No Place Like Home

Rachel Ingalls’s Mrs. Caliban captivates by virtue of the ways in which it least resembles the kinds of novels we know

Rachel Ingalls’s Mrs. Caliban is a story of the suburbs. First published in 1982 and recently reissued by New Directions, the novel’s protagonist Dorothy is married and does not work. Hers is the world feminism failed to remake; the quiet neighborhood in which her story unfolds is territory that radicals of the 1960s and ’70s had not so much ceded as neglected or fled.

Rachel Ingalls, Mrs. Caliban. New Directions, 2017 (1983). 128 pages.
Ingalls captures the surreal monotony of this circumscribed terrain—at once noisy and stultifying, sprawling and claustrophobic—in a brilliant dovetailing of minimalist prose and maximalist premise. One day, while Dorothy does the dishes, a strange bulletin drifts in over the radio: a six-foot-seven-inch humanoid amphibian dubbed “Aquarius the Monsterman” has escaped from an oceanographic institute, killing his keepers in the process. In a letter to the writer Daniel Handler, Ingalls describes her fiction as “a combination of fable, fairytale and Romance” and identifies her main literary interest as “narrative: stories, patterns and the movement of thought.” Her own thought moves across distinctions of high and low, major and minor, in a manner as well suited to her subjects as the oversaturated repression of Todd Haynes’s best films. Though born in Massachusetts in 1940, Ingalls has lived most of her adult life in England. She was drawn abroad by “the whole Shakespeare jamboree that was going on here back in the ’60s,” but she’s also professed a love of American sci-fi movies, pulp fiction, and melodrama.

In Mrs. Caliban, the B-movie monster wanders onto the wrong set. Conventionally a vehicle of mass unease—think the respective nuclear and colonial allegories of Godzilla and King Kong—Ingalls instead casts her creature in a domestic drama, using him to bridge collective anxiety and private need. Larry, the name by which the creature introduces himself to an admirably unfazed Dorothy after wandering into her kitchen, recalls the familiar trope of pursued beast pursuing white woman. His violent flight from an abusive research facility incites mass-mediated panic, which drives him to seek shelter in Dorothy’s suburban home. But in the long interim between their introduction and climactic fate, Larry and Dorothy strike up an easy and frictionless affair. The couple pass their days in unexpected peace, joking over lunch, watching TV, driving to the beach, and having mutually restorative sex. (In The Seven Year Itch, Marilyn Monroe famously says of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, “I think he just craved a little affection, you know? A sense of being loved and needed and wanted.”)

The genre confusion in Mrs. Caliban has been part of the novel’s allure through its fitful journey out of and back into print: The endorsements on this new edition invoke film thrillers, kitchen-sink realism, social satire, poetry, and romance. The proliferation of small details on which realist fiction traditionally relies for historical texture is only inconsistently evident here. Mrs. Caliban, like the suburbs on which Ingalls trains her gaze, is self-conscious about its porous edges, nodding frequently to the data of its contemporary moment but declining to incorporate it. Health-food freaks, religious extremism, and the “circus” of international politics drift in and out of characters’ conversations, remaining peripheral. Dorothy mostly avoids pursuing subjects that gesture beyond her domestic orbit, as though to linger on them were to risk being overtaken by them, just as the novel’s realism risks being usurped by other modes.

In a more just literary ecosystem, Ingalls’s debt to popular genres might have earned her a broad readership. Though her first book appeared in 1970, Ingalls came closest to wide acclaim when in 1986 the British Book Marketing Council named Mrs. Caliban one of the twenty greatest novels by an American to be published since World War II. Now her many writings are mostly out of print, though three of her novellas were selected by Daniel Handler and reissued under the title Three Masquerades earlier this year. Hopefully more will follow.

Dorothy’s need for her Caliban is oblique but deeply felt, and the satisfactions he offers are immediate. Larry arrives in the wake of a series of private disappointments. Dorothy’s husband Fred is unfaithful and uncommunicative, an emotional distance exacerbated by the death of their only child and a subsequent miscarriage—“I think we’re too unhappy to get a divorce,” Dorothy tells her best friend, Estelle. The novel’s setup prior to Larry’s entrance is brief but vivid in the texture it provides of Dorothy’s daily life, as she ushers Fred out the door to work, does her exercises, runs to the grocery, and visits for coffee with Estelle.

