Lady Mondegreen’s Jungle
In 1954 Sylvia Wright, an editor at Harper’s Magazine, wrote a piece for the magazine in which she recalls her childhood. Her mother would read the Scottish ballad “The Bonnie Earl o’ Moray” to her. Here is how young Wright heard the opening lyric:
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl Amurray,
And Lady Mondegreen.
For Wright, the Earl had someone next to him as he died. “An arrow had pierced her throat,” Wright writes of the mental image conjured by the stanza. “From it, blood trickled down over the lace. Sunlight coming through the leaves made dappled shadows on her cheeks and her closed eyelids. She was holding the Earl’s hand.”
Wright had misheard the lyric; it actually goes, “They hae slain the Earl Amurray, / and layd him on the green.” Wright knows that this is the real line, but, she writes, “I won’t give in to it. Leaving him to die all alone without even anyone to hold his hand—I won’t have it.” She prefers the way she heard it than the way it is. Thus Wright coined the term “mondegreen” for misheard lyrics that make sense in the listener’s mind.
I didn’t know that Wright was responsible for this word until I began to research this essay, but when viewed in conjunction with her collection of novellas, A Shark-Infested Rice Pudding, it’s fitting that such a phenomenon would interest her. The three long stories that make up ASIRP deal with the differences between the things that really happen to us and the way we interpret them. To explore these gaps, Wright employs a complex, metafictional technique, which, coupled with her dexterous lyricism, make ASIRP one of the more fascinating works of fiction I’ve stumbled upon. I had never heard of Wright before buying this book at Karen Wickliff Books in Columbus, where I live, and now I’ll never forget her.
The first novella, “Fathers and Mothers,” opens with what could be the tagline of metafiction: “How do you make fiction?” The narrator is dubious about storytelling’s construction, dismissing the conventions of plot as “sequences of problem and solution, search and find, despair and redemption.” “In any case,” the narrator concludes, “I cannot grasp this craft. I see the writer as searching for his soul and having to search again. Only in fiction do the redemptions take.”
Here, fiction stands not just for the form made of narrative prose but for the narrator’s memories. She grapples with the time when her husband’s parents came and stayed with them. Her father-in-law is receiving radiation treatment for cancer. The narrator begins by putting distance between herself and the characters: “To begin, let us say that the four of them are sitting around the dining room table in an apartment in a small New England city…” For much of the story, they are referred to as “the father, the mother, the son, and the daughter-in-law.” Only later do the monikers switch to “father-in-law,” “mother-in-law,” “husband,” and “I,” respectively. The mother-in-law passive-aggressively criticizes the household and comments on American customs she views as extravagant. The father-in-law remains stoic, mostly reading the newspaper and watching the news. He is unaware that he has cancer, a once common practice, as people believed the information would worsen things for the sufferer (“I tell you he cannot bear the knowledge,” the mother-in-law says). People pay visits to the family, during which the father mostly stays on the couch. “The small room vibrates with desperate generosity,” the narrator observes, “which says, I will pay anything—to begin with, this bottle of Beaujolais—for the fact that it is not I sitting on that sofa.”
It is this aura of death that transfixes the narrator, who, in the narrative present, is convinced she will betray her own child by dying. Being in the presence of the slow, banal demise of her father-in-law is her most germane memory, but she worries she’s not learning from the past. Instead, she may be shaping it to demonstrate what she already believes. “Did it really happen like that?” she wonders. “Or have I shaped it a little so that it will come to a climax? I am no longer sure. Am I after all contriving, almost without realizing it, like a real writer, to show something?”
The second story, “Dans le Vrai,” has another nameless narrator visiting her sister in a town just outside of New York. It’s an ambling work rife with contemplation, in which Wright lets her descriptive power run loose, as in this passage:
The door of the Come ‘n’ Go breathes and opens of itself, and there it is spread before me—the gleaming aisles, dazzlingly full of rich, neatly stacked and racked possibilities. Outside is winter, leafless trees, a mean runny-nose cold, wind whipping through telegraph wires, feet striking painfully hard on cold concrete pavement, gray, weighted skies.
