Undercover: The Secret Life of a Termite Queen (06/03/76)

It’s been a year since I first read Sheila Ballantyne‘s Norma Jean the Termite Queen, now finally out in paperback (Bantam, 314 pp., $1.75), and I’m still having trouble explaining to people why it’s such a wonderful book.

Well, let’s see. Norma Jean is a middle-class mad-housewife novel with nothing in common with Joan Didion’s Play It as it Lays or Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife. It’s better than either, wildly funny, and there isn’t a hint of self-pity or pretentiousness. For that matter, Norma Jean—36, living in a suburb of San Francisco (probably San Mateo) with her three young kids and a husband she wants to keep—isn’t crazy. The book is about seizing sanity from a world that doesn’t make sense, but the solemnities of R.D. Laing don’t figure here either. Norma Jean is more inclined toward Father Flanagan of Boys’ Town, who she sees quoted in the newspaper as saying, “If you give me a child at birth, I’ll give you back a man at age five, and after that I don’t care what you do to him.” “Now why didn’t I think of that?” says Norma Jean. “Turn him over to Father Flanagan at birth, wait five years, then beat the shit out of him, and not have to worry like this.”

On the other hand, maybe it’s the absolute delight of Ballantyne’s writing that transforms the
clichéd housewifery-is-slavery material of countless stolid Ms. articles into a marvel of fiction. Norma Jean comes at you in a jumble of fantasy, newspaper headlines real and imagined, sentences interrupted by quotes from books on coping to The Three Little Pigs, scrambled interior and external narratives, screams at the kids and philosophical investigations of mortality, all perhaps in the course of a paragraph or two. The result is never arty; Ballantyne’s prose simply seems to parallel the way thinking happens. The pace is dizzying but the clarity is virtually absolute.

Or maybe it would be fairer to say that Norma Jean is an on-the-brink meditation on situational ethics, anchored by Egyptian myth and driven by a sense of humor that refuses to compromise with the world as it is. Norma Jean spends a lot of time inching through the San Francisco Chronicle, a sort of adult comic book filled with arcane wire-service crime stories I often suspect the city desk makes up out of some unfocused desire for revenge. Norma Jean finds this item particularly poignant:


A housewife was fatally stabbed Monday when she slipped and fell on two butcher knives jutting from her frontloading dishwasher. (AP)

The book is filled with similar entries Ballantyne collected over the years (MOTHER LOCKS IN KIDS, BURNS HOUSE; MAN’S HEAD FOUND IN TRASH), and they define Norma Jean’s world: real—overwhelmingly so—but not quite credible. At first these stories are a symptom of Norma Jean’s refusal to accept the housewife-husband-kids facts of her life that are driving her nuts; in her mind she kills them all, in blazing type, again and again, lovingly appending the shocked reactions of the neighbors (“She seemed so nice, maybe a little high-strung”) and the bewilderment of the cops (“No apparent motive”). Well, shit, none of these crazy Chronicle fiends have any “motives,” if they can do it why can’t I?

The deadpan horror stories open things up, even if Norma Jean doesn’t kill anybody (she continues to enjoy thinking about it, though; there’s a fabulous moment, as she fantasizes her husband’s funeral, when her best friend approaches her tenderly and promises, “I’ll take the children, Norma…. We’ll keep them 15 years and give you a chance to get your bearings”). Instead she begins to say no in her own way. She plunges deep into a study of the ancient Egyptians and begins to live a good part of her life in their world. She discovers the goddess Toueris, “the pregnant hippopotamus, a symbol of fecundity, who watched over childbirth,” yet who was “rescued from the functional, her dignity assured by… a simple, yet ingenious assignation: vengeance. It meant that anything was possible, even for me.” The housewife as the purveyor of vengeance is an idea to shake the world; in this book it merely shakes one family, which is enough. And it leads to passages of astonishing purity and beauty. Ballantyne might be writing about the sense of the future one tries to pass on to one’s children (“The cruelest deception of all is the one which requires you to prepare your children for a future which you do not accept, in which you cannot believe, and which you know is inevitable”), or about community, or about ways of thinking about America. Or this:

Tonight there are stars… At first they are just stars and I am Norma Jean, and I acknowledge the distinction. Then gradually the distance shrinks, and it is as though I had been expected; they wait: order, stability, my link with all selves past and future, with the beginning of all things, with the origins of mystery. I always terminate the stars when I arrive at that point where I realize I am seeing what the Egyptians saw.

Well, only a little of the book has made it into the space I have. It’s a strange book, with almost no sex in it, about a woman who doesn’t take a lover or leave her husband or join a commune or do any of the other things that usually happen in novels about women remaking their lives. But it is a pure pleasure to read, a book that demands to be passed on to those you care about most. And I almost neglected to mention that Sheila Ballantyne uses the word “fuck” with more flair than any writer I’ve ever encountered. For the moment, that will have to do.

We Like Short Shorts

Recently I complained that two of Eric Ambler‘s classic prewar spy thrillers were out of print in paper; it turns out that all of his best books (Background to Danger, Cause for Alarm, A Coffin for Dimitrios and Journey into Fear) can be found in Intrigue (Knopf), a cloth-bound omnibus with a superb cover and an introduction by Alfred Hitchcock. Check your used-book store first; I picked up a copy for three bucks, which is less than the four novels would be in paperback… Sheila Ballantyne has a short story, “Perpetual Care,” in the current issue of American Review (Bantam).

Rolling Stone, June 3, 1976

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