How to Be an American Woman: Sue Kaufman’s Falling Bodies

Sue Kaufman, author of Falling Bodies & Diary of a Mad Housewife

Sue Kaufman, author of  Diary of a Mad Housewife

Many onliners swear by Viragos and Persephones.

As I say often, I do not elevate name-brands to a cult.

But if I were going to pick one over the other, I would go with Viragos.  There are some real Virago classics.

Not always, though.  Anyone who has suffered through Mary Renault’s meritless, humorless, weirdly sentimental early novel, The Friendly Young Ladies (Virago), or Joanna Cannan’s equally meritless, poorly written and, by American standards, scandalously class-conscious novel, Princes in the Land (Persephone), will admit the fallacy of going for greens and greys.  (Okay, some of you will never admit it!  I getcha.)

American fiction is, alas, strangely underrepresented by Virago and Persephone, with sensational titles like the fun, trashy Valley of the Dolls and Beth Gutcheon’s mediocre best-seller, Still Missing. Of course, American fiction is not these publsihers’ forte.

We obviously have an advantage here in America in that we have access to more American fiction.

I am an Anglophile, but I do need to spend time with my homegirls: American voices are different.  In general I would describe American women’s fiction as grittier and sexier, closer to the raw work of Philip Roth than the elegance of Barbara Pym (Virago) or the sincerity of Dorothy Whipple (Persephone).

Falling Bodies sue kaufmanAnd if I had my own publishing company, I would instantly reissue the books of Sue Kaufman, the author of Diary of a Mad Housewife, an American classic.  Her 1974 novel, Falling Bodies, is a sad and often hysterically funny novel about a woman whose family is falling apart.  

I have been absorbed in Falling Bodies for two days, and I feel that Kaufman is writing about my own life, though the heroine Emma and I could hardly be more different.  I live a middle-class life in a house in the Midwest; she is the wife of a very well-off vice president of a publishing company in a huge apartment in Manhattan.

And yet… I understand Emma.

Every chapter starts with a day and time of day, like  Monday 8:21 a.m.  Sometimes we go through entire days, sometimes through just a few hours.

Emma has had a rough year.  Her mother has died of cancer, and she herself has been hospitalized for an FUO, a fever of unknown origin. (One year I almost died from blood poisoning from an insect or spider bite:  the doctors weren’t sure what.  And last year my mother died, and, like Emma, I was upset by the sub-standard care.)

In the hospital, she witnessed a suicide.  A man jumped out of a window and his body fell past her room.  Once home, she is  terrified that she will see another falling body crash on the sidewalk.

Slowly we go through Emma’s life from the time she gets out of the hospital and is so weak she can barely walk around the block; to encounters with a sexy, crazy friend from Radcliffe, Minda,who likes to talk about her analysis;  through a tense dinner party at which all the men fall all over Minda and the black caterer and Hispanic maid fight; through a huge blackout that affects the East Coast.

Emma’s family problems are paralyzing, partly because she cannot go back to her social worker job until she has fully recovered from the illness.  Since her hospitalization, her husband and son both seem to be having a nervous breakdown.  Harold, the vp of a publishing company, has a terror of germs and contamination.  And her son is bringing home mechanical parts he finds in trash cans.

Harold and Benjy think Emma is the one who has gone crazy. And she is upset:  her mother-in-law has hired a maid from Colombia.  And talk about crazy…

When she has finally recovered, she goes to a Laurel and Hardy revival.

She was striding briskly along, considering the comic aspects of Tepp’s telling her to pick off where she’d left off and to resume a ‘normal life’ (whatever that was)–when she passed a neighborhood theater , with a marquee announcing ‘LAUREL AND HARDY FESTIVAL–LOTSA LAFFS,’ and without a moment’s hesitation, bought a ticket and went in.   And for the next three hours sat, not thinking, not smiling, not laffing, watching Stan Laurel’s every move, watching every expression that crossed his Silly-Putty face.  Stan Laurel was, she realized, from the first moment he came shuffling and dipping onto the screen, her spiritual twin.  Her Doppelganger–to use the overworked kind of in-voguey word that drove Harold-the-ex-editor crazy.  That sad and infinitely rubber face….  That genius for flapping and stumbling and unfailingly doing the absolutely wrong thing….  The real Emma, the one hiding behind the “cool” blond facade everyone saw.

Who hasn’t felt like that?  Though in my case I might identify more with Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation amd Jean Squib in Nebraska.

Parts of the novel are told from Harold’s and Benjy’s point-of-view.  Maria and Benjy deliver some entertaining monologues during the blackout.

This is a novel for any woman who has had a rough year. If, like Emma, you’ve told the nurse that your mother says she has not received her medication and the nurse has denied it, it is a short step to the doctor’s telling you that you are crazy and banning you from the hospital room for the night.  Emma’s mother reacted negatively to opium, as mine did.  And while no doctor told me off–there was no doctor, as far as I could see– she died before  the delivery of the medication that would have relieved her stertorous breathing.