Wright’s interests as a fiction writer are evoking the physical world of the characters and following the vagaries of inner thought. Plot doesn’t compel her any more than it does the narrator of the first novella. Her use of metafiction isn’t like that of, say, Philip Roth, who in his Zuckerman novels endlessly puzzles over how being a novelist has informed how he sees the world; Wright’s approach uses fiction as a metaphor for the ways in which we construct our own understanding. Everything we think or believe or have experienced has been molded and skewed by our interpretations of them. The French expression “dans le vrai” means something like “close to the truth,” which I interpret as a rough equivalent of telling someone in today’s parlance they’re a “real one.” As the narrator moves through her life, she notes people who merit this label. “With such real moments,” she writes, “I always that soon all would be over, that one should concentrate on the moment so as to have it while it lasted.” She is, in other words, aware that the meaning and the truth of a given experience dissipates with time, allowing for the kind of retroactive reconstruction that fiction is made of.
The complexities of memory and its relation to our present takes center stage again in the title novella, the most intricately structured of the trio. Another unnamed narrator (the three narrators all share similar voices and tones, which makes understandable a mistake in the New York Times’s obit for Wright, when they refer to ASIRP as a novel) recalls the summers her family spent on Long Island Sound. The whole story feels like the “Time Passes” chapter in To the Lighthouse: nonlinear chronology determined more by associative leaps than dramatic arc; and a mix of ponderous musings and summarized lives. Wright even uses bracketed asides like Woolf does. In one such aside, Wright comments on a scene from a novel the narrator wrote, similar to the fictionalized family in “Fathers and Mothers” and a scene in “Dans le Vrai” when the narrator interrupts the story with another one (“Now there comes a story called ‘The Thruway,’ which is contained in the story called ‘Dans le Vrai.’”). Again, the narrator uses fiction as an “attempt to sort, codify, put in running order so that it could all go on into the future, not remain left where it was, somewhere between past and now.” In brackets, the narrator writes, “When I wrote this I felt I had to remember everything, that if I left one thing out something would fail, something terrible would happen.” She never finished writing that novel because she didn’t like it; “it did not sound real to me, perhaps being too real.” Wright’s characters can’t seem to figure out what to do with all this life: what is the use of the past? How do we learn from the past while still remaining present in the now? The narrator’s family refer to a Golden Age, when the Sound and their summer home had yet to succumb to the vagaries of modernity. Even the narrator, too young to remember this era, “felt in my heart the scrub-grown, wind-swept superiority of its then.” Then she adds: “It now was only me, with no one around to say to me, How beautiful your jungle is.”
Another detail about Wright that I didn’t know until I began this essay is that she never published another work of fiction. She died of cancer at 64 in 1981, twelve years after the publication of ASIRP, so perhaps she left some projects unfinished. I mention this fact because the narrators of her stories here are all fiction writers—indeed, writing fiction seems to be central to their identities. Everything is subsumed through the lens of literary storytelling. If Wright felt even a semblance of this about herself, there’s something heartbreaking about the fact that this one book was all she produced. Maybe the book’s sales or its reception disappointed her or her publisher. Or perhaps she merely needed to wrest these obsessive fictions out of her, empty them out onto the page, and move on from them. She wrote lots of nonfiction, and I think she remained a freelance writer until her death. Whatever happened, it’s unfortunate that Wright didn’t get to develop her technique, expand its possibilities, and see where she could have taken her talent. For a debut, A Shark-Infested Rice Pudding is quite an assured accomplishment. I hope Wright didn’t become frustrated with her fiction, or come to view it as unsuccessful. If so, I wish someone had been there to tell her how brilliant her mind was, how deft her intuition was, how beautiful her jungle was.
Jonathan Russell Clark is a former staff writer for Literary Hub, and his essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Atlantic, Tin House, Vulture, the Columbus Dispatch, LA Review of Books, New Republic, The Georgia Review, and dozens of others. Most recently, he wrote about a debut novel by a professional skateboarder for the L.A. Times. His first book, An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom, a study of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, was published in 2018. His second book, Skateboard, will be a part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series and will be published in 2022.