A Year in Reading: Ling Ma

December 3, 2018 | 1 book mentioned 1 2 min read

So I will now remember 2018 as the year I read Mrs Caliban for the first time. A 1982 novel by Rachel Ingalls, the premise reads like a fairy tale: a housewife stows away an escaped sea monster in her house. His name is Aquarius but being unable to pronounce this, he just goes by Larry. Upon their unexpected meeting, she observes, “Of course he had suffered, not being like other people.” For a brief, magical spell, Larry lives in Dorothy’s home undetected. She feeds him avocados and cucumbers. In the evenings, while her husband works late or pursues his affairs, they visit gardens and beaches, which remind Larry of his oceanic home. For a time, Dorothy is happy: “For so many years, there had been nothing. She had taken jobs to keep herself busy, but that was all they were. She had had no interests, no marriage to speak of, no children. Now, at last, she had something.”

Like Ingalls’s other novels, Mrs Caliban possesses an innate understanding of all the ways that women are trapped, and how they must numb themselves to this. But that’s only one part of it. It’s also about what happens when fantasy tears through the screen fabric of the everyday to wake us up, and how this painful process of waking up may also kill us. Which is to say that this novel slayed me dead (I’m transmitting from the afterlife, hi!). If the natural law of fantasy is that it’s meant to serve as beacon or mirage, it also follows that fantasies are not meant to be inhabited. Once you attempt to inhabit such a thing, to make it a hospitable space in which to anchor your life, it will begin to disintegrate. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the arrangement between Dorothy and Larry cannot hold, is temporary at best. Yet, despite its brutal, mercenary qualities, the novel also holds such sweetness and humor, and such a strange, fervent joy at being alive. Larry, on living in the ocean: “When you move, the place you live in moves too.”

Having read most of Mrs Caliban on a four-hour flight, this is also maybe a moment to apologize to my seatmate (sorry, Cale!), who politely pretended not to notice my intermittent weeping, particularly when I came to the beautiful, impossible ending. There is a phrase that Ingalls repeats irregularly throughout the final passages; like a ringing of a bell, each strike compounds the one that came before. At first, this phrase seems like a factual statement, but in its repeated iterations, it casts doubt, it points to a never-ending ache, it collapses everything that came before. Every time it is invoked, it reverberates just a bit deeper until it’s finally unbearable. It’s just perfect.

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is the author of the novel Severance.

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