Sunday, May 19, 2019

Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller

I’ve had a copy of this on the shelf since I read Heller’s The Believers with great enjoyment a few years ago. That later novel chronicles a family of ideologues falling apart. It is acerbic and funny and had an understanding of what happens when ideology becomes more important than people that I’ve rarely seen in fiction. I bought a used copy of Notes on a Scandal at that time but didn’t pick it up until recently. I saw an online discussion about whether a gender-swapped Lolita could make for a good novel, and someone mentioned this had elements of that idea. Since this book deals with a female high school teacher in England who sleeps with a male student, I can see that comparison. Especially since both the narrator and the other main character are monsters. The narrator, though, in her total lack of self-awareness that is likely at least in part a put-on and masks a deep sorrow reminded me more of Kinbote from Pale Fire. That being said, it is unfair to just compare the book to Nabokov’s. It is a great work in its own right.

The unreliable narrator is probably my favorite literary device. It allows a character to present themself in what they think is a positive light while a closer look shows how much they’re lying, either to the reader or to their self. Notes on a Scandal is the story of a friendship between an older teacher with dubious intent and a younger teacher who slept with one of her students. The older woman narrates. She sees herself as her friend’s defender and magnifies her role in her friends life. The tone is acerbic and funny. At times you almost find yourself on her side. Then you remember that she’s defending a child molester and you shiver. As much as the real victim of the story is the boy, after the story plays out,  you see that the narrator is also a predator of sorts. The story begins after the crime has hit the news cycle and it is immediately obvious that in the wake of the scandal she is now manipulating her now vulnerable friend. She says of another character at one point, “There are some people in whom you can detect the seeds of madness.” It is unclear the extent to which she sees her own madness. But it is there. The book has the arc of a life-invasion horror thriller a la Misery or Single White Female. The fact that the victim of that thread of the story is as much a predator and as self-deluded as the narrator makes for a highly ambiguous exploration of morality.

The point seems to be some combination of, to quote Victor Lavalle, “What lengths will people stretch to believe they’re still good,” and making the reader question their own goodness. Heller is very good at giving her characters genuine moral insight, almost without their knowing it. The narrator says late in the book, "It seems to me that an enormous amount of vice--and virtue for that matter--is a matter of circumstance…. Evil will out, my mother used to say, but I rather think she was wrong about that. Evil can stay in, minding its business for eternity, if the right situation doesn’t arise."* This evil in question is actually one of the few times the narrator did something right in the book, and yet she is not wrong.

Underneath the more eye grabbing elements of the story is a genuine current of sadness. It has real insight into loneliness, which in a different story would be more obviously tragic.

Reading The Believers prepared me for Heller’s brilliant, funny, acerbic prose, but this is the better book. It could have easily been a cheap, salacious, topical cash grab since teachers sleeping with their students was in the headlines at the time of writing. But the way she approaches the material allows her to gets at some real insight into human behavior. But the book wears that insight lightly. It’s a compelling read.


*Spoiler- The narrator is the one who outs her friend’s crime. That you as a reader genuinely feel that as a betrayal rather than the obvious right thing to do, is a testament to Heller’s skill as a writer. The evil in the quote is that betrayal, yet in isolation the line is true. Just perfect execution.

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