Books Essay - Winter 2012

Sex and the Single Woman

Rediscovering the novels of Iris Owens

By Lisa Zeidner | November 30, 2011
Francisco Osorio/Flickr
Francisco Osorio/Flickr


When her disarmingly acidic novel After Claude was published in 1973, Iris Owens mailed a copy to one of her literary idols, Samuel Beckett. They weren’t friends, but she’d met him in person, in Paris, many years before. Owens cherished the handwritten note of praise he sent back—even as the novel quickly went out of print. Now After Claude has been reissued, and the question is whether the novel can find an audience attuned to Owens’s risk-taking voice. She remains maddeningly hard to categorize except by those hybrids so beloved in publishing pitches: think of her as the existentially wisecracking love child of Dorothy Parker and Beckett himself.

Owens published only two novels under her own name, After Claude and Hope Diamond Refuses. Both concern unemployed, chain-smoking New York women confronting the sexism and superficiality of the urban male, and the cramped housing stock available to underfunded city dwellers. On the twinned disappointments of bad men and bad real estate, Owens remains the blistering queen, the Cassandra of metropolitan despair.

Harriet, the protagonist of After Claude, a riveting, almost plot-free book, is outraged by petty annoyances. In the course of the novel, she manages to offend everyone—especially Claude, who has demanded that she leave his apartment. But that’s not how we hear the story from Harriet, a narrator so unreliable she makes Humbert Humbert look like Thurgood Marshall:

I left Claude, the French rat. Six months of devotion wasted on him was more than enough. I left him as a result of an argument we had over a lousy movie, a sort of Communist version of Christ’s life, except it didn’t seem Communistic to me, whatever that is. Everyone was poor all right, and Mary didn’t sport her diamond tiara, but otherwise it was the same old religious crap about how wonderful it is to be a pauper after you’re dead. It took them a good half hour to nail Christ to this authentic cross with wooden pegs and a wooden mallet, thump thump, nice and slow so if your thing happens to be palmistry you could become the world’s leading authority on the fortunes of Jesus Christ. Then, in case we thought we were watching a routine crucifixion, the sky turned black, thunder and lightning, the Roman troop, played by Yugoslavia’s renowned soccer team, squirmed around on their picnic blankets, pondering whether to throw the dice or pack it up.

“Why the hell don’t you ever shut up?” Claude exclaims, but Harriet has only begun to bitch. With Claude, who works as a cameraman for French TV, and with French men in general, Harriet has plenty of bones to pick. She despises their vanity, their fussiness about food, their skirt-chasing, their cheapness, and their Catholic sentimentality about that “fag” Jesus Christ. The only thing Harriet seems to admire about Claude is his body. “For a man,” she concedes, “you have a wonderful body, and for a Frenchman, it’s practically a miracle. Good lord, those runts in Paris, strutting around as if they have something special to show off … of course, French women are positive geniuses at convincing any gnome that he’s Tarzan.  I suppose they had to learn the art of flattery in order to assure the propagation of the race.”

If Harriet likes Claude so little—he is, after all, a man who tells her to get lost but pick up his shirts at the dry cleaner’s first—why does she refuse to leave his Manhattan apartment? Mainly, there’s the matter of where else she would live. After five years abroad, Harriet had returned to New York to crash with her childhood chum Rhoda, who soon booted her from the premises. At this point she met Claude, the upstairs neighbor. She’s not crazy about him, but she’s even less crazy about everyone else, including waiters, cab drivers, blacks, immigrants, her parents, and Rhoda, whom she compares to “a massive version of the Statue of Liberty after some vandals had knocked the torch out of her hand.”

Eventually Claude wrests Harriet out, with help from the police. Installed at the Chelsea Hotel, Harriet does some slo-mo freaking out before stumbling upon her next true love: Roger, who has bad teeth and a harem at his disposal, and who seems to serve as deputy to the leader of a Vermont-based cult called The Institute. Needless to say, Harriet is ready to sign up. (“Vermont!  What a coincidence. That’s my favorite state in America. I saw it in a Hitchcock movie.”)