After Larry’s arrival, much of each day becomes occupied by Dorothy’s efforts to make her world intelligible to her new companion and to measure it against his own. Often she fails, as when she struggles to define the phrase “radical chic” or identify an activity that Larry’s seen on television and reenacted for her. (It turns out to be Merce Cunningham choreography.) Larry tries to reciprocate with descriptions of the underwater society from which he was taken and his different sensory perceptions of this new one, but usually, in the absence of shared experience, he can’t. His insufficient attempts occasion some of the novel’s most affecting language, as when he says of the constant backdrop of the ocean’s music, “The sea speaks to us. And it’s our home that speaks. Can you understand?” But such lyrical approximations are the exception rather than the norm. Larry and Dorothy’s failures of mutual intelligibility are most astonishing because Ingalls pulls off the kind of explicit dialogue about difference that in less deft hands might make a reader cringe. Unlike King Kong or the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Larry’s nearly human anatomy and capacity for language allow him to make his own connections between his situation and nonwhite or immigrant others. Ingalls cleverly troubles classic monster movies’ distinction between allegorical (nonhuman) and literal (human) difference by letting her characters voice their own analogies; she respects both Dorothy and Larry enough to imagine their conscious apprehension of the gulf across which they’ve met.

Throughout the novel, Larry’s otherness toggles between familiar and fantastical registers. He speaks with “a bit of a foreign accent,” and returning him to his home in the Gulf of Mexico would require Dorothy to follow the archetypal course of anti-immigrant anxiety by smuggling him south across the border. Thanks to his quick appreciation of the ubiquity of racial animus, Larry is able to walk anonymously down a crowded street as long as he applies the right shade of make-up to his green-brown skin, passing as human not by obscuring but transposing his difference: “The secret is to wear a color that’s different from most of the people who live in the area.”

But Larry’s foreignness captivates by virtue of the ways in which it least resembles the kinds we know—he’s an emissary from a world fully external to Dorothy’s. When she confesses, “I thought everywhere everyone had to fit in, or other people began to feel worried and threatened,” Larry denies that such things happen in the ocean and insists on the idiosyncrasy of human antagonisms. He represents and longs to return to a society without individual distinctions or inconvenient desires, to which both racism and marital strife would be foreign in turn. There is no heartache in his society because mating partners are interchangeable, each as good as another. “When we want something, it’s true,” he tells Dorothy; “The thing you want is the thing you have, isn’t it?”

Though Dorothy accepts Larry’s desire to return home and concocts a plan to get him there, her newfound happiness is punctuated by the recurrent thought that she couldn’t bear to lose him. The preceding years were devoid of interests and attachments, but with Larry, “Now, at last, she had something.” He may have no place in the human world, but in the privacy of Dorothy’s emotional life, he fits.

It’s easy to forget, given the specificity and warmth of their relationship, that Ingalls gives us reason to wonder if Dorothy is so enlivened by Larry because she’s conjured him herself. We learn early on that Dorothy has lost confidence in her ability to distinguish between reality and imagination. In the weeks before Larry’s arrival, her radio issues a number of other improbable utterances, including a program about a violin-playing chicken and an assurance that she’ll have another child. These brief hallucinations isolate Dorothy, but the instrumental uses of fantasy are likewise open questions for her neighbors. The difference is one of degree, not kind: Her friends’ doubts about the status of reality occupy a more mundane register of processed foods, pesticides, bad horoscopes, and other such invisible perils of modern living.

Ingalls is subtle but shrewd in her portrayal of suburbia as a species of paranoia. Dorothy’s social environment is structured by the border between the apparent safety of the visible world and the anticipated dangers that constantly threaten it. The reality of a threat is secondary to the fervor with which one prepares for its incursions. This pervasive feature of late–Cold War suburban life emerges most prominently in the public panic about Larry, sustained by a sensationalist media, and in Dorothy’s effort to make sense of the collective appetite for it. “Once a thing is in the air, everyone sees it,” she tells Larry, by way of an explanation, “even if it isn’t there. It’s an influence.” But the paranoia well precedes his arrival. Dorothy’s long and restless walks after the death of her son used to worry her husband Fred, because “even in the suburbs,” he feared, something might happen, someone from another neighborhood might attack and rape her. This fear of porous boundaries is both a motive and an effect of the life they’ve built; Larry therefore satisfies a fantasy of Fred’s, too, by violating the protective enclosure that the suburbs promise and inevitably fail to deliver.

