Mona Awad, “All’s Well” (2021) (read aloud by Sophie Amoss) – Chronic pain! I think it’s a pretty common subject for books, but mostly self-help and those popular medical books that waft sadness and desperation when you see piles of them in undiscriminating used bookstores. Fewer novels about it, but I’m sure there are examples other than “All’s Well.” I don’t have chronic pain (I get headaches a few times a week, sometimes, but that’s it), but this one seemed to get the impression across pretty well, the way it can render the world both unreal and hyper-real, dreadful cycles of hope and disillusionment, helped along in this instance by the tones of the reader.
Miranda has chronic pain due, in her telling, to falling off stage while performing one of the bard’s less-loved plays, “All’s Well That Ends Well.” She was a reasonably successful theater actress before that! I didn’t know that was really a thing, I figured they were all angling for movies/tv (or, like my dissertation advisor, waiting until he found a book on US diplomatic history to be inspired to decide in early middle age to become a highly successful diplomatic historian?), but I guess not. Anyway, we run into Miranda years after this, after her life has more or less collapsed. Her leg, back, and hips in constant pain, she can’t act, and she takes a job teaching drama at a small New England liberal arts college, where drama is an afterthought of an underfunded English department. Her husband left her after, from his perspective, his lively, interested wife transformed into a bed-ridden hag obsessed with her own pain. It’s an unfair characterization — mine, his, hers — but there’s few things in this world less fair than the physics of nerve endings. She doesn’t like her coworkers, she doesn’t like her students, and they’re all just sort of stuck with each other, much like Miranda is stuck with pain, according to the carousel of doctors, therapists, and chiropractors that make Miranda feel worse, emotionally and sometimes physically.
Near the beginning of the book, Miranda makes a stand: she is going to have her students put on “All’s Well That Ends Well.” Revisiting the site of the trauma? She doesn’t say, exactly- it just has ritual importance for her. The kids don’t want it. They want witches, swords, and blood- they want MacBeth. I don’t know chronic pain. I do know academic underemployment- I know what it’s like to have something between a status job (without the compensation of the kind of pay that comes with status) and a service job (without the compensation of knowing camaraderie between workers that often comes with service jobs). Outsiders usually don’t get the differences between fellows, adjuncts, rankings of professors- they’re all just “professor” to them. But trust me, the students can feel out when you’re low-ranking, underpaid, overworked, and especially if they’re rich kids used to, umm, a certain degree of service, they will push on the ones in whom they can detect the servility of the department. So between that dynamic, and the tossed-together half-friendships, too desultory to even call frenemy relationships, among low-rankers in academic departments that Awad shows Miranda having… that stuff struck real.
The point is, it looks like a hot, rich girl student who does drama and gets lead roles despite sucking at acting (according to Miranda, not an entirely reliable narrator) is gonna lead a student rebellion, backed by her program-funding parents, to force Miranda to let them do MacBeth. What’s a woman to do? Hit up the bar! In one of those overpriced vaguely-Celtic pubs you see in bougie towns, three strange men approach her, feed her wholesome drinks, and start doing weird shit in these vaguely psychedelic performance set pieces, and making vague offers.
This was a pretty good book, mostly in terms of Awad’s strong summoning of difficult feelings of decay. But I gotta say- you’re gonna do a Faust thing? The Faust has gotta sign. Miranda doesn’t sign, really. She just sort of slides into letting the three men remake her life. They fund her “All’s Well” production. More than that, they give her something like a superpower- with a touch, she can transfer her pain to others. She zaps the queen bee drama student lady so bad that the only role she’s fit for, when she comes back, mad with pain and vengeance, is the role of the ailing French king in “All’s Well.” She zaps the most patronizing of her therapists. She eventually zaps one of the other department folk! Alas, one she liked better. And she gets better and better! She becomes a dynamo, an inspirational director who gets to do as much sex as she wants with the hot college handyman/prop-master.
She eventually gets —too— better. She runs those drama students ragged! She freaks people out with her insane enthusiasm! The coworker she zaps doesn’t come back to work! It appears that the three strange men had some hidden fees, and her ability to tell reality from dream is part of that fee. The performance of “All’s Well” the kids put on becomes a kind of “theater of cruelty” and, honestly, the book sort of falls apart towards the end. Awad is better with the real, and its unreal aspects, than she is with the surreal. Maybe that’s just my prejudices- I don’t think many people do surrealism that well. In any event, this was a decent read, and I think some of the readers of this might enjoy it even more than I did. ****