I’ve just been through a fey mill. Maggie Gee’s latest novel features swallows and flowers and minims on a repeating loop, coochy-coo emails between a mother and daughter, and indiscriminate similes (” … a poem. A cloud-dark disk like a storm at sea … a blue and gold bird-of-paradise landed here from far away … a dark pavlova full of air and light, poised on a long-necked porcelain cake-plate … “) applied to a hat.
The main characters are female: Professor Angela Lamb, an obnoxious novelist-cum-academic (never a happy alliance), her 13-year-old daughter Gerda (learning to be equally obnoxious) and, well, Virginia Woolf (more or less), who is somehow beckoned back into being when Angela consults the Woolf manuscripts at the Berg Collection in New York. Of all the dull characters in all the dull novels in all the world, Woolf has to run into this one. Despite a professional interest in Woolf studies, Angela never appreciates her remarkable companion. She irritably takes charge of her while griping about money and Virginia’s ignorance of mobile phones. Virginia gripes mainly about being called “Virginia” by someone she hardly knows.
They shop at Bloomingdale’s, Woolf wolfs hamburgers and then they longwindedly visit the Statue of Liberty, engendering a feeble exchange on liberty itself. Angela tells Woolf everybody’s free now. Huh? Our civil liberties are being eroded every second! And women sure aren’t free. If we were, little girls wouldn’t be subjected to bikini waxes. (And neither would women.) When Woolf ventures to ask if her long essay on the ill effects of patriarchy, Three Guineas, had any effect, Angela evades the question. Answer her, ya dope!
In her apathy and antagonism, Angela perhaps reveals the extent of our cultural degradation. But it still seems a terrible waste of Virginia Woolf. A waste of Manhattan, too, and of Istanbul, where they end up for the second half of the novel (Angela is giving a paper at a Woolf conference there). Why bring the woman out of the grave just to be a performing seal? A clothes horse, rather, since Gee is fixated on what everybody’s wearing and how they look, paying particular attention to perceived flaws – otherwise, why mention that a passing Chinese tourist has acne? After upbraiding Woolf on her use of the term “Jew”, Angela is repelled by a group of Hasidic Jews aboard the flight to Turkey, deciding that they, like Woolf, are “relics from another time”. No, Angela – Virginia Woolf is dead, Hasidic Jews still exist. All Gee has managed to do here is update Woolf’s antisemitism. Thanks.
Gee makes pretty free with Woolf’s suicide too, referring repeatedly to her “faint sour smell of earth and pondweed”, and wondering if she’s still carrying stones in her pockets. This is not wittily irreverent, it’s cruel. Over-reliant on biography, Gee is more attuned to Woolf’s fame and the current estimated retail value of an unmarked first edition of Orlando than the significance of her prose. You resurrect one of the greatest writers of the 20th century and never ask her about her books? It’s like bringing Abe Lincoln back from the dead to talk about beards.
The main object seems to be to get Woolf laid, making this a sort of sex-and-shopping novel. But it also reeks of jealousy, and not just Angela’s (who, ridiculously, compares herself to Woolf all the time). There’s an oedipal aspect here: Gee is squaring up to Woolf. But it can’t be on a literary level, since Gee’s novel is so timid, banal and self-contradictory, awkwardly juggling three different voices and never coming up with anything new to say about Woolf. If only Gee had played more. Making Woolf confront New York, Istanbul and 20th-century literature could have been fascinating, funny, shocking, moving, revolutionary, artistically adventurous. Instead it’s tame, which Woolf never was.
The book ends, dispiritingly, with a fanfare for creative writing, in Gee’s assertion that everybody should write (essentially because Shakespeare’s sister didn’t). But if they did, nobody would read it: hardly anyone reads books nowadays. Novelists are torn between toadying to the diminishing crowd and writing whatever the hell they like, since nobody cares anyway. This mis-whelped exercise in magical realism seems to want to have it both ways.
(A version of this review appeared in the Guardian, Aug. 30, 2014)