That’s pretty much it for plot. Time moves at the speed of dripping sap, and what keeps the pages turning is Harriet’s litany of one-liners—what another Owens character refers to as “divine scorn.” Harriet deflates all pretensions, especially the cherished liberal ones. “To Claude’s prejudiced eyes,” she reports, “everything and everyone American was revolting, with the possible exception of migratory workers and Hopi Indians, and you can imagine how they hung around us in droves.”

Iris Owens, née Klein, did not get a New York Times obituary when she died in 2008 at the age of 79 (dates are elusive in Owens’s case, since she often lied about her birthdate). She was 44 when she published After Claude. The dust jacket photo shows an attractive woman with a wry expression. But in her 20s, she was a knockout, given, like her heroines, to prodigious amounts of eye makeup.

She married at 19, divorced at 22, and spent five years living in Paris before returning to New York, where she kept the same rent-stabilized apartment in Greenwich Village for half a century. In Paris, she joined a lively expatriate cohort and had a series of notable affairs, including one with the Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi. When Owens attended a wrap party for Ben-Hur in Rome, Charlton Heston only had eyes for her. The American writer Terry Southern, also part of this scene, said of Owens, “Aside from her Junoesque beauty, she had rapier wit and devastating logic. She was a pre-Sontag Sontag.”

Her second marriage, to an Iranian, a descendant of the Persian Farman-Farmaians—an actual prince, that is, and very, very rich—left Owens soured on matrimony, a distaste she shared with her protagonist. While on the one hand bemoaning her singlehood and fiscal instability, Harriet also expresses nothing but disdain for marriage. About her credit card-carrying friend Maxine, the periodontist’s wife, she sneers:

Maxine had been the neighborhood nymphomaniac. From the age of four on, she would put out for a half-eaten Tootsie Roll.  As she matured into adult promiscuity, she waltzed a troop of sexual freaks through my parents’ parlor. … Only marriage had liberated her from sex. Her debt to society was paid.

Harriet is, to say the least, no feminist. The other women she encounters are either too fat or too thin. An attractive woman is by default a “mortal enemy” and also, probably, stupid. No, Harriet is a man’s woman. Except she doesn’t like men much either. The only thing uncomplicated in Harriet’s relationship with men is the sex. She likes it. But she hardly dwells on it.

The big book of 1973 was Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, which has sold 20 million copies and celebrates the notion of shedding inhibitions for the zipless fuck in the airplane toilet, zipless because “when you came together zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff.” The main difference between Owens and Jong is that the latter fervently believes in her first-person narrator’s wit, wisdom, and irresistible sensuality. There is virtually no separation between the two. Owens is another matter. For all the heavily autobiographical elements of her fiction, she is brutal with her protagonist, allowing Harriet to show herself up as clueless and deluded. This prickly distance between author and character gives After Claude its rawness and tonal complexity.

Further, Owens doesn’t share Jong’s Lawrentian sentimentality about the transformative power of good sex. The writer of After Claude is no ingénue. And while the culture at large may have been celebrating free love in the early ’70s, Owens herself had long since been there, done that.

Like many of her expat friends in Paris, Owens wrote porn for pocket money. Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press gave his writers allowances of $2 a day to deliver pages. He found plenty of takers, not only because the pay was actually very good for the 1950s, but because the press had a reputation for publishing top-notch avant-garde literature. Olympia was home to Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett, J. P. Donleavy, Henry Miller, and most profitably, Vladimir Nabokov, whose Lolita was declared obscene and therefore untouchable by American publishers in 1955. Writing explicit erotica could be seen as an act of political engagement, defending the artist’s right—no, duty—to shock.

The erotica of the ’50s was very often devoted to women being raped and hurt, preferably in ways that left calling cards of bliss: cuts, welts. (The Story of O, published in 1954, gives us the requisite whips, chains, and blindfolds.) Trembling women are violated in somber ceremonies with frankincense and masks. Unburdened of her inhibitions, the victim typically experiences lightning-fast and quite spectacular orgasms, in which “all the restraints in her body let go, and she felt the pendulum throb in her cunt.”

That’s Iris Owens writing as Harriet Daimler, in the first of her five “dirty books,” Darling. (Girodias chose the nom de plume; Owens must have felt some glee recycling it for After Claude’s heckling heroine.) After the protagonist, Gloria, is brutally raped in the stairwell of her apartment building, she’s unable to reach the heights of ecstasy she had experienced with the rapist. When she finally tracks him down, she wields a knife—but not before once more letting him “boil the juices inside her.”

