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Negative Capabilities: ISABEL FONSECA (Unabridged)

Fonseca’s faith in and sympathy for the outsider, the lost soul, is an interesting stream in her work. She believes it was vital to her brother’s makeup and his “training” to be an artist, and admits she feels that she is still very much an outsider at heart herself.

“But in fact I know I am an insider,” she admits. “I’m very privileged in the life I lead. I get invited to everything. I’m talking about how you feel, nonetheless. I also think any artist needs not to sign on. Bruno had severe dyslexia in an era before people were clued up in how to respond to it. He had a stutter. He was very tall as a kid. So even though he was a beautiful man, he grew up feeling like he was a dumb giant. How you feel about yourself and how people see you is one of the great cosmic jokes.”

It’s not hard to perceive she is talking about herself as much as her brother with those last words. When I ask Fonseca about her antipathy to England, she’s nonetheless quick to refine it into something more good-natured: “Oh, it’s all right. London’s just too expensive to be loveable. … Actually we just spent a few years living in South America. It was wonderful, charming, heaven. But I don’t mind being in the wrong place. I think for a writer being in the wrong place is often a very good thing.”

In 2004 Fonseca and Amis decamped to Uruguay with their daughters for two and half years in the wake of her father’s death. Fonseca attempted to write, and eventually abandoned, a major nonfiction work on her extended family during the time of the Uruguayan dictatorship of the Seventies. (She is currently reworking this material into her next novel.) Fonseca turned then to “what was, I thought, a short story at first,” before it evolved into the highly intimate and charged book Attachment.

Like Larkin’s “An Arundel Tomb,” Attachment takes a rather anti-romantic view of romance, before leaving us with a bittersweet and defiantly fragile ending. The book’s central character is Jean Hubbard, a syndicated American health columnist married to a high-achieving British advertising executive named Mark. He is described as “six feet four in bare feet and striking with his grayed hair swept back, wind-eroded dune grass above the expanding beach of his face.” This alone sounds like an awfully good depiction of Martin Amis, not to mention a more commercialized slant on his and Fonseca’s literary preoccupations. The snipe in the book that Mark was formerly an artist and collagist who satirized the media, before selling himself out to advertising, gains even further autobiographical overlapping if you know that Martin Amis’ older and taller brother, Philip, is an artist and collagist.

Like Fonseca, Jean Hubbard also has a background that includes working as a paralegal for a summer in New York; she similarly buys pot as a teenager in Washington Square; has studied at Oxford; is shadowed by memories of a brother who has died tragically; deals with a father who is critically ill; and copes with the unexpected appearance of a young woman who might be her husband’s daughter (two decades after an affair, Martin Amis would reconcile in 1997 with a daughter he had never known named Delilah Seale). That the opening of Attachment is set on the imaginary island of St. Jacques — supposedly located somewhere near Mauritius, but also a hot, exotic place not unlike Uruguay — brings Attachment even closer to home.

Attachment begins with Jean’s discovery of a sexually provocative letter that leads her to a secret email link and an affair her husband has been having. To find out more about it, Jean begins writing to “Giovanna” as if she were her husband. This incites Jean to abandon herself to a night of infidelity back in London, and to later flirt with an old lover in New York while her father hovers on the critical list in the hospital. “Everything was sullied and she was rotting from within,” Jean reflects as she delves further into a world of internet affairs and online pornography. Later, as she embraces a path of disillusionment to license her own betrayals, she admits “this was the consequence she most feared: her own revulsion for her world, for all that she had. Auto-eviction.”

Fonseca says the story of Attachment is “not prompted by any actual event. It’s prompted by a desire to think about things – things like the assumption married people know each other intimately. The [adulterous] letter is just a device, and once I got the idea about the emails I wondered what it would be like to try and inhabit another consciousness, in part for the greater comic potential in the sexual imagination involved.”

“I know I’m not supposed to say this, but I found writing about sex incredibly easy,” Fonseca says with some delight. “I’m aware that’s not universal. Pornography, hot lusty sex, marital sex. Then there is the daughter in the book and her parents beginning to accede to her life as a sexual being, too. Is the nature of sex always universal?” she asks rhetorically. “No. But lots of aspects are — the humiliation one can feel, the comedy at different stages, otherwise why would Portnoy’s Complaint still be so funny today?”

The pornographic energy was nonetheless the most difficult part of the book to master as Fonseca sought to evoke the intensity and absurdity of an online affair. “It’s because porno begins life as a cliché,” she says, “that it can be so difficult to write. But those are intentionally embarrassing things in the book. I was also interested in how vulnerable people are to this new faceless communication. It’s the lowest grade of the self, and yet people absolutely hurl themselves into. All in the illusion of un-accountability. Everyone knows that it’s not real and yet they still do it.”

Fonseca says the word ‘hurl’ with deep intensity. As if someone or something has already been lost. It’s not surprising the UK is so abuzz with what Attachment suggests about the Amis-Fonseca marriage — as well as the critical complications of dealing with a work that may or may not be a roman-a-clef. Though it is certainly a novel of great promise, Attachment ebbs and flows in its intensity according to the proximity one feels between the author and her ‘truths’. In short, the things Fonseca seems to have experienced are powerfully evoked; the things she appears to have imagined feel forced or contrived.

At times one hears some of Amis’ savage and snappy Pop style in Fonseca’s own rhythms, as well as a strong whiff of Ian McEwan circa Saturday in the detached yet caring internal style of the narration. These are not limp comparisons; sounding like them yes, but just as good in patches, with something humorous and obviously female in the perspective that eventually feels like Fonseca herself simply talking directly to us.

You feel this most of all in the conflicting emotions of rage and love that Jean expresses for her philandering husband as they rise and fall with stunning rapidity and depth across certain pages; and in a lengthy and brilliant passage set in New York during the 2003 blackout that echoes the tragedy of 2001, as Jean drives around with her old flame Larry Mond and finds herself similarly caught between the past and the present. By the end of Attachment the story seems less vital than these indelible moments that flare up forcefully through the writing.


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