It would be easy, if you were a person who read women often but spoke to them rarely, to imagine that contemporary women hate men. Scholars write books and essays about how tragic heterosexuality is; queer writers in and out of the academy pity straight girls, who, in turn, bemoan their fate on social media or in personal essays that go viral there.1 Some go so far as to suggest that no women genuinely enjoy heterosexual sex, but most confine themselves to the idea, or the performance of the idea, that heterosexual love is second-rate and doomed. Fiction isn’t immune. In recent literary novels like Lillian Fishman’s Acts of Service or Katherine Lin’s You Can’t Stay Here Forever, good sex between men and women abounds, but a good man is hard to find. In a March New York Times piece on the revival of Norman Rush’s 1991 novel Mating, Marie Solis wrote that the book’s fans “have noted that a largely positive portrayal of love relationships in general, and heterosexual relationships in particular, is a rarity in fiction.” (Rush’s fans, evidently, are not reading romance.)
It would also be easy, if you had read about the writer Rachel Ingalls’s work but never opened one of her electrically strange short books, to see her as an early adopter of today’s men-are-trash-ism, which the writer Asa Seresin has referred to as “heteropessimism.”2 Ingalls is certainly a bard of what John Updike, describing her 1983 novel Mrs. Caliban, called “a deep female sadness that makes us stare,” yet the madcap spirit that suffuses her writing keeps it from being fatalistic. She gravitates toward the odd aside, the baffling phenomenon, the bloody ending. But she never betrays what’s happening next in her stories—foreshadowing is unthinkable. This unpredictability is her aesthetic and philosophical hallmark.
It is true that the single strongest current running through Ingalls’s fiction is the boundary-shattering energy of female desire, which, whether satisfied or denied, she depicts as both a life-giving force and a destroyer of worlds. And when Ingalls writes about denied desire, the culprit is generally a negligent husband. Marriage is not an appealing prospect in her fiction. Consider In the Act (1987), recently reissued in the UK as part of No Love Lost, a collection of eight of her novellas, and in the US as a slim standalone. It opens with a man named Edgar telling his wife, Helen, that she’s being unreasonable. “Of course I am. I’m a woman,” Helen shoots back. “You’ve already explained that to me.”
Edgar is a great explainer. Ingalls, who is masterful at skewering her characters, writes that he wins arguments by explaining his side in a tone that is “knowing, didactic, often sarcastic or hectoring. Whenever he used it outside the house, it made him disliked.” Whether he’s liked in the house is unclear. Helen mainly seems exasperated with her husband at the beginning of In the Act, but Ingalls does let the reader know that, when he so chooses, he’s good enough in bed that Helen is both “satisfied [and] surprised.” Mainly, though, Edgar uses sex to pacify Helen so she’ll stay out of his attic lab, on which he has placed a Bluebeard-esque prohibition. When she enters anyway, she discovers that he’s been building an animatronic sex doll.
Though Edgar’s doll is highly realistic, in an idealized, pornographic way—“Pubic hair and nipples everywhere you look,” Helen sputters, describing her—Edgar betrays his fundamental lack of imagination by dressing her in the flouncy, childish clothes an expensive doll would wear and naming her Dolly. Although Edgar is a good inventor, he is, like many Ingalls husbands, a fool. However, that doesn’t mean all her men are.
Ingalls’s female protagonists share an instinctive faith that, no matter how disappointing their men are, better ones are out there. For them, men are often a dream, a repository and symbol of hope that goes far beyond the sexual. Crucially, that hope is often met, though rarely in the way one would expect (or, in some cases, want). Patricia Lockwood writes in her foreword to No Love Lost that the word “man” “shines in her writing the way the word ‘shop’ does: a place to walk into, spin around till your skirt flares and at last get everything you want.” Lockwood’s description captures the 1950s tenor of Ingalls’s work, but the truth is, nobody in an Ingalls story is longing for stuff. For her women, getting everything you want is an emotional prospect. They long for pure and sustained male attention paid equally to their bodies and their minds. When they get it, it brings them back to life.
