Mrs. Caliban
Rachel Ingalls
(New Directions)
Three British critics picked this as one of the best American novels published since WWII. It may not be a minor major novel --- but we'll accept it as a major minor one. Dorothy, housewife, cheated on by passive husband, finds a large green vegetable sea monster (Larry!) in her kitchen. Larry has run away from a laboratory where he was tortured in the Name of Science, and she promptly falls in love with his sweet vegetable personality:

    She looked over to where he was, seated at the other end of the kitchen table in the light which, since his arrival, she had blocked by curtains because of his sensitive eyes. He concentrated on polishing spoons with a silver cloth: six teaspoons from a great-aunt. One leg was slung over the other, which would have looked strange enough, but he was also wearing a flowered apron fastened around his waist, and it contrasted stunningly with his large, muscular green body, his nobly massive head. Dorothy thought he looked, as always, wonderful.

Ingalls manages to make all this screwball business work because, like Kafka and his neurotic bug Gregor, she knows better than to describe Larry too much. Thus we figure out that Larry is green, and large, with two arms, two legs, and head --- and that he's a swimmer (she refers to him as "frogman") --- but mostly, he's a vague, sweet monster, with vaguely human needs:

    He sat down beside her. He said, looking at her, "l've never seen. Men, but not someone like you."
    "A woman," she whispered, her throat beginning to close up.
    He asked, "Are you frightened?"
    "Of course."
    "l'm not. I feel good. But it's very strange."
    A lot more than strange, she thought. And then: no, it's just the same. They rolled backwards together on the bed.
    "Wait. Not like that," she said.

Understatement. This 125-page opus thrives on understatement:

    "Not like that," she said.
    "Show me."
    "l'm a bit embarrassed."
    "What does that mean?"

He's human, but not too human. He's pure, like Dostoyevsky's Idiot, or Melville's Billy Budd. Once, he walked through the city at night, made up, with a wig, like a drag queen: "I've figured out the make-up. The secret is to wear a color that's different from most of the people who live in the area," he says.

And love. He is learning about love, man-love, woman-love:

    They made love on the living-room floor and on the dining-room sofa and sitting in the kitchen chairs, and upstairs in the bathtub. And they talked. Most of the talk consisted of asking and answering questions. She asked him, "Where do you come from? Does everyone make love so many times in one day?"
    "ls it too much?"
    "No...It's perfect..."

(Even though he's a frogman --- perhaps because he's a frogman --- it becomes de rigueur that they make love in the bathtub.)

It's a gentle love tale, and it works because of the tension of reversal. Instead of monster pursuing lady, trying to drag her into the swamp or up some tall building, she pursues him, tries to keep him from being nabbed by the police; in the process, she teaches him about love and the life of humans.

And there'll come a time when they go to the beach, their favorite beach (where they have often disported in the night's warm waters), and he will have to go away, and she'll return again, after he's gone, in her car, sitting there in the parking area at the edge of the beach --- waiting, hoping that he will loom out of the sea once more, please: the monster that we thought we had to fear, only she learns (as the reader has learned) that the monster out of the sea is a funny and a wise one. Of course she loves him: he is a gentle frogman, from a gentle culture, a culture where "We don't give names... Everyone knows. We recognize each other."

Who can resist the tall staid green giant who dotes on avocadoes, or who swims with her on his back across the surface of the sea at breathtakingly high speeds, or who wants to "borrow a baby" so he can see what it looks like? Gentle, understated; so much so that finally, as we mull on it --- we come to realize that our own gentle Dorothy has had a breakdown, and in the process, as part of the process, made Larry up, created him, entire, out of the whole-cloth --- her whole-cloth --- created this great lovable green frogman complete . . . out of her own imagination. Quietly the delusion came; quietly the delusion went away.

And then her life went on as before.

Note:
This was published before by the Harvard Common Press.
This is our review from then.
It is to be republished by New Directions this Fall.
I reviewed it originally when it was published in 1982.
I never forgot it.
You shouldn't either.

--- Jean-Louis Parmentier