New Fiction March 2004

Fortress of Solitude

Edith Hope, the heroine of Anita Brookner's Booker Prize-winning Hotel du Lac (1984), wrote conventional romance novels based on Aesop's tortoise and hare, while acknowledging that "it is the hare who wins" in real life. "Every time." Cynical, yes, but the knowing Hotel du Lac still nestles cozily within the traditions of a love story. Brookner has now published her twenty-second novel, and she no longer provides an ounce of consolation to the "tortoise market." Instead, the acerbic, perverse, and preternaturally compelling narrator of The Rules of Engagement revels in dignified misery, dismissing those who yearn for happiness as either monstrous or emotionally stunted. Among Brookner's characters there has not been a Hope for more than a decade. Her latest protagonist, the aptly named Elizabeth Wetherall, has endured much and honed any lingering expectations into something disturbingly modest: "One's sad longings might be, and usually were, unsatisfied, so that if one were lucky they merely receded, but remained subject to conjecture."

Having married an older man and succumbed to dutiful routine, Elizabeth measures herself against a meek and plodding childhood friend named Betsy. Loyalty, we're informed, is Betsy's besetting sin. Over the years she naively demands the fulfillment that Elizabeth proudly rejects. The two women share a married lover, a coincidence that Elizabeth, secure in her superiority, never reveals to her friend. Although Elizabeth soon renounces the man with a few eloquent gestures, Betsy insinuates herself into his family circle, threatening the decorum that Elizabeth so stringently observes. Like other Brookner heroines, the "unwillingly independent" Elizabeth perseveres in her own frigid stasis, reserving her sharpest critiques for Betsy, whom she disdains for her "bizarre sincerity, the sheer incomprehension of a woman whom experience had taught so little as to make her seem anomalous, even threatening, like a dysfunctional infant who persists in courting one's approval."

It's hard to imagine what someone would make of this beautifully written novel—with its emphasis on heightened but unexpressed emotions—if it were an introduction to Brookner. With each slender volume she fleshes out a constant vision of ever constricting solitude—an isolation from children, current events, religion, desire, and, in Elizabeth's case, literature, too—that grows more intriguing with each new gloss. What's clear is that like Joseph Cornell's boxes and Nicholson Baker's paeans to card catalogues, nail clippers, and other everyday objects, Brookner's novels have become obsessive miniatures that work best if you accept them on their own strange terms. Austere and dyspeptic, The Rules of Engagement demonstrates the triumph of a keenly introspective mind. For true fans, Brookner's books manage to generate boundless excitement while relying on nothing beyond the writer's formidable intelligence, a denatured energy that can't be contained despite the best efforts of her stupendously repressed characters.

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