I wouldn’t have believed it until I read it, but Tessa, the narrator of “My Nemesis,” proves it’s possible to be delightfully pretentious. Not that she would admit to her pretentions.
For starters, she often cites Albert Camus. She’s a feminist writer who’s absolutely certain in her ideas, but is full of contradictions. She lectures about parenting while being unable to be kind to her daughter — once even while they are sharing a stage. She examines things from every angle, but scarcely acknowledges that she’s obsessing about someone else’s husband. Sometimes her hubris and blindness are jaw-dropping.
That readers can see past Tessa’s narration to her failures is the first delicious trick in Charmaine Craig’s new novel, which has a few up its sleeve. Her last book, “Miss Burma,” was longlisted for the National Book Award, yet this feels like a breakthrough tour de force.
Many have tried to give us an unreliable narrator; few have succeeded as well as Craig does. Along the way she slyly visits other forms — Victorian novels with the microanalysis of people’s gestures and motives, autofiction with its self-absorbed protagonists, midcentury American male novels (but inverted). And this is also a novel of ideas, where people debate motives, values, femininity, motherhood.
The plot is straightforward enough: Two couples form an uneasy, unequal friendship, and something bad is bound to happen.
Tessa and her husband, Milton, are accomplished New Yorkers — she’s a high-profile memoirist, he’s retired, they have a Manhattan apartment and a farm upstate. Their kids are grown.
Charlie and his wife, Wah, live in Los Angeles. Charlie is a not particularly distinguished philosophy professor; Wah has written a memoir about saving their adopted daughter, Htet, from a life of horrid abuse in Kuala Lumpur.
They come together when Charlie writes a letter to Tessa about her work. Intrigued — perhaps by the flattery, the chance to discuss philosophy, or the fact that Charlie is quite handsome (she avoids mentioning this for a long time) — Tessa responds. She soon shares his writing with Milton, telling us, “Any romantic union benefits from its share of excitements and threats.” Perhaps true, but a far cry from Ann Landers. They invite Charlie to visit when he’s in New York.
With her husband cooking and washing dishes, Tessa and Charlie sit up late, boozily discussing the work and life of Camus and Charlie’s favorite, Friedrich Nietzsche. (I read these passages feeling a mix of envy and embarrassment. I guess this is what true intellectuals do? Make me a strong cocktail and I’ll start talking about reality TV.)
All the philosopher talk is, of course, providing a subtext for their growing attachment. Camus was a womanizer. Nietzsche questioned simplistic moralizers. Charlie admits to Tessa he wants out of his marriage. Tessa admits nothing, but tells us, “I was aware then of wanting something distinctively masculine from him, even as I proceeded to tell him that his entire enterprise of gendering such things was a mistake.”
Tessa is a brilliant cross between the autobiographical fiction of Rachel Cusk and the untrustworthy narrator Charles Kinbote in Vladimir Nabokov’s “Pale Fire.” Her narration is revealing and not; her pomposity is porous, funny.
Before long, she accepts speaking engagements so she can see Charlie in California. Instead of staying at a hotel, Tessa and Milton stay in Charlie and Wah’s house. Everything about Wah sets Tessa off — her hostessing, the way she mothers Htet, her feminine dress. She keeps it bottled up until, after months of friendship, she brutally, in front of all four of them, accuses Wah of being “an insult to womankind.”
This is no spoiler — in fact, that outburst happens on page one. The story that flows out from there flashes back so we can understand that incident, where it came from, and what happens next. It’s right up front so the reader knows, from the start, that Tessa is not to be trusted.
In Los Angeles, Tessa finds Charlie and Wah’s neighborhood shabby, but she’s good at noticing its details. There’s a vacant Victorian on the corner, an elderly Japanese man next door, and a freeway she finds all too close. Wah has meticulously restored their modest bungalow but Tessa overlooks her work, not understanding its value.
As the couples’ orbits intertwine, their families do, too. Tessa learns more about what Htet endured but is still cold to her. Meanwhile she tries to connect with her own daughter, Eleonore, but spins and overanalyzes and misunderstands. Eleonore and Charlie form a bond of their own.
But to the outside, the shape of the two families’ friendship seems unusual. Tessa sets up a lunch with a publishing colleague, whose skepticism over his take on Nietzsche is a hint that perhaps Charlie is not all that. And yet she continues to push, inviting him to join her at an important public event.
It is easier to understand Tessa’s actions if you imagine her as a male character in so many 1960s novels (by John Updike, Philip Roth), who destroy marriages without regret, who have no connection with their own children, who vocally prioritize their own desires above their loved ones and the greater community around them. Those characters were celebrated. Tessa is problematic.
The book is a little bit of a whodunnit — we learn at the beginning of chapter two that Wah winds up dead. What happened? Why is Tessa telling this story, and to whom?
With a narrator who is utterly convinced of her own rightness, there will be more twists and surprises. But those I can’t spoil. They’re too good.
By Charmaine Craig
Grove Press, 208 pp., $26
Carolyn Kellogg, former books editor of the LA Times, now lives in the Hudson Valley.