The problem with Tony and Susan

I read Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan this week. It was originally published in 1993 by the small Baskerville Publishers, when it received critical if not commercial success, eventually being translated into thirteen languages. In 2010, it was republished in Britain, and the subsequent fanfare led to a reissuing in America, and a second wave of interest. Eventually this led to the 2016 film Nocturnal Animals that went on to do well at the Oscars.

The novel is two distinct but connected stories. The first is that of Susan Morrow, a woman who receives a manuscript in the mail, sent by the husband she left. Edward Sheffield, the author, wants her to read it. Susan was always his most fervent critic, so perhaps she could tell Sheffield what was missing from his work. Although Susan is puzzled, she hasn’t heard from Edward in years, she agrees to read it.

The manuscript, entitled Nocturnal Animals, is the story of Tony Hastings. Hastings and his wife and daughter are driving to Maine for a summer break when they are ran off the road by three men. Hastings is separated from his family, who are kidnapped, raped, and then murdered. The manuscript then goes on to explore Hastings’ grief at his loss, and the quest to find the three men who carried out the slayings. Nocturnal Animals ends with all three dead, but the ringleader, Ray, takes Tony Hastings with him.

Susan Morrow reads this over three nights while her husband Arnold is at a medical conference, possibly or possibly not rekindling his affair with a younger colleague. She is unsettled by the novel, but grudgingly admits it is much better than what Edward had her read when they were married. We also glimpse Susan’s daily life, where she seems constantly unsettled, bordering on the verge of paranoia. But Tony and Susan is sold as a literary thriller, it is implied that this paranoia is warranted: something terrible is going to happen to Susan.

But as Nocturnal Animals wears on, it becomes increasingly clear that the terrible things are only destined to happen to Tony Hastings. As his life unravels, comes partly back together, and then becomes completely unrecognisable as he meets his end, Susan stays rooted on her sofa, waiting for her husband to return from the conference with the news that he has been offered a prestigious job in Washington. He wants the family to move.

The only real story, at least the only story with drive and purpose, is the manuscript Nocturnal Animals. Nothing happens to Susan Morrow, she simply has marital issues that require resolution. The whole book is like a porn film that cuts off right before the orgasm, it builds and builds and builds but has no payoff. There is no twist that is promised throughout the sections focusing on Susan.

Susan finishes the novel, a novel that is not a reflection on her or her marriage to Edward, and picks up her husband from the airport. The one hint that Edward may have had Susan in mind when writing his novel is the introduction of a character named Susan to the story. But she is so inconsequential, and so obviously not Susan, that this seems clumsy and pointless. The whole idea of Susan reading the novel, this story outside the main story, is nothing more than a device to make Tony and Susan more complex, perhaps more literary.

This takes away from the fact that read alone, Nocturnal Animals is a fantastic book. Its opening sequence is haunting and genuinely fear-inducing. Its exploration of Tony’s grief is moving, and although its ending could use a rework, it is satisfying enough. The story-within-a-story element of Tony and Susan is unnecessary when Wright could write a thriller as impressive as the fictional Edward Sheffield did.

The sections with Susan Morrow are an unnecessary tangent that tries and fails to add more literary merit. It is where Wright tries to deepen the meaning of the work, but these sections just slow the narrative of Nocturnal Animals, the real impressive work. Read that alone, it will move and grip and haunt you.

Photo: The photograph is a shot of the film based on Tony and Susan, Nocturnal Animals. It is taken from Boise Weekly.