Calling Invisible Women
When my kids were so little we were going to the nearby public library that was in one big room, so they could pick out kid’s books and videos and I could look at books that might interest me within earshot, I found Jeanne Ray’s books and read both of the ones on the shelf: Eat Cake and Julie and Romeo. They were pleasant novels, and I didn’t think about them again until I read that Jeanne Ray had a new novel out, Calling Invisible Women, and decided to ask Random House for a copy.
I sat down with it one afternoon, thinking it would be an easy read, and it was, but it was more interesting and less compelling than I expected. It’s interesting because it doesn’t take the concept of invisibility and make it altogether metaphorical, and it’s less compelling than it could have been because of the suspension of disbelief necessary to get through the plot. I am capable of suspending disbelief to what strikes some of my friends as an astonishing degree, and yet reading this book made me go through some of my day testing out whether people were actually looking at me. (What I found was as mundane and homey as Ray’s books used to be—my son and husband didn’t notice what color I was wearing or when I had spinach in my teeth, but they did notice when I made a face, or that I had changed out of work clothes when I got home. To the people I met on my daily errands, I could have been just clothes walking around, but a couple that I usually stop and talk to would have noticed if there were no face attached.)
What happens to the protagonist of Ray’s novel, Clover, is that one day she gets out of the shower and when she looks in the mirror all she sees is her toothbrush “floating by itself several inches out from the cuff of my robe.” She runs into her sleeping son’s room, a son who has just graduated from Oberlin (where Walker is going next fall) and says “I need you to tell me if you can see me.” His response is “You don’t like your bathrobe anymore? You want to know if it’s becoming? I don’t know what you’re asking.”
It gets even funnier when she tells a friend, and the friend says “Are you kidding me? Except for a very few breakout moments, I’ve been invisible since the new millennium. The boys can be looking at naked women on Facebook and they don’t so much as twitch when I walk into the room. I can ask Steve what time he wants to eat dinner and he keeps on texting like I wasn’t even there. A woman wheels her cart right in front of mine and cuts into the checkout lane, a car cuts me off in traffic, I wave at the waiter and he’s looking at the wall behind my head. It’s just the plight of women after a certain age. No one can see you.” When Clover says that she’s talking about literal invisibility, the friend continues to talk about feeling invisible.
Finally Clover finds a support group for invisible women, who go naked but carry Kleenex so they can see each other. At that point the humor of the situation actually starts to diminish, because they figure out that a mix of three drugs–a hormone replacement, anti-depressant, and calcium supplement—is what’s causing the invisibility. What humor there is starts to get sad, about things that might not have changed for all women since the author’s generation: “They can see that the toilet paper roll needs changing and the wastebasket is full and that there is no more orange juice and we drink orange juice and orange juice is sold in grocery stores. They’ve trained themselves not to notice things because the less they notice the more we’ll just take care of it for them. They say, you should have told me you wanted my help when we had twelve people coming over for dinner! You should have told me not to sit in front of the computer looking at football scores while you’re running around doing everything by yourself. If you needed my help why didn’t you ask for it? I didn’t know you needed help.”
With the protagonist’s invisibility real and the lessons to be learned from it symbolic, like that it’s disingenuous to pretend that a person keeping a household going should have to ask for “help” or “how shameless people were in all they did not see,” the moral of the story gets bigger and more ridiculous, until the mother of a recent college graduate, a woman purportedly in her early fifties, is having a fit over her adult son getting a tattoo (a reaction I’d expect more from his grandmother than his mother), and the invisible women are out foiling bank robberies and school bullies. It’s fun, but keeps turning into a rollicking granny kind of fun.
The moral of the story seems to be that the drug companies should not be selling the drugs that make women invisible, and the women shouldn’t be taking them so unconcernedly. What the novel can’t seem to figure out is how essential these women are. Does the fate of the household actually rest on her shoulders–which makes the drugs an essential part of enduring an essential task–or are her efforts inconsequential, and so she’s simply a comic granny taking pills to make herself feel a little better in a world that’s passed her by? The mix of symbolism and realism makes it hard to see.