Friday, November 27, 2009

alone in a furnished apartment

Peter Hoag, a Wall Street man, aged fifty-six in March, 1941, led a simple Manhattan life and had regular habits. He lived alone in a furnished apartment, at $110 monthly, on the eighteenth floor of a residential hotel in the lower East Sixties. His apartment was in the corner of the building, with two sets of windows, one set overlooking Madison Avenue, and the other, the cross street. The people below looked so small that they seemed to walk like two-legged fleas, and the cars so small that they were like potato bugs that could be scooped up by the hatful.

A Little Tea, A Little Chat is another book about people who dedicate their lives to money, this time set in early 1940s New York rather than early 1930s Paris. The cast has shrunk. House of All Nations was a happy maelstrom, a book that bubbled with specialist knowledge, with characters, with schemes; this is a furious, sunless piece of writing stamped with a tone of flat anger new to her.

Almost all of the prominent characters in House of All Nations were men, with the exception of, perhaps, one, who urged her husband on like Lady Macbeth, and, who, you're allowed to suspect, might have made a more ruthless banker than he, if only she had been born a man and able to enter that world directly. In A Little Tea, Stead approaches the money-making project from a female angle as well as a male one. The man, Robert Grant, is willing to speculate and cheat, manage the sale of black market goods, anything, really, to make a profit in the business world, while his female counterpart marries men, divorces them for alimony payments, and otherwise lives off them; her mother waits in the background like a pimp. This is her sphere and she exploits it as readily as Grant exploits his.

The Peter Hoag of the first chapter is a minor character who introduces them to one another then drifts out of the story almost entirely. Several of the book's preoccupations are summed up in that opening: people are measured by their monetary worth and the kind of show they can afford to put on. Hoag has his view of Madison Avenue, a different man, later on in the book, has a house in the country. Neither of them seems to enjoy his home, but enjoyment is not the point. Ownership is the point. Stead's language makes these properties sound desperate, utilitarian and shabby: the descriptions are boiled down to their dull bones ("a furnished apartment, at $110 monthly, on the eighteenth floor of a residential hotel") and the domestic arrangements inside them are miserable. Hoag is "alone," the man with the country house has a marriage so uncomfortable that only the author's language saves it from simple caricature, and Grant, who fancies himself a ladies' man, tells the same stale lies to every woman he wants to seduce. The title of the book is a euphemism of his. Inviting someone up to his flat for "a little tea, a little chat," means sex. It's not a joyful sex life - he scurries from lie to lie, whining that nobody loves him.

The people in the street resemble fleas, and the cars resemble bugs, and this is how the characters in this book see the world around them: other people are oblique, uninteresting unless they can be exploited, "scooped up" and played with, then tossed aside. This is not a new idea in fiction, but Stead's repetition gives it a bounce (people so small they're this, cars so small they're that) and I think - or this is how I read it - that she's not trying to tell us her money-making people are powerful, godlike, that is, it's not

As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods;
They kill us for their sport

rather it's a measure of how limited their imaginations are. Their ideas are ordinary - "Those people down there, they're like little insects!" Their brains go no further. They're easily disinterested. These cash-foxed people, she's telling us, are boring.

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