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The New York Times Book Review: "Might be the least depressing...dystopian fiction I've ever come across, thanks to Weldon's slashing wit and her refusal to suffer fools gladly."

Date: Oct 15 2010

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Winking at the Apocalypse

Reviewed by Tom De Haven for The New York Times Book Review

When I realized (after I’d agreed to write this review) that Fay Weldon’s latest novel, her 29th, is set in a totalitarian England after the fatal crash of capitalism, I considered looking to see if I still had any refills left for my old Wellbutrin prescription. Generally, I keep away from fiction or movies about the end of the world, even if it’s just about the end of the world “as we know it.” (I avoid stories set in prison for the same reason: guaranteed nightmares, often involving ferrets, a small cage and me.) In this case, however, I needn’t have worried. Despite a surfeit of the genre’s requisite trappings (food rationing, secret police, universal surveillance, dopey government acronyms), “Chalcot Crescent” might be the least depressing — certainly it’s the most cheerful — dystopian fiction I’ve ever come across, thanks to Weldon’s slashing wit and her refusal to suffer fools gladly, no matter how despotic. Even in a world without reliable electricity or real coffee, life worth living goes bumbling on. This is not quite “1984” with baggy pants, big shoes and a seltzer bottle, but close.


Weldon’s shrewd and chatty narrator is Frances Prideaux. Once a popular novelist whose books were a “celebration of outrage at the domestic fate of women,” she is now, in 2013, a forgotten and destitute octogenarian. She is also, we’re told in a brief, postmodern-y preface, the younger sibling Weldon (who is pushing 80 herself) never had: “Two years after I was born, my mother had a miscarriage. Had she not, I would have grown up with a younger sister. This is the sister’s story.” In many of her public and private particulars, Frances has lived (“usurped” might be a better word) Weldon’s life, while in the novel’s alternate universe Weldon herself is relegated to being a minor author of cookbooks.


When we meet Frances, she is cooped up inside her decrepit town house in a once-posh neighborhood of London where “pavements are beginning to crack and rats come out and stare at you, and no one bothers to hammer out the dents in the Saabs and Mercedes that still line the street.” As bailiffs pound on the door of No. 3 Chalcot Crescent, determined to evict Frances and cart away her remaining possessions, she skulks on the staircase, laptop at the ready, composing her memoirs in the morning, her fiction in the afternoon, activities of heroic optimism since there’s practically no chance she’ll see any of this in print. Like all the other “luxury trades,” book publishing has bitten the dust. “I have been living witness,” Frances reports, “to the birth and death of feminism, the terror and denial of the dangers of nuclear war, the rise and fall of terrorism, the fall of first Communism, then capitalism — which once we thought would last forever — the death and rebirth of nationalism, and I survived.”


She has also survived a slew of lovers and husbands as well as the deprecating scorn of two daughters, Venetia and Polly, who “feel it is their inalienable right” not to take her seriously. And while Frances doesn’t expect to outlive the current National Unity Government, a regime made up not of politicians but of sociologists and psychotherapists, she’s curious about what will happen next.


Her home soon becomes colonized by some of her petulant grandchildren and a small band of their scruffy friends. All are members of Redpeace, “an angry Greenpeace breakaway group,” and under the sway of a charismatic but very likely insane former pig farmer named Henry, who also happens to be the son of Frances’ ex-husband Karl and the woman he divorced Frances to marry. The Prideaux family, not to mention the plot line, is rife with Victorian coincidence and complicated pedigrees.


Although disappointed by her guests’ humorlessness and fretful over the lame-brained coup they’re plotting in an upstairs bedroom, Frances is nonetheless glad for their company. If only she could offer them something better to eat than National Meat Loaf! With a consistency that varies from that of pork roast to haggis and allegedly composed of “disease-free protein,” the stuff is widely rumored — shades of “Soylent Green” — to be grown in vats from reconstituted human flesh. And talk about coincidences: this tasty comestible was developed by Frances’ arrogant son-in-law, a former cancer researcher, now a rising member of the ruling elite.


For all of its near-future noirish trappings and despite a large, too large, cast of characters, little happens in “Chalcot Crescent.” The conspiracy plot vanishes altogether for chapters at a time; the story has scant momentum and even less activity. While Frances does slip away once, to visit her prickly daughters, she remains otherwise housebound (to be fair, her legs are bad), a woman far more interested in confronting her own complicated past than the brave new world outside her front door.


And that’s just fine, because it’s in Frances’ satirical mini-rants, aphorisms and meandering recollections, not in the novel’s apocalyptic litanies (harvest-­blighting fungi, new strains of dengue fever, a nihilist street gang whose rallying cry is “To the Batmobile — let’s go!”) that “Chalcot Crescent” comes alive, allowing Weldon to direct her famous she-devil snark at whatever targets strike her fancy: sex, marriage, children, careers, jealousy, aging. It may be that this particular dystopia has, somewhere, its own version of Orwell’s Room 101, but if so Frances Pri­deaux never ventures anywhere near it. Thank goodness.


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