Waxing Press

Book Review: Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls

book reviewsIan WissmanComment

I think this book lives in a kind of niche genre that I really enjoy—the weirdo long-dead marriage short novel. The best of this genre is surely Paula Fox’s Desperate Characterswhere the central conflict of the novel is the question of whether the protagonist has been infected by rabies after a feral cat she tries to feed bites her. But Rachel Ingalls surely does no damage to the form here with Mrs. Caliban.

In Mrs. Caliban, Dorothy’s dead marriage to Fred looks like a lot of fictional dead marriages: Fred’s a philanderer, Dorothy forgives his past and suspects he’s still up to his bad behavior (late meetings, dubious excuses for missing dinner, etc.). Dorothy remains faithful in hopes that Fred’s stepping out was a glitch, a brief hiccup. However, in what may be the throes of a nervous breakdown, Dorothy hears news report of an escaped monsterman on the loose and dangerous. And a mere few pages later, Larry, the six-foot-seven frogman appears one late night in Dorothy’s kitchen whereupon he eats all her salad. Literally, not metaphorically.

But, the metaphor is realized the next day when Dorothy does a bit of stepping out of her own in her own home with Larry. The affair sets off a whirlwind of events that are at once operatic (of the soap variety) and sad and horrifying and satisfying. I’ll spare you the twists and turns of the plot, but suffice to say it’s a good gripper that moves at a quick clip, coming in under 130 pages.

With this kind of sci-fi premise, the remarkable thing about Mrs. Caliban is how thoroughly, coyly understated the whole things is. Verisimilitude is one of those stupid words bandied about in creative writing classes across the country. It’s a kind of crutch for workshop critiques when fellow students don’t quite have the vocabulary or fictional context to give useful critique. However, Ingalls flexes verisimilitude like a fine muscle with tight, controlled prose that doesn’t let on to the wildness of what’s taking place on the page—that is, there’s a just-the-facts kind of reporter’s quality to the prose that actually serves to heighten the tension and curiosity of the moment. Without lingering on the bizarreness of a six-foot-seven frogman, Ingalls takes the book to a newer depth where Larry’s ignorance about human life—and particularly human life outside of The Institute where he was tortured and experimented on—only serves to remind us how little we know about our own humanity. His questions are naïve and earnest, but cutting and incisive. If the whole book was turned up to 11 on its sci-fi premise, the impact would be lost, it would feel overwrought and unearned.

Maybe Larry doesn’t really exist and this is all a way for Dorothy to see her way out of a reality that’s unlivable. Or maybe he does, and Ingalls thinks the best way out of a bad situation is to fundamentally alter your perspective. At the very least, we should be like Larry and eat mounds of avocados. That shit’s delicious.