Rope Dancer, by M. J. Fitzgerald (1986)

Many of the stories in M. J. Fitzgerald’s collection, Rope Dancer, read like unsettling dreams: vivid enough to provoke deep feelings but too full of bizarre, illogical transitions and events to be part of waking life.

In “Mystery Story,” a woman finds herself returned, again and again, to the compartment of a passenger train, where strange, dreamlike things happen. She finds a book in the luggage rack, a purple volume with the title, “Mystery Story,” on the spine. She begins to read it: “Pero cant credan freshli speciel omana duet whore ass.” And thought passes through her mind and she senses something pass by in the corridor:

Ghennema dashed to the door and pulled it back: the passage was deserted, except for a black hat. It sat across the centre of the corridor, looking as if its owner had simply melted underneath it, and it was feeling guilty.–Napoleon’s hat–she thought stepping close to it, and picked it up. She wanted to throw it out, it did not belong in the train, but her struggle to open the ventilation panels above the windows was unsuccessful. With a shrug to dismiss her unease, she carried the hat back into the carriage, laid it on her lap and stretched her legs on to the opposite seat: the hat was a cat to the touch, and she continued to stroke it mechanically for a while.

In other cases, however, the experience described is more like a nightmare than a dream. “A man and a woman met and became lovers,” Fitzgerald’s first story, “Creases,” begins. The woman thrills to the man’s touch, and soon, “they found their love was magic.” But it’s also clearly an unequal relationship. She learns to transform herself to his changing wants: “When weary of her smallness, she grew large breasts into which he buried himself, and when that ceased to satisfy him she became a child and even a man.”

Inevitably, the man becomes tired of the woman. He dislikes “most the tacit assumption that because she loved him he must somehow love her too.” And so, when he has to go away on a long journey, he decides to put her away–literally, into a cardboard box. After some trying, he manages to fit her in. “Quickly and deftly, as if fixing a set of batteries to a transistor, he fitted the top and took a large elastic band from his desk to secure it shut.” He then goes out to celebrate, bringing back another woman to help him carry the box into the attic.

Years later, he returns, wealthy and successful. He decides to look for the box and the woman again, and eventually locates them in a warehouse, his house having been sold years before. He takes the box back to his big new house, takes the woman out, and wraps her in a blanket. Eventually, she is able to move, but her body is “bruised and permanently puckered and pleated.” Though he is able to walk with her in the park, “She did not open her eyes again.”

In the midst of the torrent of news about women coming forward about their abuse and harassment by men, “Crease,” seems more like a powerful metaphor for the tendency of many men to objectify women, even to the point of wanting to pack them away in boxes for years or even forever. Inside the box, the woman tries to accept her position and find comfort, but soon finds it impossible to find relief. As much as she wants to accommodate herself to the man’s wishes, she cannot avoid becoming permanently damaged. And, having forgotten her and his abuse for years, the man tries to take her out of storage and carry on as if nothing has happened.

The danger underlying the treatment of too many women by too many men runs like an invisible thread through many of Fitzgerald’s stories. In “A Landscape with Walls,” a woman finds herself irresistibly drawn to a man’s touch, and it leads her to sleep with hundreds of men. After a while, though, as she makes love with a man, she also finds that she is walking around, picking up bricks and laying them out, first into a line and then stacked up to form a wall.

This experience recurs, growing more intense and exaggerated. She finds herself running around in a landscape reminiscent of black-and-white horror films, wearing a mason’s apron of stiff dark leather, collecting and piling up the bricks. Soon, she seems to be surrounded by endless brick walls each time she goes to bed with a man: “But there were so many: thousands more than she had made, they extended and went on and seemed to multiply so that when Briony thought she has nearing the end, the next time the horizon seemed to have been pushed further back and countless more stood silent and black against the white set.”

Rope Dancer was the first work published by Fitzgerald, daughter of Robert Fitzgerald, whose translations of Homer were the most successful of their generation. She published one novel, Concertina, a year later, but has concentrated on poetry and translations since then. It’s our loss, as she has a remarkable talent for creating unforgettable and disturbing images, as well as a confidence in manipulating the interface between reader and writer in a way that reminds me at times of Italo Calvino.

This is most noticeable in the story, “The Fire Eater,” in which she begins by telling us that a friend’s description of “an American woman with two girl children and a man friend who is a fire-eater” leads her mind to think, “story possibility, story possibility.” She then proceeds to tell the story, while also telling us that she is writing the story: “At this moment, the pen is winning, but the war is not won.”

She weaves a tale about an American spinster, visiting Rome, who finds herself fascinated with the street performer doing fire-eating tricks for crowds in the Piazza Navona and accidentally befriends a young girl who seems to be wandering, perhaps homeless, around the square. But Fitzgerald also admits, “I am not interested in Barbara Grimes or the fire-eater: were I to meet the actual acquaintances of my friend who correspond to these labels, I would be, at best, indifferent.” What interests her is simply the experiment of putting them into a fiction: “There is some kind of mystery in that name and that action, and I want them together to see how they react to each other.”

And when the American woman meets and falls in love with the fire-eater and with the girl, Fitzgerald tells us that “the mystery lies in what you do, the mystery is reading, not writing: it is while you read that possibility is limitless and Barbara is real, though she may exist without you, like a collapsed puppet.” For then the woman finds that her imagined romance is, indeed, a fiction: the man and the girl turn out to live with a lively, blonde American woman–the real Barbara Grimes of her friend’s description?

All I know is that I wish M. J. Fitzgerald would continue performing such feats of fictional legerdemain.

Because I found “Creases” such a memorable piece, I took the liberty to scan it and have saved it here (Link). Its five short pages offer a profound perspective on the stories finally gaining the attention they deserve.

Rope Dancer, by M. J. Fitzgerald
London: Picador/Pan Books, 1986