Zoltan Barbu is a once-exalted author now exiled in Los Angles. He wears capes, seduces actresses in Jacuzzis and hasn't produced anything in decades. If it sounds cliche, that is the point. In Ménage, her first novel in 25 years, the feminist writer Alix Kates Shulman has given us a modern parable: caricatured characters interacting and standing in for real-world archetypes. Zoltan, predictably enough, is her catalyst.
Heather and Mack McKay live in a palatial, eco-friendly home. The distance from their New Jersey doorstep to Lincoln Center is 70 miles. Hockneys grace their walls, and the pantry is stocked with imported condiments. But their Edenic world is rotten at its core. Heather, a "North American Madame Bovary," publishes a weekly column for a green website, but is otherwise bored busying herself with the care of their two small children. Mack, a real estate developer, cheats on her.
It's on one of Mack's "business trips" that he meets Zoltan. They are attending the funeral of a mutual former flame, and determine — improbably, over the course of a single conversation — that a symbiosis might exist between them. Mack invites Zoltan back east to live with Heather and him. His room and board will be taken care of. He'll be able to focus on his writing, finally free of quotidian concerns. In return, Mack hopes that Zoltan's mere presence in the house will reanimate a domesticity that has turned dull.
Shulman, who was among the first to novelize the women's liberation movement with her best-selling Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen (1972), has long been beloved for her skillful fictionalization of societal ills. Sasha Davis, the heroine of that debut novel, is to this day name-checked as an example of a complexly — and accurately — rendered modern woman. In 1969, Shulman published "A Marriage Agreement," a manifesto that outlined a theory of equally split domestic duties, and proposed ways in which it could be put into practice. Widely syndicated and indelibly influential, it secured Shulman's place in 20th century letters.
Ménage, unfortunately, doesn't do Shulman's legacy justice. With the narrative's love-tangled premise swiftly and unsurprisingly established (it's in the very title of the book), Shulman proceeds to satirize all three of her characters in more or less equal measure. A generous reading would praise the author's democratic empathy and scorn, but by insisting that no one character is either villain or hero, we struggle to care much about any of them.
It's a pity, because more than a few times Shulman, nearing 80, proves still capable of the precise interiorizing for which she's famous. Mostly, these insights come in the form of tweezered-in laments about the low-grade but incessant degradation of Heather's life, and the exposing of that life as representative of a world in which feminism hasn't been as transformative as we're meant to think.
Heather's assets are quantifiable: two children, an intact (though unhappy) marriage, a garden, a gem of a house. They are easy to measure, but contribute little to her sense of self-worth. Her daily suffering should animate the novel, but it's neither positioned centrally nor taken seriously enough to make us think of her as much more than an unfunny lampoon. Shulman reveals to us enduring battles between the sexes that, by now, should be anachronism, but her satirical remove prevents us from really feeling the sting — and regressive disappointment — of them.