Lily Tuck’s first novel, Interviewing Matisse, or The Woman Who Died Standing Up, is a shaggy dog story that’s a little too shaggy and dogged. But give her credit for making a major contribution — quite possibly the only contribution — to the Scatterbrained Phone Call School of Fiction. Imagine Gracie Allen as a well-heeled, well-traveled, middle-aged woman fond of French clothes, food, and men, and imagine her and a twin in a phone conversation that goes in giddy circles and blithering tangents all night, and you’ll get the idea.
Molly, in Connecticut, calls her friend Lily, in New York, at 1 a.m. one rainy night with the news that their old friend Inez has just been found dead, stiff as a board, and standing up, wearing bra, panties, and galoshes, in a corner of her apartment. No light (or tear, for that matter) is shed on the mystery during the ensuing four hours, as the conversation follows an addled itinerary that lurches back and forth between New York and Paris, the ’80s and the ’50s, lunches and dinners, suitcases and sex.
Old anecdotes pile up, and artists, idlers, and aristocrats wander in and out of them. Inez gets caught in adultery with a Spanish boy (”Inez said at the time… she did not know how a good Catholic girl like herself could go to bed with someone named Jesus”). Lily accidentally roasts her dog by locking him in the car on a hot day. Molly interviews the aging Matisse circa 1952 and swims in his pool — wearing only her underwear, she remembers, which is more than she remembers about the interview. Molly and Lily don’t go to pieces because they’re already there. Loose ends are their element, and Inez’s gro- tesque corpse, left behind by frantic digressions, fits right in.
Apart from its sly satire of cosmopolitan parochialism, the book offers an authentically nasty sense of eavesdropping; it wouldn’t surprise me if several of Tuck’s acquaintances are already licking their anecdotal wounds, if not plotting their revenge. And the chatter takes some agreeably daft turns: ”Were you there in East Hampton when Malcolm told us about this woman he had met in an ashram, an Indian woman who was enlightened named Ananda Somebody-or-other, and each time Ananda’s husband tried to make love to her, to Ananda, he — the husband, Lily — got a tremendous electrical shock. I don’t know why I mention this now — ha, ha — only Inez, too, I remember, got a kick out of this story. Inez told Malcolm this was one sure method of contraception and much more fun than sticking your fork inside a toaster.”
Still, there were long stretches that tempted me to hang up. To bring off 148 pages of this kind of comedy you would need an absolute master of colloquial meandering, and Ring Lardner isn’t available.