A month (or so) ago, I saw a trailer for a movie on Facebook. The movie, Nocturnal Animals, looked like a psychological thriller, intense and mysterious, and was described as a story about revenge. The main characters were played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams, two actors I enjoy watching. The best part, it was based on a book! In all, this looked like a recipe for amazingness.
My friend and I decided to read the book before seeing the movie, something I generally try to do whenever possible. This was even more exciting because I was reading a book with someone! (Book nerd thrills!)
We haven’t seen the movie yet, but this book was a strange one for me. First, it’s a novel within a novel. (Spoilers ahead) The main character Susan receives a novel, titled ‘Nocturnal Animals’, from her ex-husband, Edward. The novel follows Susan as she reads, and allows us to read the novel with her.
The writing is strange. I found myself struggling with some of the sentences, reading them over and over trying to decipher them. The author was a professor and had published multiple other novels, so it seems that the writing is a deliberate choice. At first, I thought maybe it was an incredibly smart way to show the budding novelist in Edward. But, then the weird structures appeared in the scenes with Susan, so it feels like a style choice. I didn’t quite get it, but it didn’t ruin the novel(s) for me.
Even with the strange style, and odd sentences, the stories were both enthralling enough that it was easy to get lost in the story. Until the end.
It took me awhile to get the ending (I’m still not quite sure I do). At least, the ending of the novel that Susan was reading. It was weird. (Seriously, spoilers)
The entire internal novel was about Tony. A man, who begins the story on vacation with his family. He finds himself in a cat and mouse game with another car, that ends in the cars colliding and ending up on the side of the road. The men take his car, with his wife and daughter in it, force him to a clearing in a forest and abandon him. He walks out of the clearing, following some instinct that saves his life, although that instinct was silent during the abduction, and gets help. His wife and daughter end up raped and murdered, and the hunt for the killers is mockingly slow.
Throughout the entire story, Tony is a hard character to like. He is ambivalent, makes bad choices, is wishy-washy, and is just generally someone you don’t find yourself rooting for. Or liking. He lets things happen to him, he doesn’t take action.
Meanwhile, we also get to know Susan. She is married to a surgeon, with three kids. Her husband is out of town while she reads this novel, at a conference that could bring a job offer that will force them to move. We learn that he is having an affair, one that she is complacent about.
We flash between her current life, and the life she had with Edward. His desire to be an author is the reason for their divorce. She became bitter and angry at him for leaving law school, and the subsequent financial burden of their life on her while he followed his dream. After the divorce, she relishes the fact that he ended up working a real job in insurance, that he abandoned his dreams to become an adult.
We also learn that she had an affair with Arnold, her current husband. Edward was on a writing trip, isolated in a cabin, and Arnold’s wife Selena in a mental institution for attempted suicide.
There is an eloquence in the way both stories are interwoven. We learn more about Susan as she reads further into the novel. She is unhappy with her life, with her husband’s affair, with his assumption that the entire family will move on his career whims. But these realizations are drawn out. Susan herself, never really fully admits to them, only dances around them. We also see hints that perhaps there was more to the divorce than his writing, or even her affair, though Susan refuses to delve too much those memories or thoughts.
At the end of the internal novel, Tony confronts the man responsible for killing and raping his wife and daughter. They both die, although Tony’s death is longer and drawn out. There is an irony woven into his death. He ends up badly injured, in a field. He can hear the police looking for him, but never shouts or tries to get their attention. I think this was to show the ambivalence of Tony. Even in death, he will wait and leave his fate to others.
The ending for Susan is a bit more complicated. She loves the novel, and is surprised by it. She is excited to meet with Edward, to talk with him. All resentment is now gone, now that she sees how he has matured and changed. She plans a dinner at her home, with her children present, but not her husband. She wants to confide in Edward, to share the intimacy of her life, of this novel. In short, she imagines her relationship with him renewed.
But she doesn’t get any of those things. He snubs her, not bothering to call her back or leave a message for her. She goes through a riot of emotions, anger at her current husband, anger at her ex-husband. But even those emotions are fleeting, too large and frightening for her to embrace. She ends by wanting to force Arnold to read the novel, to see the hidden subtleties written in it, but decides that she won’t because he wouldn’t see it anyway.
When I first reached the end, I felt let down. Deflated. I guess when I read reviews saying it was a thrilling novel about revenge, I was expecting something a bit more shocking. I didn’t quite understand the ending. Why didn’t Tony yell? Why was he blinded? The entire altercation felt undeveloped and cut short.
Some stories are explosive in their messages, others are slower to bloom. This was a slow bloom.
The story stuck with me, and I found I couldn’t quite put it back on the shelf. It took me awhile, and my friend pointed it out, Tony is Susan. The allusion that the affair wasn’t the entire reason for the divorce, was also hinted at the end. Tony let life happen to him, which ended in tragedy and ultimately his death. Susan lets life happen to her. She lives a life where she gave up her dreams and is complacent in her husbands affair. The anger and indignation she felt towards Edward at following his dream are emotions she won’t allow herself to feel about her own life.
The revenge is a complicated one. First, the most obvious, he wrote a novel that he knew she would fall into. He told her he would be in town and would like to meet, but then ignores her. The revenge is knowing he was true to himself, and that she wasn’t. That she could have had a different life, a happier one perhaps, if she had simply had faith in him. He dangled the possibility of that in front of her, and then snubbed her.
Then there is the more subtle revenge. He wrote a story with her hidden within the characters. What better way to get under her skin, than to force her to slowly examine the traits she doesn’t want to see. Tony died, blind and alone, with help literally one yell away. Susan then, he is saying, will also die blind and alone, in a situation of her creation. Will she also refuse to save her own life? At the end, she does seem resigned to her own fate.
Unfortunately, as with any good indie film, it didn’t play in theaters for very long. So, we have yet to see it. In a way, I am glad that we weren’t able to see it right away, because as I said, this novel took longer to settle in, longer to understand. I think if I had plunged straight into the movie, I may have allowed someone else’s interpretation to settle in, and that would have made the experience of both more shallow.
I am looking forward to seeing the movie, more now than the day after I finished the novel. I am interested in seeing how they establish these internal thoughts that Susan goes through without giving her such a direct voice. I hope they keep her character ambivalent and passive, as that is who she was throughout the book. I did read that Jake Gyllenhaal’s plays both Edward and Tony, which I think could be very interesting, especially as Susan had worried that she wouldn’t be able to take her assumptions about Edward out of her reading.
In the end, Susan almost faced some difficult truths about herself. This is quite a brilliant insight from the author. One that I wonder how intentional it was. Books can do this to each of us. Even through fiction, we glimpse life through someone else’s eyes. That experience allows us to explore those traits within ourselves. What would we do? How would we behave? Do we see ourselves in these characters? And do we like what we see?
The stories we love, the stories we hate, they all tell us something about ourselves. It’s up to us as the reader to accept or deny them.