Rachel Ingalls’ Mrs Caliban is a novella which I had been intrigued by for quite some time. The New Yorker calls it ‘a miracle’, and Carmen Maria Machado declares it a ‘feminist masterpiece’. Mrs Caliban was also named by the British Book Marketing Guild as ‘one of the greatest American novels since World War II – to [Ingall’s] surprise.’
Mrs Caliban focuses on Dorothy, a grieving housewife living in the suburbs in California. She has recently lost her young son to an illness, and suffered a miscarriage. She and her unfaithful – and very unlikeable, it must be said – husband Fred are ‘too unhappy to get a divorce’. One day, early on in the story, Dorothy is listening to the radio when she hears a story about a dangerous ‘green-skinned sea monster’ escaping from a local research institute. He then, of course, turns up in her kitchen.
Larry the Frogman is ‘muscular, vegetarian, sexually magnetic and excellent at housework’. When she meets this ‘gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature’, Dorothy falls for him immediately. Ingalls describes their meeting thus: ‘She stopped before she knew she had stopped, and looked, without realising that she was taking anything in. She was as surprised and shocked as if she had heard an explosion and seen her own shattered legs go flying across the floor.’ She immediately offers him a bed in the guest room, and a large vegetable salad which she had conveniently been preparing. The very next day, ‘They made love on the living-room floor and on the dining-room sofa and sitting in the kitchen chairs, and upstairs in the bathtub.’
The Faber Editions version of the novella includes a new foreword written by Irenosen Okojie, which I read with interest. She writes: ‘Through her remarkable, uniquely strange tales, Rachel Ingalls subverts the expectations of storytelling within modern consciousness.’ She goes on to say that the author ‘moves beyond the limits of form with a lightness of touch. It is a hallucinatory vision anchored by the tricks and tribulations of everyday people, mining the disintegration of a marriage within the suffering constraints of American suburbia with nuance and originality.’ Okojie also laments that Ingalls – a writer whom she says has a ‘singular aesthetic’ which encompasses ‘Gothic symphony, suburban horror, warped fable, [and] avant-garde cinematic ode’ – ‘remains in obscurity’. This is despite Ingalls publishing more than ten books.
I was most excited about the element of magical realism here, something which I love when it is done well. I had quite high hopes for the way in which Ingalls would handle this. At first, the magical realism here feels quite natural, but it becomes more and more absurd as the narrative gathers speed. I found it difficult to suspend my disbelief after the first forty pages or so, and had to do so consciously – an action which felt forced. I like magical realism to sweep me up entirely, but Mrs Caliban sadly failed to do this. It also seems to veer toward science fiction somewhere around the middle, which I was not expecting, and did not entirely like.
One aspect of Mrs Caliban which I would have liked to see explored further is that of madness. There are hints at the outset that Dorothy is being plagued by stories she hears on the radio ‘that couldn’t possibly be real… She hadn’t thought she was going crazy, not straight away. She believed it was just her own thoughts forcing themselves into the low-pitched sounds and their insistent rhythm.’ This seemed promising, but what could have been an incredibly interesting part of the story is largely left alone. In her introduction, Okigie does elude to the way in which Larry might be a mere figment of Dorothy’s imagination, something to help her cope with the pain of her loss. However, this is not clear within the story itself, and I think this is a shame.
Something which is done well here is the way in which Ingalls touches upon Dorothy’s grief. This is a motif which is repeated throughout at intervals. We are told, for instance: ‘At first, after Scotty and the baby when she had begun the compulsive restless walks, [her husband Fred] had been worried about her… She was unprotected, he said. Anything could happen, even in the suburbs, even in a nice one like theirs.’ I did feel a lot of empathy where Dorothy was concerned. After she meets Larry, Ingalls writes: ‘For so many years there had been nothing… She had no interests, no marriage to speak of, no children. Now, at last, she had something.’
Mrs Caliban is strange, but highly beguiling, and I was swept into the story very early on. However, my interest in the story did began to wane, and I think the main reason for this was the extensive sections of dialogue between all of the main characters. There were some tender moments – for instance, in the emotional relationship which grew between Dorothy and Larry – but this was overshadowed by the often quite dull sections of conversation which permeate the whole, and add very little overall to the story. I understand that these parts were used in order to try and help Dorothy and Larry understand one another’s worlds, but on the whole, they felt overdone, and quite strained. Had Mrs Caliban featured more omniscient narrative – something which worked very well here – and less of these conversations, I may well have enjoyed it a lot more.
First published in 1982, Mrs Caliban is bound up in the feminist movement, and is very interesting to read with this perspective in mind. At just 117 pages, it is rather quick to get through, but it certainly raises a lot of questions, and elements to mull over further. Mrs Caliban is certainly an unusual book, and it is one which I would recommend if you are looking to pick up something a little different. I did want to keep turning the pages to see what would happen, but without giving anything away, I do not feel as though it was entirely satisfying as it reached its end. As the story went on, I did find myself using curiosity about Dorothy in particular, and I’m not sure that I’d pick up another of Ingalls’ books on the strength of this one.