Ingalls herself lived, as far as anyone knows, a peaceful life: she was not one for interviews or press. She was born in Massachusetts in 1940; her father was a Harvard Sanskrit professor, and her mother, like so many of Ingalls’s protagonists, stayed home. After graduating from Radcliffe in 1964, Ingalls moved to England, where she wrote in relative obscurity until 1986, when the British Book Marketing Council surprised readers by naming her Mrs. Caliban one of the twenty best postwar novels by American writers.
Mrs. Caliban is very short—hardly long enough to qualify as a novel rather than a novella—and, like many of Ingalls’s works, feels distinctly American despite her expatriation: it is set in an unspecified suburb that feels Southern Californian, a place where cars, malls, and chitchat rule. At the book’s start, a lonely housewife named Dorothy is grieving the death of her son, Scotty, years ago, as well as a subsequent miscarriage; then her poor little dog, Bingo, was killed by a car, leaving Dorothy feeling that “everything near her died…. It was a wonder the grass on the front lawn didn’t turn around and sink back into the earth.” Her husband, Fred, a callous jerk at the best of times, withdraws from her grief. Dorothy’s misery is so flattening and absolute that she is, as she tells her friend Estelle, “too unhappy to get a divorce.” She is not, however, too morose to start a steamy affair with a giant humanoid frog.
Larry, Mrs. Caliban’s frog-man, turns up at Dorothy’s house in need of shelter. He’s on the run, having killed a pair of sadistic scientists who captured him in the Gulf of Mexico and performed experiments on him. Dorothy takes Larry in without a second thought. Before long, she’s teaching him how to sleep with a human woman, which seems uncomplicated, since his body is “exactly like [that of] a man—a well-built large man—except that he was a dark spotted green-brown in colour.” Larry and Dorothy fall in love, about which the novel leaves no room for doubt: this is a good thing, and readers should root for it. Yes, Larry has webbed hands and feet and his true home is under the ocean, but his species is far less important than his effect on Dorothy. Once she and Larry get together, she lights up almost instantly. She’s sneaking around the suburbs with him at night, sewing gigantic wigs for him by day to disguise his green head when he goes out. She’s having a great time, and it’s lucky for both her and Larry that Fred is too oblivious to notice.
Ingalls writes Mrs. Caliban with a breezy matter-of-factness that chimes with Dorothy’s desire for Fred to keep looking away from her new happiness, from their guest room where Larry is staying, from the sacks of avocados—Larry’s pricey favorite snack—that she’s suddenly buying. The novella’s tone all but shouts, “Nothing to see here!” Her writing does not invite readers to slow down. But her sentences reward anyone who has the willpower to pause. In one of the very few moments when Dorothy herself stops moving, she sits on the beach, waiting for Larry to surface from a night swim in the ocean:
But down there it would be dark now, and not the lovely lighted aquarium she imagined it to be during the daylight hours, eddying with schools of tiny, delicate animals floating and dancing slowly to their own serene currents and creating the look of a living painting. That was wrong, in any case. The ocean was different from an aquarium, which was an artificial environment.
In these three sentences, beauty and fantasy give way abruptly to Dorothy’s understanding that she’s fallen for a wild creature. She can keep Larry in her guest room, but not forever. No matter how much she enjoys floating on the current of love that runs between them, he’s going to go back to the ocean someday.
Love and wildness collide again in Binstead’s Safari (1983). Millie Binstead, ignored for years by her anthropologist spouse, Stan, comes roaring into her own after starting a hot safari-town romance with a hunter and lion expert named Henry “Simba” Lewis who promises to marry her once she gets rid of her husband. Stan, a stereotypical academic, is almost constitutionally incapable of noticing things, but he realizes rapidly that Millie has made contact with a new and powerful side of herself. Mainly what he sees is the sexual wildness Lewis has awakened in her, though he recognizes it only in the form of his own sudden desperation to sleep with her after years of disinterest. He gets even hornier once she asks for a divorce. “I don’t know what you think you’re proving,” he grouses after she turns him down one morning. “I’m having wet dreams now.” Millie, whose prince is finally coming, couldn’t care less.
