Trading places, fictions

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Fay Weldon has built her estimable career writing outrageously forthright and funny books. Lauded as an icon of feminism, sometimes against her own will, she has arrived at a point in her life where fiction and nonfiction projects alike offer her an opportunity to tell readers who she is and who she is not.

In 2002, the author wrote the highly entertaining and revealing “Auto Da Fay,” an autobiography that tracked two failed marriages, career highs and lows and filial bonds that variously baffled, amused, disappointed, and anchored her. It was a work of the kind of audacity and playfulness that took readers to the nearly cringe-making outer fringe of self-revelation. It was propelled and saved in no small way by the author’s unfailing good humor and smarts.

Now the author is back to fiction — sort of. The basic plot of “Mantrapped” is this: Two people, a man and a woman, pass each other on the stairs above their local dry cleaners in London and miraculously and unaccountably exchange souls. In an instant, Peter, a young journalist out on an errand for his demanding young wife finds himself living in the body of the somewhat older Trisha, who for a time was a lottery winner and a celebrity but at the moment is down on her luck and working at the laundry where the soul swap occurs.

Peter is startled and delighted by the sensation of having breasts. Trisha is amused by other things, not the least of which is the ability to see a little better than she had and think more clearly. The swap itself provides the occasion for many hilarious situations, starting with Doralee, Peter’s young wife who ultimately must discern who to love (and bed): either the gentle Trisha lodged in Peter’s body or the fussier but appealing Peter now stuck in a body with strikingly smaller hands and feet.

As amusing as the story line is, it operates merely as scaffolding for the author’s ongoing examination of her career, marriages, motherhood, the Seventies, the Nineties and the state of things now. Though the book is part-fiction, part-memoir, there is a point of merger that may well anger purists who believe that the best novels have their authors at a respectable distance. Even Mrs. Weldon admits that the merger of fiction with her personal reality represents a sea change in her own attitudes about what books should do, and readers can watch her never-stopping analytic mind tweaking the issue thusly:

“My suspicion is this — that just as one day Peter and Trisha cross on the stairs, so one day there is bound to be an actual crossover between the novelist’s actual life and the alternative reality as presented by that novelist. That the times have finally and sadly come to this, that a novel simply no longer feels meaty enough without the writer’s life and sorrows. All my writing life I have hotly argued that fiction and autobiography are separate. ‘Good Lord,’ I have been in the habit of saying at literary festivals and in interviews where writers are so frequently these days required to bare their souls, ‘if any of what I wrote was true I would be in prison or dead.’ Now I can see that I ought to have been in prison or dead, if I were to get my just desserts, that is to say, if to lust in your heart is as sinful as the act itself, as St. Paul says. All these monstrous acts I have written, all the murders, crimes, I have conceived, are as good as done …

“‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi, Flaubert famously says, giving the game away. I daresay Chaucer had an affair with the Wife of Bath, gat teeth and all. But Chaucer’s not going to declare, that either.

“Just as the world of screen and airwaves blends and melds into real life, so too, today must the creations of the printed page. There are elements of me in Trisha, and parts of … Peter in every man I have every known. Mind you, men of the Newer Age have to be learned: they are not the ones I grew up with. Men of the Former Age tended to be without emotional conscience, like George Barker, or Ted Hughes or my husband of many years Ron, but at least they produced art.”

Truth be told, the author is not easy on men. (Ted Hughes is raked over the coals more than a few times in the book.) But neither is she easy on women. This is a book, like so many of her others, that depicts the ongoing war between the sexes. There are no winners. And neither is the writer gratified at speaking engagements when some sentiment she utters construed as anti-man, is cheered loudly by the audience, especially when those cheering most loudly are men.

There is very little that escapes the author’s notice in these pages, and she is deadly honest about those events in her life that linger with her still: her early estrangement from her father, a bad marriage to a dull man 20 years older than she, miscarriages, the collapse of Ron Weldon’s antiques business that put the family on a rocky road, 15 years in psychoanalysis, her suicidal older sister’s death from melanoma, her hot and cold reception by the British literary establishment, with an unusual cameo appearance by American writer Louis Simpson.

As she wanders through the slowly evolving story of Peter and Trisha that never ceases to engage and amuse, she also takes time to evaluate each of her novels, and some of the insights are jaunty and — unselfconsciously — light.

“Those early present tense novels of mine were written in the present tense not because I had thought about it, but because I had started writing in play form and then, novelizing what I had written. It worked well enough. So well that in the meanwhile the Gods of the past tense have all but fled. Even history documentaries on TV prefer the immediacies of the present tense to any serious consideration of the past. ‘Henry VIII strides through the palace in a temper. His wife is betraying him. ‘Cut off her head,’ he yells’”

So what is Fay Weldon up to? She experiments. She reveals. She tells a story and blazes forward with little domestic apercus that simply do not appear in other fictions I can think of with the same satiric bite or joy. My favorite: “Those who have not had children believe in nurture more than nature.” And in this funny and surprising book with “trapped” in its title, the most joyous fact of all is that no one is, utterly.

MANTRAPPED

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