I’m a sucker for anything Shakespeare. He’s the reason I’ve spent over a year elbow deep in the gore and guilt of Macbeth, trying to transfer something of its essence to a quiet Sussex village in 1925.
It’s lazy of me, because Shakespeare’s tragedies are easily re-imagined – big themes, resonant emotions, uncomfortable stone-cold truths of human nature. The comedies, on the other hand, are a much more slippery proposition, and none more slippery than Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Midsummer Night’s Dream is a curious little play, a sort of meta entertainment within an entertainment. The last time I think I saw an attempt to update it was when the BBC did it some years ago, with Johnny Vegas as Bottom. There were love-potions and a Centre-Parksy sort of woodland retreat and I don’t remember much else other than it didn’t really come off. Good effort, but…meh. Naturally I was curious to see someone else have a go.
How on earth do you update Shakespeare’s pixie-dusted sexual omnishambles without producing something so twee that the chapter headings alone could give you type two diabetes? It’s got actual fucking fairies in it, for God’s sake. In the current creature-shagging climate of the romance market that translates as practically begging for some kind of painfully whimsical ‘paranormal rom-com’ treatment. It’s surely only a matter of time before someone dusts off this poor play, porns it up and sells it as yet another ‘Fairytale for grown-ups.’
The other big problem with Midsummer Night’s Dream is the business of trying to update it without it looking like a cautionary tale about the dangers of date rape, which isn’t funny no matter how hard Seth McFarland keeps telling us that it is. If you take away the charm of fairy magic Oberon is basically a man who has drugged his wife into taking part in a Tijuana donkey show. Not very nice really. Nobody comes off particularly well in Midsummer Night’s Dream, except maybe Titania herself. Making the characters look sympathetic while retaining their sexual transgressions intact was always going to be a massive challenge and I could see no way of pulling it off. Just how the hell do you do a thing like that?
Well, it turns out that what you do is remove the fairies completely, replace them with pagan polyamorists and set the whole thing on a nudist beach.
No, stop laughing. I’m serious. That’s exactly what Peter Galen Massey did.
I liked the idea. Degenerate yuppie New Yorkers experimenting with sex and New Age bullshit? I’m in. I kind of expected a Gatsbyesque parade of completely loathsome characters getting themselves in a tizzy because of the Updikey fuckpile of their own horrid making, and then we could all have a good, malicious laugh at their pain. The absolute last thing I expected was to find a book filled with characters I liked.
This book was just one pleasant surprise after the other. The style is smooth to the point of invisibility, flowing easily off the page. No showing off here, no twirling, prancing and turning verbal cartwheels – just solid storytelling. This is not to say there aren’t some happy turns of phrase (The ‘taut, delicate’ sound of a shuttlecock hitting a badminton racquet.) but the spare prose just makes them shine out that little bit brighter.
Helena has become Helen, Lysander is now Lyle Sanders and Hermia is Mia Herr, an odd handle that reminded me of Isherwood’s arch-solipsist, Sally Bowles, or at least her Liza Minnelli incarnation. It’s an apt name, meaning ‘mine’, because Mia is nothing if not wonderfully love-to-hate-you selfish.
Demetrius has become Stephen Demetrius, a name so similar to Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus that I actually squealed with pleasure when Lyle called Stephen ‘Daedalus’. After Fifty Shades of Stupid I can’t tell you what a joy it is to read about college educated characters who I can believe had a college education.
So, the story. Ad-man Stephen is burnt out on designer cars, designer cups of coffee and 9/11. There’s nothing quite like witnessing the cold-blooded murder of some three thousand of your fellow human beings to make you realise that we’re here for a very short time, and there are probably bigger things at stake than ‘high concept’ adverts for the latest Hyundai. Stephen, like so many heroes before him, wants to write.
Meanwhile his wife – graceful, patrician Helen – practises avoidance, smiles until her teeth crack and quietly prays that Stephen’s discontent will pass. Unlike him she loves New York and her job as a stockbroker, and perhaps fears the resentment she will feel if she has to come down in the world so that Stephen can pursue his dreams.
The dysfunctional side of that one-pays, one-plays relationship is hammered home when Stephen and Helen go down to Martha’s Vineyard to stay with old friend Tania and meet up with college friends Lyle and Mia. Mia works as a teacher to support Lyle’s dickings around with an artist’s coffee shop and the arrangement is clearly not treating her too well. Perhaps in some desperate attempt to prove her bohemian credentials, Mia has embraced naturism, paganism and polyamory just a little bit too hard and now comes off as a try-hard sex bore, bibbling bubbleheaded about love and the failure of ‘morality’ while having sex with people who are unappetising and dull even by hippie standards.
The other main character is, of course, our Queen of the Fairies, Tania. If she is meant to be the most interesting character in the book – and I suspect she is – then Peter Galen Massey has pulled it off. Tania is fun. I never expected to like her, thinking that she would probably be one of those hopelessly broken people who think they can paper over the cracks by chanting. You know – people who can read Deepak Chopra without throwing up. Not our sort of people, dear.
