A few years ago, I started working on a novel. A type of novel that didn’t yet seem to exist. Not zombies in space; not aliens on Tinder; not a lesbian Spaghetti Western … though I would read all of those novels! What I wanted to write was comparatively dull: a social realist novel-of-ideas where the narrative driver would be the female protagonist herself: her ambitions, interests, ideology, politics, actions, her engagement with the world and the people around her. That is to say, neither her trauma nor her love interest(s) would drive the narrative. Importantly: I didn’t want to write about a psychopath. And I didn’t want to write a heart-of-gold hero whose story would inevitably lead to the triumph of inner goodness, self-love and exemplary self-actualization.
I searched for comparable novels: female-led versions of the books I’d loved growing up, about interesting men out in the world, up against it, examining, exploring, thinking, acting, doing, throwing their philosophies up against a wall to see what sticks. Frankenstein. Endurance. Candide. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Things Fall Apart. Steppenwolf. Hamlet. Disgrace. Money. Everyman. Heart of Darkness. The Places in Between. The Stranger. Lolita. The Old Man and the Sea. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. What excited me about these protagonists was their complexity and how their narratives seem to be organic, not didactic. Most don’t have hearts of gold, they don’t always meet with comeuppance, and they don’t have their traumas revealed as a way of forgiving their behaviour/ making them sympathetic. (I’m not interested in likeability. I’m interested in how people think and act, where they go and why, and where the novel can take the reader in kind.)
Is there a precedent for such a character / narrative?
Virginia Woolf was the first writer who came to mind. Mrs. Dalloway fits the bill, as does The Voyage Out and Orlando: A Biography. That might suggest that it’s easy to find examples…
William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair follows a women’s trajectory or career of sorts, but Becky Sharpe is ultimately after marriage.
Jean Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight; Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment; Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation; Jenny Offill’s The Dept. of Speculation; Gwendoline Riley’s First Love; Amelia Gray’s Isadora; Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling; and from the small screen, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag: these all fall into the category of successful and/or unlikeable female characters who are desperate and traumatized.
Though these stories present singular, strong, unruly, dark, fractious, ‘prickly’, sometimes amoral female characters, the fact that they are all traumatized or deeply troubled fundamentally changes the cast of their unlikeability. If they are successful, they succeed in spite of… We are encouraged to pity and sympathize with them as vulnerable humans. In House of Cards, Claire Underwood was shrewd and cynical enough to know that she had to reveal her abortion trauma to be deemed likeable/electable. Now we have the first season in which she is president, and of course the writers are weaving in a backstory of her childhood trauma. While she was only a sidekick, she could be unapologetically what she is, but now that she’s centre-stage, it’s too much to expect the viewership to be interested. They must sympathize.
This is not to undermine the relevance, worthiness, urgency and necessity of stories featuring female leads who have undergone and survived traumas, tragedies and abuses. But in this moment of expanding the repertoire of female characters, it seems oppressive that there are so few books and films featuring successful/acting (rather than acted-upon) females whose trauma is never revealed, whose narrative engine isn’t a relationship, and who isn’t on probation! Surely, the repertoire should be expanded in every direction—privileging realism over idealism and idolatry. I am surely missing hundreds of good examples—I have not read all the books! and my bookshelf is shamefully Anglophone—but let me give a list of those that come closest:
Besides Woolf (and arguable inclusions like Keri Hulme’s The Bone People and Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook), these examples are all recent: Nell Zink’s Mislaid, Rachel Cusk’s Outline, Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women, Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond, Elif Bautman’s The Idiot, Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, Tessa Hadley’s Clever Girl, Noemi Lefebvre’s Blue Self-Portrait, Dave Eggers’ The Circle, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, Anna North’s The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, some of Nell Zink, Zadie Smith, Anne Enright’s and Ottessa Moshfegh’s protagonists. This may sound like a decent list, but even among these examples, the acted-upon/apathetic and falling apart versus active and ‘successful’ is bafflingly underexplored. And still several are driven by male love interests. If only Mary Shelley had cast Frankenstein as a female scientist! It would have a 2-star Goodreads rating, probably.
Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers presents a young artist just moved to New York to pursue her career, whose photography project happens to involve her breaking the women’s world record for land speed on a motorbike. Woman succeeding? Check. Trauma? Latent. Relationship driving the narrative? Literally. All was going well until a quarter of the way into Romy’s story, when an Italian man takes the handlebars—a semi-estranged scion of a tire and motorcycle empire and artist in his own right. However, this manhandling of our heroine’s narrative makes sense, as Kushner described in The Paris Review: In writing a book true to the revolutionary era of late ’70s New York, she ‘was faced with the pleasure and headache of somehow stitching together the pistols and the nude women as defining features of a fictional realm, and one in which the female narrator, who has the last word, and technically all words, is nevertheless continually overrun, effaced, and silenced by the very masculine world of the novel she inhabits.’ Kushner’s Booker-shortlisted novel The Mars Rooms features a sharp-as-shiv voice, character and socially critical eye. Though every character in the book is interred in trauma and the heroine’s agency is checked by a double life sentence for murdering her stalker, she is active and interesting and brilliantly realized.
Orchid & the Wasp was sent to publishers a few weeks before Clinton lost the white female vote. The submission process shed some light on why these characters and narratives are rare: All the male editors (barring one) and a couple of female editors who received the manuscript found the protagonist to be ‘exhausting’, ‘just too much,’ ‘too in your face’ and ‘hard to connect with on an emotional level.’ The book itself didn’t get a look-in. The character cannibalized their attention (as is her wont) and they assumed the fault was the artwork’s. So it goes. Our characters are appraised and apprised, and there is no empathy, enquiry or word count left for our themes or ambitions.
Orchid & the Wasp is a novel about the lack of room for ambition in late capitalism, if or when one accepts that what it takes to ‘succeed’ is to be privileged and to be willing to be duplicitous. In it, I hope to have contributed one spine to the true morning star of female protagonists needed for a historical moment in which white women are grappling with misogyny and the larger culture is struggling to accept women as agents. And unlikeable, Machiavellian ones? Perish the thought. We should want more for our literature than troubled, traumatized, love-obsessed, murderous or agreeable women: we should welcome those women and then call out for the others. The battle is exhausting, but it is not too much to want.
(c) Caoilinn Hughes
About Orchid & the Wasp:
An unforgettable young woman navigates Dublin, London and New York, striving to build a life raft for her loved ones in the midst of economic and familial collapse.
In this dazzlingly original debut novel, award-winning Irish writer Caoilinn Hughes introduces a heroine of mythic proportions in the form of one Gael Foess. Raised in Dublin by single-minded, careerist parents, Gael observes from a young age how a person’s ambitions and ideals can be compromised.
When Gael’s financier father walks out during the economic crash of 2008, her family fractures. Her mother, a once-formidable orchestral conductor, becomes a shadow of her former self, and a tragic incident prevents her unwell brother Guthrie from finishing school. Determined not to let her loved ones fall victim to circumstance, Gael leaves Dublin for the leather-lined, coke-dusted social clubs of London, then Manhattan’s gallery scene during the throes of the Occupy movement, always working an angle, but slowly becoming a stranger to those who know her.
Written in electric, heart-stopping prose, Orchid & the Wasp is a novel about gigantic ambitions and social upheaval, chewing through sexuality, class, and politics, and crackling with joyful, anarchic fury. It challenges bootstraps morality, questioning what we owe one another and what we earn, what makes for a good life, and how events in our lives can turn us into people we never intended to be. A first novel of astonishing talent, Orchid & the Wasp announces Caoilinn Hughes as one of the most exciting literary writers working today.
Order your copy online here.