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New York Times Daily Review 🏠

Photo of the actual printed review from the New York Times.

Books of the Times ❦ Saturday, December 6, 1980

Irony in the Afternoon

by Anatole Broyard

“I hate irony,” says Linda, the heroine of Nancy Hayfield’s Cleaning House. But of course her life—like the lives of all housewives in fiction now—is furnished, wall-to-wall, with irony. Irony is their cleanser, disinfectant and air-freshener, their broom, mop and pail. Irony bubbles on the stove; the freezer is full of frozen irony. Right now, Linda’s washing machine is laundering yesterday’s ironies, getting ready for today.

She pauses a moment to think of her husband Jack aloft. Jack is on a business trip and, before he leaves, they synchronize their watches so that she can think him aloft at plane time. He is a salesman: all husbands are salesmen.

“I hate this suspense,” Linda says, “this constant waiting for Jack to come home.” “The first day is always the hardest,” she adds, “until his toothbrush dries.” While he’s away, she saves up so many things to tell him that she despairs of editing it all down to size and ends up by saying nothing.

Motion Equals Sanity

Jack says, “Men have to keep moving or they go crazy.” A corollary of this theory seems to be that women have to stay still and go crazy. Linda consoles herself with routine and with thrift. Thrift is the reclaimed chastity of the housewife. It is a kind of negative voluptuousness. As Linda says, “The problem with staying home is the lush, sensual thickness of the job.”

Because she married at 18 and immediately had two children, Linda never went to college. Her mind, therefore, is free of categories, capable of originality. In love with her new house, she says, “I wanted to lie down on the floor in the light and pretend I was swimming in water.” But the novelty wears off. As her departed Aunt Ruth, her Greek chorus, said, “You’re on the bed for a few years, and then you’re the dust under it.”

Still, Linda has her moments. As she puts it, “Suburban life in the afternoon can be quite colorful and emblematic.” Her defense of chocolate bonbons, for example, is nothing if not ingenious. “Think about it,” she says, “each one is completely covered with dark uncertainty, and you don’t know what’s going to be inside the next one anymore than you know what a new day will bring.”

Maggie, a new arrival in the neighborhood, is the turning point in Cleaning House. Maggie is living proof that, among housewives in fiction, the destructive personality will always attract and outweigh the constructive personality. Though Linda has all the other qualities, Maggie has the charisma that is given only to the woman who doesn’t care. As she herself observes, “It’s style, not sincerity, we’re after at this stage.”

Linda sees through Maggie, but she’s attracted by the view. How wonderful, in the suburbs, to have a garden of evil, instead of vegetables. And Maggie does have style: her husband is a doctor, and when they buy a house in the neighborhood Maggie announces her emergency theory of life by using an ambulance as a moving van.

Maggie is amazed when Linda confides that she is frigid—just as Linda might be amazed to learn that Maggie cannot cook, sew, or keep house. Maggie proposes that they have an orgy while Jack is away. She can give her own husband any old excuse and she can supply the necessary men, too. Linda is attracted to the idea as a “disposable experience.” She who can never throw food away, who won’t even waste money on paper towels, would like to throw away a sexual encounter, or even a man.

Description Excels

Linda is better than Gay Talese at describing an orgy. Here is how she sums up her partner, who is a musician from Michigan: “I knew I had some sort of feeling for the person from Michigan, but it was nothing more, really, than I feel when I pull into someone’s driveway just to turn around.”

The other purpose of the orgy is for Linda to tell Jack about it, to surprise him for the first time in their life together. They smoke some pot together—something Maggie taught them—and she is just about to astonish Jack when he bursts into tears with a confession of his own. “There was his truth,” Linda says, “he got his in first, all spread out so I could see it, be blinded with it.”

It wouldn’t be fair to Nancy Hayfield, or to Cleaning House, to tell you what Jack confesses. If you want to find out why irony makes housewives frigid and husbands cry, you’ll have to read the book. 🏠

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