This will only really make full sense if you have read Rachel Ingalls’ Mrs. Caliban. This contains no summary of the book. This is largely a discussion of its ending.
I read Mrs. Caliban ten days ago in a single sitting, while stuck in a waiting room for jury duty. Mrs. Caliban is a very short book—a novella, really—and it was a swift and pleasurable read, up until the ending, where Ingalls has things crash and evaporate in quick succession.
It is the sort of ending, of course, where you end up re-examining everything that came before.
Today, ten days later, when I think about Mrs. Caliban, I think mostly about the ending, and how my understanding of it morphed in quick succession from “this literally happened” to “this happened in the protagonist’s head” to “this is a metafictional address to the reader”. And then, I watched my understanding constantly flicker between the three.
I think that I most want to talk about the “metafictional address” version, because I did look up reviews and discussions of the book after reading it, to compare notes, and I haven’t really seen anyone talking about this aspect.
It’s the repetition, really, that does it for me. The same phrase appearing over and over in the last two pages: “He never came.” “And yet he never came.” “He never came.” “But he never came.” There is something so insistent about it, and so peculiar in its repetition. It reminds me of that game where you say the same word over and over enough times until it loses all meaning through repetition and becomes just a sound.
Except, the loss of meaning that I think is intended here is narrative meaning. You repeat the phrase enough and it becomes, not a thought of the protagonist, not a part of the story, but a phrase that the book (that the author) is repeating at you.
“He never came.”
Not that he never existed—not that he was imaginary—not that he never came back, that he arrived but then disappeared back into the sea without explanation—but that the sort of man described by the book was never even a thing that could exist.
A gentle, considerate lover, who relishes housework and bends amiably to the protagonist’s sense of play. An ideal, lovable, intelligent partner. A calm, relaxed person who, refreshingly, finds traditional patriarchal ideas and structures both alien and peculiar. A creature who naturally encourages a partnership built on mutual interest and respect.
His arrival (says the author), at any point in the protagonist’s life, has always been a fantasy.
“He never came.”
To talk about the ending, though, I need to talk about the book’s first few pages, which prime us to expect hallucinatory episodes (of the unreliable-narrator sort), to anticipate that the entire novella will be a “permissible fantasy” (permissible because it is not actually fantasy, but merely a deeply unhappy housewife going crazy). The radio broadcasts which are described by Dorothy are so obviously imagined and abnormal, and unambiguously in Dorothy’s head. So when she hears yet another broadcast, about an aquatic humanoid creature that has escaped from a laboratory, we anticipate that this unreality will be on the same scale as the previous broadcasts (even if the story hints that this broadcast is not like the others). This expectation of unreality continues when Larry the sea monster shows up in her kitchen, on the run from the law, and then quickly becomes her lover once she takes him in and hides him in her spare room.
Except, from that point on, every other aspect of the narrative world confirms Larry’s existence. Other people talk about him. People lose their lives because of him.
The central events of the story can only really exist so long as Larry is real. And though there may be a doubt in the back of our heads about his reality as we read, we have to practice a willing suspension of disbelief to follow the events of the narrative, especially those that are triggered and caused by his direct actions.
The story essentially coerces us, for much of its mid-section, to doubt our disbelief in his existence.
And then, in the last few pages, everything crashes and evaporates in quick succession.
There is one particular little scene that sticks with me. Three pages before the end, we have that eerie surreal moment when Dorothy receives news on the telephone of her husband’s death, a death which she witnessed herself a mere three hours ago:
She sat down on a chair and waited. She was home a good three hours before the police telephoned.
When she went to identify the body, Estelle was there in the corridor. She looked like a sleepwalker. She said to Dorothy in a tired whisper, “You’ve killed me. We kept it from you for years, so you wouldn’t be hurt any more. But you destroy everything around you. Now I’m like you, too. Even my children. That’s what you wanted, wasn’t it?”
Dorothy shook her head. She said, “It wasn’t me,” and passed on down the hall….
There are two things that are odd about this little scene. The first thing is (I think) just me, but the second is definitely textual.
The first thing: when I first read this scene, I understood it as Dorothy meeting Estelle at some corridor in the hospital—and then, with a bit of confusion, as Dorothy encountering Estelle, apparition-like, in Dorothy’s own corridor in Dorothy’s house—and then, finally, concluding that it must be a corridor leading to the morgue, and that is why Estelle was there, to identify her own daughter.
I would like to point out that, for almost the entirety of this novella, the prose is clean and precise and easy to follow, and it gives exactly as many details as needed to firmly place or imagine a thing, including the location where it happens.
So when I encountered this sudden and ambiguous vagueness, I did wonder about it.
I would also like to say that this brief confusion on my part, which temporarily made this scene so surreal and liminal to me, may be entirely due to my own botched reading of that paragraph. I mean, the moment that you say “oh, the scene is happening in a morgue”, everything clicks into place, and there’s no longer anything liminal about it.
But (and here’s the second thing) there’s the truly bizarre nature of the words coming out of Estelle’s mouth, and Dorothy’s peculiar denial… And, of course, there’s the rest of the ending. The rest of the ending has exactly the same unnerving double-vision and surreal tone which dominates this scene.
So I do wonder if the image of Estelle as a ghost in Dorothy’s hallway, a ghost reciting the most pessimistic and brutal accusations of Dorothy’s subconscious (in a way that breaks from the reality of Estelle’s character and transforms her into a cursed cipher), was an image that was thought of by Ingalls as a layer of a possibility over the more mundane understanding of that vaguely-worded scene.