But Tania? Tania’s terrific. She’s a big, bisexual blonde, so unfairylike in build that she worked as an orc extra while shacked up with an elf-maiden in New Zealand. She tells tall tales about how Viggo Mortenson gave her the scar above her eye and shows laudable flashes of spite when talking about her abusive ex-husband Mitch Oberon.
I think that’s why I like her – she’s not some simpering New Age type smugging it up with ‘blessed be’s and platitudes cribbed from The Secret – rather she comes across more like one of Updike’s Eastwick witches, a fully rounded woman with grudges and experience. I think it’s this experience and her eagerness to draw upon it that sets her above the rest of the hippies. When horrible hippy Peter mouths some tired old line about the government ‘demonising’ drugs, Tania shuts him up by asking him if he’s ever lived with a heroin addict.
Tania has a beach house in Martha’s Vineyard, courtesy of her alimony-rich divorce. The Athenian quartet goes to hang out and unwind. The trouble is that sneaking resentment of Helen has led Stephen to think he maybe no longer loves her and the further trouble is that Mia, high on sexual liberation to the point where she’s practically attempting to hump the furniture, keeps attempting to fan their old college flame back into life. In the meantime avoidant Helen keeps luring her husband into bed and tells herself that if he fucks her he must love her and that means everything is alright and everything will pass and he’ll get over whatever’s been bothering him since the TwinTowers came down, right?
Well, no. But nice try.
So, in summary – Helen and Stephen really need to talk but Helen doesn’t think so. Mia wants Stephen, even though she has Lyle. Lyle wants booze, and weed, and maybe some shrooms on the weekend. Mia leaves Lyle snoring some nights and goes into Tania’s room for what he’s too drunk to give her. Stephen sort of maybe somehow oh-no-I-shouldn’t wants Mia but Helen sees him deep in conversation with Tania and thinks he’s having an affair with her. Helen, being Helen, ratchets up her best WASP smile another couple of degrees and bravely pretends Everything Will Be Okay In The End.
Clear? Of course not.
Now add a Lammas tide sex ritual, a shitload of booze and some cakes containing funny mushrooms.
Stand well back, because the resulting explosion is spectacular.
There’s a lot to like about this book. The dialogue flows easily and in the case of Helen and Stephen, fizzes along with a lovely chemistry, a chemistry that keeps you rooting for them and makes you believe that their marriage is worth saving.
The characters are all beautifully drawn, with broad strokes that the author makes look so easy it’s enough to make you sick. Even Lyle Sanders, perhaps the least interesting of the rebooted Athenian quartet, is easy to imagine – a thirtyish dudebro dreaming of kegstands past and getting a little fleshy around the middle. The lacrosse glove on his cock was a perfect touch. (And no, I’m not telling you – you’ll have to read it yourself.)
The female characters are startlingly good. For all her patrician brittleness, it’s hard not to like the well-mannered Helen and harder to blame her for being afraid. Even silly Mia is more complicated than the average woman-hating Homewrecker McHardbody caricature. She says a telling thing when she finally gets her sticky little hands on Stephen’s dick, saying that he ‘owes’ her sex. After all, she’s made herself sexually available to one and all – including skeevetastic swingers Peter and Blossom – in the hope that Stephen will finally relent and take her away so that she can live her dreams of La Vie Boheme. She’s worked for it, and her desperation makes her look sad rather than sexy. I love that Tania’s wild, sensation-seeking past holds up a mirror to Mia’s wild, sensation-seeking present, and makes me think that there might be hope for Mia. I hope so.
My only criticism of this book that it’s a little heavy on the dialogue tags and the pace post-explosions turns stodgy while Stephen sits around in a gazebo failing to eat sandwiches and feeling sorry for himself. I was relieved when the action returned to Tania, who was at least attempting to do something to clear up the mess.
Then again, I can forgive that – after all, it’s wicked fun for authors to fuck up the lives of fictional characters, not nearly so much fun to put them back together again. Besides, when the pace slows down the Shakespeare references add a Spotter’s Guide charm that twinkles throughout the whole book. Stephen and Helen come back together watching a play – not a country panto of Pyramus and Thisbe, but a semi-professional production of Shakespeare’s tender comedy of love lost and found, Twelfth Night.
In terms of tone Queen of the Nude perhaps has more in common with the bittersweet Twelfth Night than the fairy-infested flailings of Midsummer Night’s Dream. For better or worse, Midsummer Night’s Dream was always Shakespeare-lite to me – it was the first full play I saw performed when I was twelve years old. It was the first Shakespeare I gave to my niece. It has fairies in it and the funny man with the donkey ears is named Bottom – come on.
It’s always been a childish play to me, so it’s odd to see it as the framework of such an adult novel – nothing as self-consciously whimsical as a fairy tale for ‘grown-ups’. Despite its giggly title, Queen of the Nude is very much a book for adults, for people with enough experience to know that while wild sex and shrooming nights are all very nice, they can’t be everything. It’s not a book for the Mias of this world – it’s for the Tanias. Perhaps it could even help out a few Mias, bring them closer to Taniahood. I hope so, because if this world could definitely use a few more Tanias.