The Fuzzy Vision of a True Believer
By GARY KRIST
Some writers chronicle the War Between Men and Women. Fay Weldon, a subtler observer by half, reports on a more elusive conflict -- the War Among Men and Women. She understands that the battle lines of this other war seldom run along gender boundaries, but rather cut across the sexes to pit spouses against lovers, first wives against second wives, children against the parents who abandon or torment them. And in more than a score of novels, story collections and plays, she has never let us forget the ruinous consequences of this war -- the state of perpetual heartache we call Modern Life.
In her latest novel, "Darcy's Utopia," Ms. Weldon introduces us to a character with a plan to end the hostilities, or at least to lessen the carnage. Eleanor Darcy, a strong-willed woman with a flair for provocation (both sexual and intellectual), finds herself an instant media sensation in England after her second husband, a high Government adviser, is jailed for misappropriation of public funds. Taking advantage of her celebrity, she consents to a series of interviews to set forth her vision of the future -- the utopia of the book's title, a theoretical society in which "all men will believe in God and all men will be capable of love." While Eleanor is understandably a little fuzzy on specifics, the details that do emerge -- the abolition of money, the requirement that all procreation be approved in advance by the community -- are iconoclastic, to say the least. Like most ideological visions, however, Eleanor Darcy's has a seductive internal logic that can easily blind the unwary to its practical inadequacies.
It's this blindness, this intoxication with the closed world of the utopia, that Ms. Weldon makes the target of her satire. The novel is full of utopias of every stripe -- social, political, erotic. Primary among them, of course, is Eleanor's experimental society, outlined in conversations with two journalists -- Hugo Vansitart, who is interviewing Eleanor for a highbrow intellectual journal, and Valerie Jones, who is working on a profile for a woman's magazine called Aura. But there are also the various failed utopias of Eleanor's past lives -- the smug Roman Catholicism and self-important Marxism of her first husband, for instance, and the radical economics of her second (his attempt to erase poverty by distributing cash wholesale to the British public is what landed him in jail). Finally, there is the romantic utopia of Hugo and Valerie themselves, who in the course of their assignments become so infatuated with each other that they decide to leave spouses and children behind and set up a love nest together in an expensive Holiday Inn in central London.
Jumping from interview transcripts to sections of the Aura profile-in-progress to bits and pieces of Valerie's own internal monologue, Ms. Weldon displays her usual glee in knocking her characters about. Few writers are as merciless as she in doling out misfortunes and hard times. But there is a certain wistfulness to her satire here. Ms. Weldon has never been overly generous with her sympathies, but she depicts several of the people in this book -- Valerie in particular -- with uncharacteristic fondness.
Perhaps that shouldn't be so surprising. Blind passions, for all their impracticality, do possess a kind of grace; those who succumb to them have as much of God in their eyes as the Devil. And one senses in Ms. Weldon's kinder mockery an element of nostalgia for the certainty of the true believer -- whether the creed be an all-consuming romance of the kind promised in magazines like Aura or the economic dogma of, say, a Margaret Thatcher (to whose ideological fervor Eleanor Darcy's has more than a passing resemblance).
But, of course, nonbelievers can always console themselves with the fact that events tend to prove their cynicism right. The bill at the Holiday Inn, after all, must eventually be paid; the children cannot stay with a sitter forever, and society's poor cannot be made to disappear permanently in the creative bookkeeping of supply-side economics. Hugo and Valerie, like the lovers at the end of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," do finally awaken from their moral slumber.
Darcy's utopia, however, doesn't die so easily. Eleanor continues her crusade, attracting converts, causing more casualties than she prevents in the War Among Men and Women. By novel's end, she has become the patron saint of the Darcian Movement, a new and growing religion complete with its own hymns and clergy. While the book's last twist of plot may tax the credulity of even the most indulgent readers, Ms. Weldon tosses it off with such aplomb that we find ourselves accepting it. Credibility, after all, has never been one of this author's priorities. She's more interested in telling the truth than in making it believable. And in this, one of her most ambitious books, she tells it without flinching, reminding us that as long as there are mortals on this earth, the supply of fools will never run out.