Iris Owens’ 1973 novel After Claude reminds me of another beloved NYRB Classic, Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado. Harriet, Owens’s damaged but hilarious narrator, is a little like Sally Jay Gorce gone horribly bad. Too many years abroad, perhaps. Sally Jay, for all her pithy wit, represents a girl with somewhere yet to go. She has potential. Not so Harriet. Instead of a fresh, ripe avocado, she’s the dead ones littered around that rat Claude’s apartment.
“They are not dead. Stop saying they’re dead. Plants are very sensitive to suggestions.” I rushed to a hanging window plant and stroked its brown leaves. “You’re alive, darling. Don’t listen to him. He should be as alive as you are.”
Keep telling yourself that, sweetheart.
Harriet careens her way manically through the novel, winning one over to her side even as one is forced to confront the fact that she may just be totally batshit insane. Despite her announcement in the very first line that she has left Claude, “that French rat,” over half the novel is occupied by Harriet trying very hard not to leave Claude’s apartment, let alone him. When she does finally go — after barricading herself in with two weeks worth of tuna for lunch — it’s not free will. They literally put her into a taxi and bundle her off to the Hotel Chelsea, the desolate marble shore on which the debris of 1970s New York society washes up.
All through the room, cracks and burns exposed an underlayer of barren brown that was spreading as though blight had struck the skimpy surfaces. A yellowish lampshade next to the bed had succumbed to a half century of forty-watt bulbs and displayed its diseased patches of brown. There was no question in my mind that whatever had afflicted the room was contagious and would get to me next.
Iris Owens was very sorry for being so mean about the Hotel Chelsea. An acknowledgment in the opening pages thanks the hotel’s management for allowing her to “use and describe the hotel with all the fictional liberties necessary to the characters and action of the book.” (Let’s be honest, though: she wasn’t too far off. I stayed at the hotel in 2002, and it still had the same dirty-beach-at-the-end-of-the-world feel. The man who lived in the room next to ours left his door cracked one day, and the glimpse I got of the inside will never leave me. In a room as big as a closet, one whole wall was covered with filthy doll heads. Not kidding.)
Harriet is the best kind of unreliable narrator: one you can see straight through but want to believe anyway. Her phobias, her endless grasping, her overblown martyr air — in the hands of a less skilled writer, they wouldn’t work such an insane kind of charm. Luckily, Owens was tremendously skilled. I’m not making up that Elaine Dundy connection, either. Dundy’s husband, theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, called the book “barbed, bitchy and hilariously sour.” I can only hope Dundy read it too, and was pleased to see her certain type of American girl live on in this dark mirror.
In her introduction, Emily Prager notes that Owens once made her living writing pornography for Olympia Press, using the name Harriet Daimler. It’s a skill that comes in handy here, as the final pages of the book descend from vicious victim ranting into a frightening but erotic demonstration of female pleasure. Even Harriet’s biting wit is shelved momentarily, transforming that dirty pit of New York degenerates into an Anais Nin-style boudoir of sensuality.
Don’t worry, though, it doesn’t last long. Harriet emerges, mask back up, to await her fate in a wrecked hotel room.
A tribute to Owens’s death includes responses to the book upon its original release; Bibliographing writes about the rerelease; the Telegraph details Olympia Press, including a rather racy quote from Harriet Daimler’s work.