One of the most notorious love triangles in literary history is the tragic relationship between American poet Sylvia Plath, her English husband Ted Hughes and Ted’s mistress Assia Wevill. In Robert Anderson’s “Little Fugue,” the author dissects the bizarre emotional circumstances that led to tragedy for these individuals through a fictional reinterpretation. While Anderson presents a unique retelling of Plath’s death and its repercussions, his novel fails literary masterpiece status by biting off more than it can chew.
Plath is an extraordinarily talented and severely disturbed woman who is haunted by unresolved emotions stemming from her father’s death and her husband’s infidelity. After Plath commits suicide, Hughes struggles with the blame heaped upon him by Plath’s fans, while Wevill tries to take her place. As if the story didn’t already contain enough drama, Anderson creates a fictional alter ego for himself, “Robert,” who battles a heroin addiction in the seedy district of New York City’s 42nd Street and manages to witness every historical event from the anti-Vietnam War protests at Columbia University to the Sept. 11 attacks of 2001.
Anderson is highly ambitious in his effort to cram every possible facet of the human experience into 367 pages. In his attempt to realistically portray the characters’ neurosis, the book sometimes makes for a confusing read. Yet in spite of the surfeit of information, Anderson captures the characters’ desperation and gives a vivid portrayal of their interactions. Conversations between people are simple and realistic; Anderson saves his more flowery prose for inner monologues, which reveal their tortured spirits. The marginal characters, including Robert’s elusive girlfriend Sabbath, keep with the strangeness of the tale and add to the grim and hallucinogenic setting.
The character of Ted Hughes is passive aggressive in a disturbing way. He is represented as one of the catalysts who caused Plath’s death, and also as the deserving victim of Plath’s vengeance from beyond the grave. Here, Anderson’s novelistic bias against Hughes is made apparent. Sylvia Plath’s character makes a brief and undistinguished appearance at the beginning of the novel as she wanders around her London apartment preparing for suicide. Surprisingly, the most resonant character in the novel is the lesser-known Assia Wevill. Haunted by Sylvia’s malevolent presence, Assia responds to her environment by constant digression that underlines her own growing madness.
Unfortunately, Anderson’s links between fiction and history often seem forced and unnecessary, like his description of Ted Hughes’ brief encounter with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Overall, Anderson’s effort falls short in its grand attempt, but presents a different look at one of the most notorious relationships in literary history. If little else, “Little Fugue” is a solid testament to Sylvia Plath’s continuing legacy.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars