Books

07.13

‘A Sustained Sense of Violation’: When Bad House Guests Invade Literature

From Paris in The Iliad to Mickey Sabbath in Sabbath’s Theater, horrible house guests have invited themselves into people’s homes and powered countless chaotic narratives in our literature. Matt Seidel looks at the different ways three recent novels draw from this disruptive theme.

“There’s a miasma in the house. Of sloth. Of laziness. Of malaise.” While this bleak assessment from Lionel Shriver’s latest, Big Brother, could apply to many a home with teenagers out of school for the summer, it actually describes a far worse domestic state of affairs: a household plagued by a bad guest. 

The Western literary tradition is indebted to the disaster caused by a bad guest. Aided by some divine meddling, Paris performs the consummate indignity against his host Menelaus by absconding with his wife. Much strife and narrative ensues: the broken wall, the burning roof and tower, and the epic poems and tragic dramas from which the canon emerges. Bad guests—a band of seducers, thieves, hapless slobs, and madmen—are thus at the foundation of our literature. They populate works from horror stories to comic masterpieces like Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, whose protagonist, despite his “enforced avoidance of anything ambitious,” shows at least some initiative in trashing Professor Welch’s guestroom with a cigarette and a razor blade.

Bad literary guests act egregiously in all sorts of ways. They can be subtly disruptive, as when Dr. Bradshaw and his wife have the effrontery to bring up Septimus Smith at Clarissa Dalloway’s impeccably planned gathering: “What business had the Bradshaws to talk of death at her party?” Or they can radiate hostility, as when Thomas Bernhard’s splenetic narrator in Woodcutters spends the entire night silently glowering at his fellow dinner guests, excoriating them in a ceaseless interior monologue for their “grotesque” and “tasteless” behavior. Or their sins can be more pyrotechnic, as in Sabbath’s Theater, Philip Roth’s demonic comedy about a priapic puppeteer incandescently self-destructing. Staying at the New York City apartment of an old friend, Mickey Sabbath manages to proposition his host’s wife; confiscate a stash of her money and risqué photos; flirt with the maid; have a panic attack; and last but not least, rifle through the college-aged daughter’s papers and underwear drawer. In fairness, Sabbath (unlike Portnoy) does have the decency to leave the meat pantry untouched.

These are just a few of the innumerable examples from literature. Thomas Berger’s The Houseguest is a classic of the genre, but three more recent novels dive headlong into the narrative possibilities afforded by atrocious guests: Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother, Will Wiles’s Care of Wooden Floors, and Ali Smith’s There But For The. We find in them diverse portraits of a disruptive visitor: a “totem of excess,” a bringer of cartoonish destruction, an instrument of almost divine grace. The novels are strange works that reflect the fundamental strangeness of letting someone—a relative, friend, or stranger—into your home. 

The old adage about fish and guests stinking after three days reflects this hostility.

Despite its moments of pathos, Big Brother is most often comic in tone, which sets up an interesting tension between the stasis of humorous caricature—the narrator’s company makes wind-up dolls that people can commission to mock their friends and families—and the dynamic drive toward self-betterment. Pandora, a successful entrepreneur, has long aspired to be “of no interest to anyone.” She lives in a “big, lobotomized” house amidst a “lassitude of affluence” and is married to Fletcher, a “nutritional Nazi” and artisanal furniture maker. All of this explains why she looks forward to the “splash of anarchy” that Edison, her visiting brother, a brash, messy, name-dropping, struggling jazz pianist from New York City, is sure to provide. As she drives to the airport to pick him up, she thinks to herself, “finally, company with appetite,” an unfortunate phrasing given that, much to his sister’s shock, Edison has gained over 200 pounds since she last saw him.

Pandora’s excitement soon fades when she and her family are confronted with Edison’s boorishness, and his disruptive presence is made all the more problematic because it is “horrifyingly open-ended.” Small damages add up “to a sustained sense of violation,” and Pandora finds herself in an ethical dilemma about familial and hosting responsibilities. “What is wonderful about kinship is also what is horrible about it: there is no line in the sand, no natural limit to what these people can reasonably expect of you.”

The novel is about a fear of excess—and the excessive ways in which one combats the excesses of the flesh and the limitlessness of familial responsibilities. Edison’s transgressions move past the bounds of the socially acceptable; just as his weight causes his fellow airline passengers to look at him as criminally inconsiderate, so too does Pandora conceive of his disastrous stay as somehow felonious (Pandora likens a chair broken by her brother’s heft to an “accusatory” dead body in the living room.) And as she takes on the guilt for introducing Edison into her house, and even as she begins on some level to enjoy his stay, she must decide how to expel that anarchy from her house in the most ethical fashion.

The same taint of criminality lingers in Wiles’s Care of Wooden Floors, in which an unnamed British narrator flies into an unnamed Eastern European country to housesit for his old university friend Oskar, a renowned composer of austere modern classical pieces. The immaculate rooms are full of pricey floorboards, sleek modernist furniture, and patronizing notes Oskar has left all around the apartment for his friend, a struggling copywriter. The flat, “a device for proving [Oskar’s] superiority over other people,” also has a grand piano, whose upright lid allows Wiles to put quite the spin on Chekov’s adage about loaded guns.

