At this point, opening a new novel by Patrick McGrath involves a reassuring dose of familiarity: whatever happens (murder! psychoanalysis! body horror!) and wherever it happens (asylums! old houses! New York!), there will be a reliably unreliable narrator on hand, whose voice will just as reliably mutate from rational to delusional by the plot's conclusion. Turning the narrator inside-out, as it were, is one of McGrath's hallmarks. In Constance, McGrath ups the ante somewhat by featuring two unreliable narrators, our title character and her much older husband, English academic Sidney Klein. McGrath dissects Constance's and Sidney's increasingly toxic marriage, but he shrouds the corpse of this relationship with meta-Gothic trappings. Constance does not so much exist in Gothic as she self-consciously makes it, and therein lies much of her emotional trauma.
In some ways, this novel is classic Joyce Carol Oates territory. Constance, an editor, meets the already twice-divorced Sidney at a party, and he is immediately taken by her strangeness. Alas, much of Constance's strangeness has to do with her convoluted family relationships: after her English mother's early death, Constance was forced to raise her now-drunken sister Iris (whom she both loves and dislikes) and, worse still, put up with her cold father (whom, she is convinced, loathes her). Under the circumstances, the nature of her attraction to the also-English Sidney, decades her senior, is somewhat questionable. Matters do not improve when her dying father drops the emotional equivalent of a nuclear warhead midway through the book, leaving Constance to spend the rest of the novel attempting to reconstruct her fractured identity. Meanwhile, the reader will be left counting the suicides.
Like many McGrath narrators, Constance and Sidney seek to impose order on their chaotic psyches by carefully framing one story after another. Both characters repeatedly commit sins of omission, either with each other or, occasionally, the reader: Sidney apparently never enlightens Constance about his first marriage, while the reader hears about Constance's affair with a seedy piano player (a.k.a. her sister's boyfriend) from Sidney before Constance gets around to mentioning it. Nor, between Sidney's narrative, Constance's account to her sister, and Constance's address to the reader do we ever learn the full truth about the affair (how did Constance feel about Eddie? How many times did they have sex? And was she raped?). We see Constance's day job crop up in her careful calibration of what story to tell Sidney, what to tell her sister.
But there's another level of framing as well, in the overt literary and pop psychology references. Constance's and Iris' mother Harriet has an affair with the gardener that is suspiciously like Lady Chatterley's Lover redux. Moreover, Constance, who seems on nodding acquaintance with Freud, explains to Sidney that she married him because "[h]er father never gave her what she needed [...] and she'd always felt it was her fault"; in fact, "it was a repetition compulsion complex" (loc. 877). Given the emergence of therapy culture that lurks in the novel's background--"unlike most of the population of New York City she wouldn't see a psychiatrist" (loc. 882)--it's perhaps no surprise that Constance imagines herself in an increasingly literal family romance, in which she is the disfavored child who turns out to be not "one of the family" at all. By contrast, Sidney, at work on a great white whale called The Conservative Heart, brings a kind of chilly critical analysis to every move except his own; Constance tells us early on that "he had no real interest in who I was, only in how I conformed to the image he'd constructed in his mind" (loc. 42), and her instinctive sense of his controlling impulses are confirmed in the chapters from his POV. Sidney glumly contemplates a New York City that seems to suffer from "entropic dissolution" (loc. 1679), a physical and spiritual collapse hinting at the aimlessness and formlessness that Sidney most fears. Sidney insists on shaping both stories and people, not least of all his wives--who then, of course, divorce him. Even at the end, he has only a glimpse of his partial "responsibility" before running back to his own certainties: "No, I was in the right here. Surely" (loc. 2766). His best friend notes his "inability to tolerate criticism" (loc. 749), and Sidney is least of all capable of critiquing "my impulse to protect and nourish her" (loc. 775)--to be, as it turns out, a husband who is also sometimes a stringent father-figure.
This multiplicity of fathers--the loathed father (who is not one), the long-dead real father, and the husband-father--taps into one of traditional Gothic's prize tropes, the bad/evil/neglectful/absent patriarch. In fact, it taps into the trope so blatantly that the reader soon becomes aware of how openly Constance's narration evokes its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ancestry. Figurative "ghosts" abound, from the moment when Constance admits that "I felt like a ghost" in Sidney's apartment (loc. 53). Constance herself will be the last of the Schuylers by the time the novel is over, a famously Gothic predicament and an unsurprising one, given the family's oddness quotient. Her family home in the Hudson Valley is Ravenswood (a reference to The Bride of Lammermoor), and the decor is so screamingly Gothic as to be almost comical, tattered and crumbling, "dripping damp," and, of course, tenanted by a "monster" (loc. 944)--a real "Gothic horror house," in fact (loc. 974). Even the "ghastly ironic symmetry" (loc. 2416) of Constance being invited to kill her not-father, the man who (maybe) killed her real father, itself invokes the inevitability of Gothic repetition. The atmosphere of sexual secrecy, betrayal, and possibly murder permeates everything.
That Constance's mind goes so naturally to the least subtle aspects of an unsubtle genre points, I think, to her yearning for safety--a yearning she shares with the intellectually congested Sidney. That's not as bizarre as it sounds. In my Gothic course, we've been joking all semester about the dangers of skepticism: spend too long disbelieving in Gothic horrors, and you're (unpleasantly) dead! But for Constance, the Gothic is a pat analogy, an easy explanation. In Constance's mind, things once perceived tend to be all too clear. "Then I wondered why he'd been such a vindictive man," thinks Constance of her father, concluding, "it was obvious, it was because I was the living embodiment of my mother's infidelity, of her sin" (loc. 1075); and again, insisting that "Daddy" was responsible for her real father's death, she wonders, "Why couldn't Sidney grasp the obvious here? Daddy was responsible" (loc. 1390). Fleeing to the obvious, Constance evades complexities. In that sense, the creaky trappings of costume Gothic mark another evasion, in which the world can be divided up into black and white, monsters and innocent maidens, and Constance herself can safely identify as a victim--even when she is arguably hard at work at sabotaging her marriage (not that Sidney doesn't lend a hand there). In that sense, Constance finds ambiguity as terrifying as Sidney does. And this makes it difficult to read Constance's flat declarative statement at the end of the novel--"And you will never do him harm" (loc. 2904)--as anything but a sign of yet further danger, an unstated threat lurking beneath one more attempt at order and control.