How do you choose your next book? Do you read reviews on Goodreads? Ask coworkers what they like? Ask friends what they hate?
Oftentimes, I’ll read about a movie going into production and see it’s based on a book and say to myself, “Hey, self, that’s two of our favorite things. Maybe we should read the book before the movie comes out. Also, are we going on a cleanse this weekend? We’re starting to look a little bloated.”
That’s how I found out about a new movie from Tom Ford set to star Jake Gyllenhaal (who I’ve gushed about before) and Amy Adams (hot off her Golden Globe win for Best Actress in Tim Burton‘s Big Eyes) called Nocturnal Animals. The movie, scheduled to begin filming in October, is an adaptation of Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan.
Fifteen years ago, Susan left her husband, Edward. Now it’s 1993 and Susan is living comfortably as the wife of a doctor. One day a package from Edward arrives for Susan. It’s his first manuscript and he wants her opinion; she’s always been his best critic. On the day after Christmas, she begins reading Edward’s story, titled Nocturnal Animals. Susan is instantly absorbed into Tony’s world and finishes it in three sittings. The story within Wright’s novel follows Tony Hastings, a mathematics professor en route to Maine with his wife and daughter for vacation. Along the way, things take a dark and sinister turn that will change the lives of the Hastings forever.
The story-within-a-story format is nothing new (see: The Odyssey and One Thousand and One Nights), but I was just as riveted as Susan in my own reading. That might be because I started reading it the day before I was set to return from my own vacation. As I read about Tony and his family, I began wondering what evils were waiting for me on the darkly-lit interstates on the way back to Pittsburgh. Fortunately, my merry band of travelers and I only encountered the delirium associated with driving for seventeen-ish hours with infrequent breaks.
Susan feels an “uncomfortable undertow” as she reads. “It nudges a certain alarm in her, a fear whose object she does not know but which seems different from the fear in the story itself, something rather in herself.” She wonders what (if anything) Edward is trying to say with his book. She begins to reexamine her own life but resolves not to waver in it.
She thinks, “There are things in life the reading of no mere book can change.”
Oh, how wrong she is.
While the novel is wonderful at illustrating what happens when we think about our pasts—how we are prone to rewrite our own histories as we’re remembering them, painting things in different shades depending on our moods at the moment of remembering—what it really excels at is how it feels to get wrapped up in a book, how “print fastens ephemeral words to the page.” There are several great sentences that convey the terrible pleasure of a good page-turner, which is exactly what Tony and Susan is.
“She feels bruised by her reading and by life too. She wonders, does she always fight her books before yielding to them?”
Susan goes to the bathroom not out of necessity, but as a deliberate interruption when the suspense is too much. When the phone rings, it’s described as brutally invading her reading.
“She puts the manuscript down. It’s time to stop for the night, though it seems murderous to quit now. Another painful interruption like divorce, required by the discrepancy between the laws of reading and the laws of life. You can’t read all night, not if you have responsibilities like Susan.”
I, like Susan, have felt the struggle of promising myself just one more chapter. She contemplates Tony’s problems and compares them to hers before realizing that Tony’s are simpler because they are not real.
“She’s caught by the strangeness of what she’s doing, reading a made-up story. Putting herself into a special state, like a trance, while someone else (Edward) pretends certain imaginings are real.”
But aren’t books real for us as we’re reading them? Does the fact that it’s fiction make it any less real in our minds? We go on the journey with the characters and if they’re changed by the book’s end, then chances are we are as well. Who amongst us hasn’t had a moment of silence when finally reaching a book’s end?
“The book ends. Susan has watched it dwindle before her eyes, down through final chapter, page, paragraph, word. Nothing remains and it dies. She is free now to reread or look back at parts, but the book is dead and will never be the same again. In its place, whistling through the gap it left, a blast of wind like liberty. Real life, coming back to get her. She needs a silence before returning to herself. Absolute stillness, no thought, no interpretation or criticism, just a memorial silence for the reading life that has ended. … There’s a shock of terror in the return of real life, concealed by her reading, waiting to swoop down on her like a predator in the trees.”
Honestly, that’s the most apt description of finishing a book I’ve ever read.
There’s an odd undercurrent of civility versus male bravado that runs throughout the novel; mild-mannered intelligence measured against that old alpha male persona. Susan also thinks about civility as she reads; she believes it’s her ability to read that keeps her civilized. Tony, too, is constantly described as objectively good and civil.
“[Tony] felt a kinship with cowboys and baseball players. He had never ridden a horse and had not played baseball since childhood, and he was not very big and strong, but he wore a black mustache and considered himself easygoing.”
Despite that kinship and his mustache, he’s portrayed as less manly, which is odd considering it’s a popular trope to believe that a mustache is the ultimate form of manliness.
As for the impending adaptation, I’m hoping it’s better than 2012’s The Words, which had a similar but different premise. If Ford can capture a brutality akin to 2013’s Prisoners for the parts of the film that feature Tony Hasting’s life and juxtapose that with something seemingly idyllic like 2009’s Chloe (the beginning, at least) for Susan’s life, I’d be a happy camper.
While we wait for the movie, which could be at least a year before it lands in theaters, why not read the book? I’ve heard a rumor that Summer Reading is in full swing at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.
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