The apartment is so orderly that “even the dust motes looked neat, their flight paths as checked and regulated as the red-eye from Tehran coming into LAX.” This seemingly incidental reference to Iran gathers thematic force when the narrator, digressing on Islamic tapestries, informs us that “[i]n each of those fabulous abstract Islamic decorative patterns, there is a piously deliberate mistake, a flawed iteration.” By implication, Oskar’s fabulously expensive and flawless wooden floors, the foundation of his “island of perfection” amidst the “Triassic weeds,” rank canals, and Brutalist monstrosities of the city, are impious, a hubristic striving to tame chaos. When the houseguest predictably mars the wooden floor by leaving a wine glass on it, the stain, “a livid surgical scar on pale flesh,” seems almost humane, a small imperfection that might actually do Oskar some good.

Though the novel explicitly condemns Oskar’s inhuman expectations, it derives its unsettling power by tapping into the ineradicable guilt of all houseguests, interlopers who can’t help but set their properties “on a vector of neglect, pointed at inevitable chaos, a Hobbesian anarchy of filth, disrepair and coaster negligence.” From his first oddly “proprietorial” gesture—putting his hands on his hips and exhaling—there is something criminal in the narrator’s intrusion, a faint indication of a housesitter’s original sin.

When things do turn deadly and his mismanagement looks less like an “isolated tragedy” and more like a “campaign of wrecking,” the events feel less surreal than cartoonishly logical, the culmination of an innately criminal and “elaborate Wile E. Coyote contrivance.”

If all housesitters are by their very nature culpable, Wiles’s narrator seems especially guilty; he is, as Oskar notes, “chaos.” The mystery of why, then, the obsessive neat freak enlists this particular friend constitutes the dramatic puzzle of the novel. That puzzle, and the moral it reveals, is ultimately less compelling than the thrilling, darkly comic disaster lurking in every movement, wine bottle, and floorboard. The novel is shot through with a Kafkaesque eeriness, but there is no final reckoning in the narrator’s trial; one might as well prosecute Wile E. Coyote. In the end, Wiles’s is an amoral world where crime and punishment and guilt and stains all dissolve as the narrator’s plane soars into the clouds, which unlike the wooden floors are “utterly faithful to their promise of ethereal beauty.” What happens in a nameless Eastern European country stays in a nameless Eastern European country.

Ali Smith’s warmer novel, There But For The, tells the story of Miles, an “ethical consultant” who is almost pathologically polite—one flashback reveals Miles surreptitiously taking off his shoe and mopping up some spilled tea with his sock so as not to trouble his host. And yet one night while attending an insufferable dinner party in Greenwich, he excuses himself before dessert and locks himself in the family’s spare room, “five steps wide and seven steps long.” He doesn’t come out for months. He pedals on the room’s stationary bike and offers no explanation for his behavior (an intrusion somewhat reminiscent of Smith’s earlier novel, The Accidental).

Miles’s self-sequestration makes him something of a phenomenon, even inspiring a theatrical piece, Miles to Go Before I Sleep, and there is a gathering outside of various people (representing various political, environmental or economic causes) inspired by his act of etiquette disobedience: the Milo Masses. This last devotional aspect is especially key to the elliptical novel, each of whose four sections—“There,” “But,” “For” and “The”—focuses on a figure whose life has been enriched by Miles. Miles has acted so inconsiderately that he has become almost holy: the patron saint of bad guests. Owing to his past kindness and postprandial renunciation of all things worldly, Miles is variously compared to St. Francis, St. Christopher, and St. Alfege, the missionary who was killed when his drunken Danish captors pelted him with an ox head.

Brooke, the precocious child at the dinner party who finally breaks through to Miles, is compiling her own idiosyncratic “history” of the lodger, a kind of saint’s life that dutifully records relics from his stay and embellishes the tale with her own ludic musings. Like saints' lives, fantastical tales mixing devotional, historical, and adventure writing, Brooke’s “history” is both factual and imaginative, containing “talking frogs and realism…” It is in Brooke’s nascent art that we are to locate the succor promised by the title’s fragment: There but for the … grace of God go I. That “grace” for Smith clearly derives from the power of narrative and language, and thus the importance of saints' lives in the novel, for in those works is an outsized devotion to God matched by an equally outsized devotion to stories.

We learn that Miles wins a high-school story contest with a tale that begins with an avowal of fiction’s power: “There was once, and there was only once … Once was all there was.” Thirty years later, Miles becomes an almost perfect emblem of the generative narrative potential of a bad guest: “There was once a man who, one night between the main course and the sweet at a dinner party, went upstairs and locked himself up in one of the bedrooms…” Sequestered in his tiny room like a medieval ascetic, he pumps out thousands of miles on the exercise bike, powering the four narratives coming to life around him.

In his The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce detects the whiff of the inhospitable, or at least the uncharitable, in hospitality: “Hospitality, n. the virtue which induces us to feed and lodge certain persons who are not in need of food and lodging.” Deliciously, the entry immediately following is “Hostility, n. a peculiarly sharp and specially applied sense of the earth’s overpopulation.” Literature feeds off this glut: too many people, too many guests, a lot of hostility. The old adage about fish and guests stinking after three days reflects this hostility, but also perhaps a desire to lead anti-novelistic lives, to purge our houses of the rot and disorder that started in Menelaus’ castle and still make intruders so compelling in literature (if not in life). To tweak Tolstoy’s famous phrase, all happy families are alike, except when they have guests. Even the best guest introduces an element of unease into the well-regulated domicile; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, and upon the house of fiction, by the bad ones.