One might argue that in the five books she wrote for Girodias, Owens put some sisterly spin on this standard “one-handed literature,” some subversion or at least creeping note of irony. Her distinctive, deadpan voice does surface in the Daimler novels—between orgasms, anyway. Most often it shows up in the dialogue. By the time she got to The Woman Thing (1958), Owens’s porn was all talk, no action. There’s so much dialogue you could be reading “Hills Like White Elephants,” or Donald Barthelme. Ironic preambles undercut what sex there is, and the reader in search of an erotic jolt must have been sorely disappointed by bedside murmurings like this:

“People have a right to be sick,” he said darkly.

“Also a right to be cured.”

“Absolutely not.”

“That’s nonsense and you know it.”

“I know that you’re trying to keep me awake.” Macdonald lifted the arm from her flattened body and scratched his eyes open. “When you’ve got my complex glandular system alerted, you’ll sneak into that monumentally meaningless conversation of yours, the whole serious thing, variations and theme.”

“Even if I had nothing else to say,” Martha extracted her body from the tangle of damp, tobacco stained, wine stained, yogurt, coffee and come stained sheets, “I’d still say nonsense.”



I wouldn’t argue that Owens’s pornography is literature with a capital L—the plots are too pat, the language too sloppy. Still, her pornos seem no worse than Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s Candy, which Girodias first published in 1958 and which would have made all of them rich men many times over if they hadn’t squandered most of the money on their respective lawyers, battling about copyrights and royalties.

Much of the antic comedy in Candy derives from the exuberant exaggeration of the men’s prowess and the serial joke of Candy’s naive gullibility—all you have to do is need her. You don’t even have to tie her up. Click your heels together three times and say “pussy.”  She’d probably even do it in an airplane toilet.

It’s a completely male fantasy of sex. The only appropriate response is a knowing titter. Even bound in the chains of the porno formula, Owens’s vision of sex is darker, more complex—certainly more challenging and uneasy.

Some claim that Owens and Girodias had an affair. Some also claim that he never got over her. But he never encouraged her to publish under her own name. Shortly before he died in 1990, Girodias told an interviewer from Smoke Signals magazine that Iris Owens was his “biggest mistake”:

I could have made her into a big-big star. She could have been something, if I had only, you know, taken the time. … It was really Iris I loved. … No! What am I talking about? Am I mad? I hate the bitch! But of course I love her too. … Not as much as I hate her … perhaps … but …

Now that sounds more like a love affair in an Iris Owens novel. Forget bondage.  The real pain is being ditched—and by someone you aren’t even sure you wanted in the first place. Overtaken by huge neediness, and huge anger about your neediness, then waves of anger about your anger, you wait for the phone call that brings back the beloved. Chain-smoking in claustrophobic apartments, alone or in the company of cats, you wait.

If you think failed relationships can shatter your hopes and destroy your spirit, try failed literary careers.

Although After Claude got a great deal of attention upon release, it sold modestly.  Furthermore, some critics objected to the book’s narrative structure. The author of a novel with Claude in its title was perhaps ill-advised to lose Claude entirely for its last third and switch to a whole other cast of characters, with Harriet stranded at the Chelsea Hotel, alone and “seized with uncertainty.” Still, the reviews generally applauded the voice and forgave the structural flaws as a novice’s weakness.

Owens didn’t get a pass the second time around, with Hope Diamond Refuses, published in 1984. This novel, too, has a location change, and a whole new cast of characters, more than halfway through. Since the new setting is an invented Arab country complete with feasts and servants, the dislocation is more radical.

In some ways, Owens’s vision of the Middle East was prescient: the prince’s luscious groves are about to be mown for a swanky hotel, and the prince’s new child-bride has only one holy mission—to buy shoes in Paris. Here was the world as one big misogynistic shopping mall. But the reviews were scathing.

One suspects that the bumpy plot construction was ultimately less of a problem than the tone. Wisecrackers don’t generally let things get quite this dark. Furthermore, as Alessandra Stanley notes in “Who Says Women Aren’t Funny?” a Vanity Fair essay on how sexism still limits the range of female comics’ humor:

It’s hard to remember or fathom, but there was a time when Phyllis Diller had to dress in drag to attend a Friars Club roast. There has been an epochal change even from 20 years ago, when female stand-up comics mostly complained about the female condition—cellulite and cellophane—and Joan Rivers and Roseanne Barr perfectly represented the two poles of acceptable female humor: feline self-derision or macho-feminist ferocity.