This (honestly very subjective) thought only occurs to me because of how the rest of the ending plays out: a constant, careful flickering balance between the two (or three) visions of the ending, none of which cancel each other out and which exist simultaneously on top of each other.
I think the real reason that the novella’s beginning primes us for hallucinatory episodes (of the unreliable-narrator sort) is so that when things fall apart at the end, and simultaneously begin to feel strange and surreal, we can’t say that we didn’t have a warning. It’s just that the warning was misinterpreted on our end—we expected it to be a warning of whimsy, perhaps, instead of direness. But still, with that warning, the direness does not come completely out of the blue. Even if it feels abrupt. Even if the abrupt vanishing of Larry is a peculiar calamity to the reader, and we understand the sort of calamity that it is to Dorothy as well.
When I think about the vanishing of Larry, there are several things I think about. One of them is the dog Bingo, and how important his scene ends up being to the end, and so I think I want to quote the entire long passage that relates to Bingo. Here it is. It’s the explanation given by Ingalls for why Dorothy is able to go on late-night drives with Larry without arousing her husband’s suspicion—for why Dorothy’s husband never minds her going out alone at night—and, when considered for that purpose alone, it is excessively detailed and painful:
She put the receiver back, got Larry’s salad bowl, and told him to be ready. They would take the car. Fred never minded where she went anymore, or when. At first… he had fussed. She was unprotected, he said. Anything could happen, even in the suburbs… She ought to get a dog at least, he had told her, for protection. All right, she had said, all right. She had bought a dog; a little, upright, friendly dog called a Jack Russell terrier. She had named him Bingo and took him home. Fred exploded. “Call that a dog?” he had shouted. “It’s smaller than a load of bread.” “He’s very quick,” she had explained, “and his attention never leaves you. He’s—” “Oh, Jesus Christ, Dot. You would go get some useless toy dog like that. Fat lot of good that would be if you turn a corner and bump into a gang of roughs who’d beat you up and rape you.” “With my luck,” she had screamed, “they’d tie me to the railings and rape the dog instead.” He had hit her, in order, he had explained later, to calm her down, and she had begun to sob and asked why he had wanted twin beds and why they never slept together any more, even just to be together. He had said it made him feel guilty, because he just couldn’t, because nothing was right any longer…
She had taken Bingo on walks. They had walked everywhere. She had never seen such a lively little animal. It was fun to be with him, he was so delighted at being alive. He retained his playfulness even after leaving the puppy stage. He was just becoming a full-grown dog when one day she looked up from planting some bulbs in the garden and didn’t see him. He didn’t come back all day. He didn’t come back because he had been hit by a car. Fred had found her crying in the living-room when he came home. Everything near her died, she had said. Everything; it was a wonder the grass on the front lawn didn’t turn around and sink back into the earth. She cried for days, weeks. And Fred began to explain less and even to talk less. No matter how much you loved someone, there was a limit to the amount of crying you could stand hearing.
From that time onward, he hadn’t tried to stop her going out of the house alone at night…
I think about Bingo, “he never came back”, and then I think about Larry. “He never came.”
And I think about the surreal image of Estelle whispering Dorothy’s own despair right back at her. “You destroy everything around you.”
I also think about Dorothy’s conflation of her husband with Larry, when describing the accident that killed him while talking to the old woman at the cemetery. The repeated emphasis on Dorothy’s increasing confusion as she conflates her destroyed husband with the vanished Larry. The deliberate invocation of that same double-vision liminality which permeates the whole of the ending.
But most of all, I think about the novelist and writer Joanna Russ. I think about her novel The Two of Them (published in 1978), which I conveniently and coincidentally read last month. I think about how that novel breaks down metafictionally in its last few dozen pages. A deliberate dissolution. A moral unwillingness on the author’s part to accept the escape from patriarchal norms and society that she tried to give to her character. Even if it is cruel to strip the character of that beautiful escape.
Maybe because not stripping it away, not acknowledging it, feels cruel to the real women who are in the same position, and who read it.
As a title, Mrs. Caliban is both a reference to The Tempest and to Mrs. Dalloway. The Caliban reference skips stones and transforms itself throughout the book, and it becomes complicated the more you look at it, and there are interesting things to say about it, but that’s not really what I want to talk about here.
The Mrs. Dalloway reference is more straightforward, I think. Mrs. Dalloway is, among many other things, a sort of portrait, of a certain type of lady, in a certain type of society.
And so is Mrs. Caliban.
It is a dark portrait. Without Larry, it is abysmally dark.
With Larry, it is funny, and poignant, and delicious and charming. It is endurable, because of Larry.
And yet, I think of Larry watching a Merce Cunningham dance on the television, and then trying to learn the dance, succeeding in memorizing it precisely but being puzzled by it, not understanding it at all.
And then, as we near the end of the novella, as the ominous events of the end are first pushed into motion, he does finally understand it. And he performs it for Dorothy exactly as he did before, but, having experienced life with Dorothy in her strange suburban world and her strange suburban society, and getting a taste for the abusive yet normalized existence she is locked into, he says about the dance, “Now I understand.”
Merce Cunningham: a choreographer whose dances were deliberately assembled by chance procedures, by capricious and inhuman dictates with no sense of narrative or internal reason.
Larry tells Dorothy, “Now I understand.”
And at the end, as Dorothy is stripped of everyone and anyone she has ever loved, as she walks each night obsessively up and down the beach to hear the ocean waves speaking a language she cannot understand, Rachel Ingalls speaks to us directly, tells us mournfully, without mercy: This is the portrait of the woman you’ve been reading about. This is the woman whose life and whose supposed love affair you have been enjoying, and taking readerly comfort in, for 125 pages.
How do you feel about it now?