Binstead’s Safari is Ingalls’s longest novel, and its length allows her to contrast Millie’s relationships with both Stan and Lewis with slower forms of love that rarely appear in her shorter works. Ian, the Binsteads’ main guide, has a steady, calm relationship with his wife, Pippa; his younger colleague Nicholas, meanwhile, is quietly frantic over his wife, Jill, whose recent nervous breakdown has left her unable to care for their children. Nicholas has to keep earning but plainly longs for her. Every letter she writes sends him into a spiral of misery that Millie, herself longing for Lewis, talks him through. In one of her arguments with Stan, she holds Nicholas up as an example, saying, “Everybody thinks Jill is in a mess—at least Nicholas is on her side. What I’m trying to say is that for some reason, it made you feel good every time I failed at something.”
Millie and Lewis don’t get as far as marriage, and it’s safe to assume that, if they did, it wouldn’t be a union like either Ian and Pippa’s or Nicholas and Jill’s. Depending on how you interpret the end of Binstead’s Safari, Lewis may be a lion-god in human guise (I think he is), and myths across cultures tell us that gods and women rarely have long relationships rooted in empathy. Ingalls herself presumably agrees: in Mrs. Caliban Dorothy knows that the fact that Larry’s a frog-man means they have no long-term future. But the long term isn’t absent from Ingalls’s writing. In the Act is very much about a woman who wants an Ian-and-Pippa-style marriage. What Helen wants—what she yearns for—is sustained love, sexual connection, and affection from a real human man. She wants them so badly she’d do just about anything.
In the Act seems initially to be about artificiality, not wildness. Helen is, after all, in marital competition with a sex robot—except that the competition, once discovered, lasts less than an afternoon. Within moments of finding Dolly in her husband’s attic lab, Helen has hauled her off to a train-station storage locker, from which she will soon be stolen by a lunk named Ron (more on him later).
Helen’s fury makes her both decisive and powerful. It also releases her own wildness, though not in quite the same way the lion-god and lizard-man relationships in Binstead’s Safari and Mrs. Caliban do. Dorothy and Millie need to reencounter pleasure in a way Helen does not. She’s fully in touch with her sexuality, though anger gives it a new edge. Ingalls takes advantage of the novella form’s brevity to convey the 0-to-100 intensity of Helen’s intertwined emotions without having to tease them out. She describes Helen’s initial confrontation with Edgar about Dolly in the language of a high-quality orgasm:
She thought she might begin to rise from the floor with the rush of excitement, the wonderful elation: dizzying, intoxicating, triumphant…. It was as if she’d been grabbed by something out of the sky, and pulled up; she was going higher and higher.
In that state, Helen tells Edgar he’s getting Dolly back only if he makes a “real stud” for her.
It’s deeply satisfying to watch Helen assert herself over Edgar, but Ingalls—here and throughout her work—does not rest on that satisfaction. She seems to delight in dipping into the minds of the awful husbands she writes. In the Act visits Edgar’s as he works night and day on sex robot #2, fuming all the while about Helen’s bad moods, her lackluster cooking, her tendency to “wear really dumpy clothes that he didn’t like.” It offends him to “be so hard at work, wasting the strength of his body and brain on the creation of a thing intended to give her pleasure.” But it offends him even more when, after a weekend with her doll, Helen informs him that she’s bored. In bed, the male robot, whom she names Automatico—Auto for short—is “without subtlety, charm, surprise, or even much variety. She didn’t believe that her husband had tried to shortchange her; he simply hadn’t had the ingenuity to program a better model.”
Helen asks Edgar to improve Auto, but after days back in the lab, the doll still fails to impress. “Perhaps no alterations would make any difference,” Ingalls writes. “Maybe [Helen] just wanted him to be real, even if he was boring. Edgar evidently felt the other way…. The element of fantasy stimulated him.” It speaks to Ingalls’s attitudes about both gender and imagination that the former doesn’t enter the equation here. Helen doesn’t argue to herself that men need fantasy, women reality. It would hardly be consistent with Ingalls’s broader body of work if she did. Dorothy, for example, falls for Larry not just because she needs attention but because she needs the mental escape offered by letting herself love a being others wouldn’t even believe in. More importantly, though, Ingalls is not a generalizer—which is perhaps how she manages, despite the terribleness of the husbands she writes about, to remain so committed to male possibility.