I really loved this book,  My guess is that it’s more a women’s book–I can’t see my husband’s reading it–but it is a deftly-consctructed, often funny story of what happens to a woman under a lot of stress.

13 thoughts on “How to Be an American Woman: Sue Kaufman’s Falling Bodies

  1. My father coded in the ER and they resusitated him even though he had a DNR and my brother was in the waiting room. His body (he was unconscious) was kept alive all weekend until our doctor came back from vacation. I pictured having to suffocate him with a pillow as he made me promise if this ever happened and before he would go into a nursing home. We were furious. He was 92 and had congestive heart failure. Don’t get me started.

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  2. Cynthia, that’s one reason I liked this book so much: it is so honest about what goes on in hospitals. The heroine thinks the nurse may be stealing her mother’s drugs. Sue Kaufman is gritty and smart, and this book does not seem dated in the least.

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  3. Sammie, yes, I did read The Homemaker and liked it, and I have actually enjoyed many Persephones and Viragos, in spite of what I say.:)

    Cynthia, I love Marilyn French, and had completely forgotten about her. I was going to read something she wrote for my pop lit Thanksgiving or Xmas, and then completely forgot to. I’m not sure I’ve read all her books: I should pick out something I haven’t read.

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  4. Interesting! I hadn’t heard of Sue Kaufman’s books, but they were mentioned in a recent NYT podcast that I was listening to, an interview with Erica Jong about the anniversary of Fear of Flying; she spoke about her frustration with books including that one, which she felt made the issues seem as though they were about particular marriages and particular men, rather than making it clear that these were patterns in society and conditioned behaviours and expectations beyond the individual lives sketched therein. Not having read any of the works that were discussed, I’m not saying whether I agree that that was TDoaMH’s intent/achievement, but it was mentioned by name and I do like it when talk of books synchs like that, so you’re more likely to keep a “new” title in mind. Besides, the broader discussion is certainly a fascinating one, if chicken-egg-y, if unanswerable, like the whole “what’s feminism” question.

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  5. Oh, I love Erica Jong! How funny that she dislikes Sue Kaufman. Their backgrounds are, I think, similar. Both went to Seven Sisters colleges: Jong to Barnard and Kaufman to Vassar. Both married doctors and became successful novelists Jong is very smart, perhaps more Henry Millerish than Kaufman, who is a smoother writer (more like Roth?). I identify with both of them. I would say that Kaufman DOES write about the broader issues, as I identify with her characters, and we’re not in New York City here! As for my maid–where the f— is she? Isadora Wing and Emma both have hired help.

    You’ll have to recommend some Canadian writers whom you’d like to see in print again!

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  6. Funny: they mentioned these books as alternatives to Roth’s too. It was a short interview, but definitely interesting. How curious that there are so many similarities in their experiences and yet they (seemingly) chose different approaches to writing fiction about women’s lives.

    Just off-top-of-head, and thinking along these lines, I wish that Ethel Wilson’s books were more widely available (although I know Persephone has Hetty Dorval), although I think the New Canadian library paperbacks are still available to us here, so technically in print. I think Margaret Laurence’s The Fire Dwellers, published a little afterwards, might make for an interesting comparison with Kaufman’s books (it’s on Virago’s VMC list too, IIRC). And maybe Constance Beresford Howe’s A Population of One and Book of Eve (which I suspect are OP now). Also some early Joan Barfoot novels, like Abra, and Marian Engel’s books, which are probably (and sadly) OP. Some early Audrey Thomas works are hard to find too, so perhaps they are OP as well, although she has a new one just now, which I’m looking forward to reading. But that’s a big – if juicy – question.

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  7. BIP, I’m so excited because I have Abra! I’ll put it top of the list because I’m reading some women’s fiction now. Well, it’s been American, but I might as well add Canadian and it can be North American.

    I love Margaret Laurence. I have all her books and I might as well reread them, because it’s been so many years they’ll be like more books.

    Book of Eve used to be in my Amazon cart. I came across it because of a Plume Women’s series they published in the ’80s. You know how it is–you cut back on your buying–and maybe the book is still in your cart.

    And talk about unrepresented: for some reason very few Canadian writers seem to be published in the U.S. I”m sure I miss a lot of them, but when we used to go to Stratford I would come home with tons of Candaian books I’d never heard of. In fact that’s where I bought Abra probably. I have a Canadian edition.

    Lisa Moore’s book which you wrote about so fluently is at the top of the list at Amazon this month, I think.

    Off to do some reading of women writers because Ive been reading a LOT of guy books this year. They’re good, they’re classics, but women’s books are a little different, I think.

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  8. Pingback: The Lazy Blogger: Monopoly Money, Project Women’s Almost-Classics, & Should Novelists Be Paid More? | mirabile dictu

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