Three Married Couples and a Cryptic Headmistress Feed Suburban Satire of “Pessimists”
We all have our favorite lengths. When it comes to movies, I like 90 minutes. Pop songs: three minutes. Popsicles: four inches. Books are an exception. Sometimes I want to go through a short story in an hour and sometimes I want to be crushed under the weight of an 800 page tome like a helpless worm. “Is this book the right length?” Is a question most readers answer intuitively as you go.
That a book seems too long is unambiguously a bad thing, but to say that one feels too short can be an endorsement: “It went so fast, I couldn’t get enough of it!” Or maybe not. That’s the conundrum posed by Bethany Ball’s “The Pessimists,” a delightfully numb tale of three couples from a wealthy Connecticut suburb who face the possible destruction of their marriage, body, mind and soul. Earth. At the center of their lives is an unaccredited school run by a principal who wears maxi dresses and has possible family ties to the Nazis. This director, Agnes, takes a cryptic approach to pedagogy, and each of the novel’s parents develops a fixation on her – in some cases, a fixation that flourishes in worship; in others, the one who bitter in revulsion.
At Agnès’ school, children sit in adorable 19th century desks recovered from a school in Alsace. Surrounded by mindfulness slogans, they learn to churn butter and play with faceless dolls. Jewish holidays are not recognized. Vaccines and competitive sports and gluten consumption: all not recommended. There is no ADHD diagnosis, no dyslexia, “no learning disability of any kind” in school.
The novel begins on the eve of 2013, at a conscientious New Years party hosted by Virginia and Tripp Powers, who are the frostiest of couples. Tripp (I portrayed him as Kurt Russell in “Escape From New York” with 20% less cheekbones, but that doesn’t mean you have to) has a secret prepper streak. Although he works in finance and enjoys a largely risk-free lifestyle, Tripp believes the apocalypse is near and wants nothing more than to jerk the road, filter the water through. foam and learn to manually open your garage door in case of massive electricity. network failure. His wife, Virginia, has her own secret: a lump on her breast that an oncologist calls her “bad news.” Each half of the couple suffers in private, without saying anything to each other. Tripp usually sleeps in the spare bedroom.
The second couple are Gunter and Rachel. Gunter is Swedish and cannot hold back his alcohol. He compares his wife to “a wet towel thrown on the bathroom floor.” Rachel feels exiled in the suburbs and nibbles on Xanax to calm her nerves. When she has doubts about Agnes’ school – a teacher criticizes her child for not being “cuddly” enough – she calmly remembers that Ally Sheedy, Tori Spelling and “a member of an Irish megaband” all sent their children there.
The third couple are Richard and Margot. Margot maintains a temporary hold on reason, sublimating her anxieties into obsessive household chores. Richard hates his job in finance and cuts the dinner steak “with a knife so sharp it could shave the hair off a child’s arm, something Richard liked to demonstrate on his eldest son’s arm.”
And then there’s Agnès, the most charismatic nutcase in the book. She runs her school with an iron fist, issuing proclamations against conventional dairy and shampoos and “abstract concepts.” Her posture is upright and her powers are magical enough that her hair changes color and length at random; she is first described as having “a headpiece of straight red hair”, then a head of “long straight black hair”. It might be an editing error, but it sort of works as a quality of this slippery character.
Agnes gives parents special chores – not “Can you please bring brownies to the bake sale?” But don’t lean on anything for a week; feel your feet; brush your teeth with your left hand. Margot finds the assigned tasks “strangely magical”. Rachel wished she had attended a school like the one where her children go missing every day. Gunter is the most skeptical of the school’s utopian aspirations. “School is made to be hated,” he growls. How else will children learn to endure hateful things?
Ball is a pleasure to read. His sentences are sharp stabs; every satirical dart is a target. She makes a meal of her younger space suburbs, with their expensive German cars and organic apple juice, but allows their concerns to be widely applicable: Will my kids grow up to be okay? Will my life be worth anything? Does my partner secretly hate me? Should I be concerned about this lump in my breast? Is the thrill of adultery strong enough to outweigh the guilt? Suffering, Ball argues, is universal and fears are often irrational. Just because a rich man has no reason to fear running out of money doesn’t mean he won’t be consumed by this notion.
But there is something wrong with the proportions of the novel. After all of Ball’s painstaking set-up – school, illness, survival training – the book seems to end midway through the second act, with the sinister Agnes fading into the background and the flesh. school hen not reaching any climax. There is a rushed scene of violence that answers some of the questions asked so skillfully at the beginning of the book. As I neared the conclusion, I found myself anxious about the thin slice of unread pages in my right hand, hoping that “CONTINUE…” would be typed out at the end. Being left waiting for many, many more after 300 pages may hint at a structural problem, but it is also a compliment.