matter which way you look is paradise.
Among trivial appearances, in the palace of illusion even, survival of the authentic self is nothing trivial; and there is nothing trivial about Susan Tepper’s rendering of it: she is deadly serious.