Owens, of course, is not a stand-up comedian. And the fiction is not simply, or even only, funny. Yet her tonal subtlety—her neurotic, kvetching, sometimes cruel sense of comedy—almost certainly sabotaged her chances of big-time success.

To a contemporary eye, on the other hand, Owens’s jarring juxtapositions of plot and tone are a strength rather than a weakness. If Terry Southern is to be recognized as a master satirist for Candy and compared to Swift, Voltaire, and Byron, then Owens’s far more subtle and challenging work should be placed in the comic tradition of—well, who? You’d need to invent your own postmodern recipe for comic existential limbo. Beckett and Larry David. Roman Polanski and David Sedaris. Needless to say, the analogues would mostly all be men. Harriet is something different. Harriet is the despairing, promiscuous Emma Bovary, if Emma were to tell her own story and, rather than killing herself at the end, she just threatened to do so any minute, lit another cigarette, and—We can’t go on, we must go on—let fly another one-liner.

“What are you going back to?” Hope is asked as she leaves her imaginary emirate to return, yet again, to her crappy life in New York. Hope, hopefully: “Well, lately, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the computer field.”

When a novel flops, you’re not supposed to sulk. You’re supposed to buck up and write another. But Owens had always suffered from crippling writer’s block. The novelist Stephen Koch, who met Owens in Susan Sontag’s living room and strongly encouraged her during the writing of After Claude, recalls, “She often did very, very little. There was this tremendous inertia. It was like trying to get the Buddha to dance.” He would bring new pages of her novel home to type, but before she’d permit that, “there would be days of argument of Proustian nuance … a page would fall on the floor, then she’d watch TV for four hours, then she’d spill coffee on the pages.”

Unlike, say, Grace Paley or Tillie Olsen, who both directly discussed the problem of literary output while working and childrearing (“In the twenty years I bore and raised my children,” Olsen wrote, “usually had to work on a paid job as well, the simplest circumstances for creation did not exist”), Owens was distracted by being “a bit of a hedonist,” as her friend and literary executor, Knight Landesman, says. With an ex-boyfriend, a math genius from IBM, she had a profitable sideline as a poker player. She had a coterie of gay male friends, one of whom had a standing Saturday Scrabble date with her. Owens would regularly close down bars and restaurants—many of them owned by ex-boyfriends who picked up her tab. Who has time to write?

Perhaps gender expectations cut into her productivity as well. A woman artist is more inclined to have the adorably retro notion that a man should love her “for herself”—not for her royalties or famous friends—and thus be more conflicted about the assumption that she keep churning out a novel every year and a half that lets her remain in the public eye, and thus freshly desirable.

Culturally, too, Owens and her novels faced an uphill battle. The era of free love that After Claude so capably mocks did not last long. Two years after Fear of Flying, the touchstone was Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Judith Rossner’s somber portrait of a lonely woman who is a prim schoolteacher by day, a barhopping slut by night. Things do not go well for that lusty lady. People view rakes as touching (cf. Jay McInerney), but women who are willing to have serial sex on dining room tables or in moving elevators are thought be be best avoided (cf. Fatal Attraction). Okay, Samantha is adorably bawdy in Sex and the City—but she’s a comic extra. Carrie is lost and brittle without Big.

There wasn’t then—still isn’t—a model for a grown-up single woman with lovers and a rich, full life. Nor is there a model for her being gnawingly unhappy, a hot mess of self-contempt, in a way that doesn’t focus primarily on her marital status.  In the popular imagination, a single, childless, mature woman is just a couple of years away from being Eleanor Rigby.

Iris Owens did lead an enviably lively life in New York. She was also, like virtually every writer, often pretty miserable. “Iris the personality,” Koch recalls, “could have carried a kind of myth.” But Owens clearly found it more and more difficult to mine her own life for material. Her two literary novels may represent the deepest exploration we have of the schism between sexuality and intellectuality, self-doubt and self-sufficiency—unquestionably the funniest.

I wish she’d written more.

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