Larry and Dorothy’s visions of a livable future may be incommensurable: Dorothy’s newfound sense of purpose depends on Larry, who is not welcome in her world and longs to leave it. By the early 1980s postcolonial feminists had cautioned that the happiness of someone like Dorothy might only be secured at the expense of someone like Larry. In “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism” (1985), Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak influentially reappraised the literature of white women’s self-realization around which feminist criticism had so far been organized, taking up Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as emblematic objects of white feminist investment. The subordination and exclusion of racial others, Spivak argues, is not incidental but essential to the triumphant individualism of a novel like Jane Eyre. Jane needs Bertha, the Jamaican Creole first wife locked in the attic of her love interest’s estate, as a foil against whom to measure and assert her own autonomy. Bertha had just a few years prior served as a legitimating figure for the unruly (white) feminist critic in Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s watershed study The Madwoman in the Attic; in Spivak’s reading she instead represents the “not-yet-human Other” on whose back such feminists’ independence is achieved.

In the case of Mrs. Caliban, Spivak’s intervention is illuminating but not, I think, damning. Ingalls is canny about the instrumental role Larry plays in Dorothy’s dawning self-assurance. Tellingly, Caliban enters Spivak’s essay as a figure for the colonized subject who escapes stable subjugation: The creature of Frankenstein, for example, is like Caliban to the extent that he resists containment by the white mind that created and seeks to destroy him. Ingalls’s reference to Shakespeare is not developed beyond her novel’s title, perhaps because the parallels can’t be parsed neatly: Unlike Larry, in The Tempest Caliban is denied a partner, condemned to isolation and servitude for attempting to undermine the white nobleman who enslaves him. Ingalls’s novel could not be called Miranda, after his master’s daughter, who loathes Caliban and whom Caliban attempted to rape in the play’s past. By the logic of the title’s formalized coupling, Dorothy is a willing traitor to her species and her race.

The failures of the women’s movement in the 1970s are commonly narrated as a result of its exclusions, with middle-class white women’s myopia alienating people to both the right and left of high profile figures like Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem. On the one hand, apolitical housewives and mothers resisted being informed of their own oppression, and many became eager foot soldiers in Phyllis Schlafly’s crusade against the Equal Rights Amendment. On the other, working-class women, queer people, and women of color refused to have their struggles subsumed under a single-issue agenda, either forcing difficult internal conversations or abandoning organized feminism altogether.

It’s tempting, then, to read Mrs. Caliban as a compensatory invitation, welcoming the previously excluded Caliban into the scene of white womanhood—its literal home—in the wake of feminism’s qualified successes. Whereas in Spivak’s reading of Jane Eyre Bertha must be exiled to the attic, Larry may not be entirely inassimilable to the world in which he’s trapped. He comes to enjoy sharing music, television, and housework with Dorothy, and she speculates that were they to have a child it could, as a U.S. citizen, technically become President. We might therefore credit Ingalls with rectifying rather than reproducing the racism of narratives in which white women’s growth is achieved through instrumental relationships with the disempowered. (The genre is, unfortunately, alive and well three decades after Spivak’s essay, having recently appeared on the big screen in the egregiously nostalgic Victoria & Abdul.) But Larry cannot stay in Dorothy’s world and does not want to, and the self-possession Dorothy achieves through their relationship is severely limited. Dorothy is not Shakespeare’s Miranda, but neither can she promise fidelity to Caliban till death do them part. It is to Ingalls’s great credit that her novel understands this and provides a conclusion to match.

Perhaps the most responsible reading would refuse to credit Mrs. Caliban with avoiding the failures that Spivak critiques; perhaps Dorothy’s encounter with radical difference is only a useful projection, something she’s imagined to satisfy her own emotional needs and that couldn’t have existed outside her head. But by encouraging the reader to question Larry’s reality, Ingalls also cues us to doubt the fantasy he embodies. Larry may claim to represent a world without individual difference—a world in which the fantasy of desire and the reality of mutual obligation are in clear alignment—but Dorothy doesn't buy this self-description. When he tells her that among his people, “The thing you want is the thing you have,” she insists that this is false not simply in her world but also in his own experience and therefore in his world, too: “What about prison? You were in one,” she says, reminding him of the research facility from which he fled. “And there are all kinds of prisons in the world. Everywhere.”

Their solution to their shared prison is partial and fleeting, like every solution we’ve yet known, involving not a decisive flight into one reality or another but something more like détente between the two. “Is it like the sea?” Dorothy asks him of a human crowd. “All the changing sounds?”

“No,” Larry answers; “Not at all. But I like the thought.”