In the Act’s symbol of that possibility is Ron, a musclebound petty criminal. He’s the one who steals Dolly from the train-station locker where Helen stashes her, hoping for something to sell. Instead, he gets his true love. Ron yearns for Dolly to be real. He sees her robot nature as a tragic, irremediable flaw, which he nevertheless tries to overcome. He buys her casual clothes and L.L.Bean duck boots (a rare moment of proper-noun Americana in Ingalls’s work) to replace the absurdly frilly outfit Edgar chose. He takes her on the bus, to his sister’s house, and to hang out with his gym buddies, but none of these outings succeeds in making her seem more human. Only Ron, in the privacy of his imagination, can do that.
When Helen comes into contact with Ron, she recognizes him not as a kindred spirit, but as the best sexual option on offer, bringing hope to the despair into which Auto’s failure to satisfy has plunged her. Ron is not the person Helen wants to be with, but she still instantly clocks him as “more the kind of thing I had in mind…to wind up and go to bed with.” She’s objectifying him here, of course—it’s not exactly respectful to call someone “the kind of thing I had in mind”—but what she’s attracted to is his rough humanity. Looking at him reminds her of what she wants, and what she believes she can have: sex with a human man who projects physical power, and who wants a woman rather than a doll.
In the Act doesn’t quite have a happy ending. Helen leaves the story with much more strength and self-knowledge than she has at the start, but when she realizes that she would prefer a boring real man to an inexhaustible sex robot (who, post modification, can also teach her Italian and gourmet cooking), it’s at the same moment that she accepts that her husband finds reality a turn-off. Up to a point, having a happy long-term relationship, whether it’s a marriage or not, requires wanting a real person—which, in turn, requires accepting some boredom. It is impossible to be intimate with someone over time without coming to understand them, to know their habits, to be able to predict some of what they will do and say next. Edgar and Helen both know this, but Edgar doesn’t know anything else. Helen, in contrast, recognizes the other side of the equation: with intimacy, and being known, comes the pleasure of receiving someone’s deep attention, and of paying deep attention to someone else. Martin Buber called this the I–Thou relationship; most of us just call it love.
In I See a Long Journey, one of the other novellas in No Love Lost, Ingalls writes a variation of the love story Helen dreams of. Its heroine, Flora, marries a wealthy man named James when she’s very young and grows paranoid as a result of her new economic status. James does not understand this at first, but by the time the story’s main action starts, he’s figured Flora’s anxiety out enough to both take her on vacation as a distraction and to bring along his driver, Michael, as an unofficial bodyguard, knowing the other man’s presence will enable Flora to relax. Flora’s faith in Michael’s protective abilities facilitates intimacy, physical and emotional, between Flora and James, while also ripening into its own kind of love.
Early in the vacation, before things go sideways—this is, after all, a Rachel Ingalls story—Flora and James sit at breakfast, with Michael
seated alone at a table for two several yards beyond them. Flora had them both in view, Michael and James. She felt her face beginning to smile. At that moment she couldn’t imagine herself returning from the trip.
Such contentment is nowhere in In the Act, but Helen knows she wants it. In Binstead’s Safari and Mrs. Caliban, Millie and Dorothy get flickers of it from Simba and Larry. It would be going too far to say that Flora’s off-kilter marital satisfaction is the goal toward which Ingalls’s heroines move, but it is certainly one they believe in. Her women are optimists. Romantics, too.
It may well be the case that Ingalls’s work is gaining in popularity both because female romantics are so rare in contemporary literary fiction and because her romantics are so odd. After years of two-steps-forward-one-step-back feminist progress in the United States, epitomized most recently by the overturning of Roe v. Wade, it can be tough to swallow unquestioned female longing for men in fiction, at least if you’re the sort of woman who questions your own desire. Ingalls puts interrogated longing on the page in ways both supernatural and mundane. Her style makes the former seem no stranger than the latter. Ingalls reminds her readers that desire is weird, surprising, uncontrollable, likely to end badly—and worth pursuing nonetheless.