Francine Prose's 'The Vixen' turns Cold War paranoia into smart comedy

Harper, 336 pages, $25.99

A world paralyzed by nuclear terror.

A nation riven by internal suspicion.

A mother killed by electrocution.

Such are the grim elements of Francine Prose’s new comic novel, The Vixen.

Depending on the light, it’s either a very funny serious story or a very serious funny story. But no matter how you turn it, The Vixen offers an illuminating reflection on the slippery nature of truth in America, then and now.

Comedy and tragedy are two sides of a spinning coin in Prose’s latest historical reimagining. The story begins with dread on Coney Island. It’s June 19, 1953, and the TV is playing I Love Lucy interrupted with updates on the imminent execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

The narrator, Simon, is sitting with his parents in their dark apartment, watching the flickering images on the black-and-white screen. Years ago, Simon’s mother grew up in the same tenement building as Ethel Rosenberg. “They hadn’t been close,” Simon says, “but history had turned Ethel, in my mother’s eyes, into a beloved friend.” The connection is deeper, though. For Simon’s family, the Rosenbergs’ conviction on espionage charges is another frightening example of American antisemitism.

The government’s case rests on a Jell-O box that Ethel’s brother used to contact a fellow spy. “She should have stayed Kosher,” Simon’s mother says. “Observant Jews don’t eat Jell-O.”

Although Simon recently graduated from college — with a major in folklore and mythology — he still feels suspended between adolescence and adulthood. “I have returned for this summer or forever because,” he claims, “this is where I am needed. Watching TV tonight with my parents is my vocation, the job I was born to do.”

But it’s his first office job that quickly becomes the center of this curious novel about a young man trying to do the right thing. Through the influence of a well-connected uncle, Simon is hired as a junior editor at Landry, Landry and Bartlett, one of New York’s most prestigious publishing houses. His primary duty is pawing through the slush pile looking for unlikely masterpieces with titles like The Igloo Lover, I, Barbarian and Mary M. (Summary: “Magdalene loves Jesus. Unrequited.”)

After six months of that tedium, one of the firm’s founders unexpectedly gives him a special, top-secret assignment: He must edit an outrageously erotic spy novel called The Vixen, the Patriot, and the Fanatic, inspired by the life of Ethel Rosenberg.

As a work of historical speculation, this is unlikely. But as a satire of the publishing industry, it’s hilarious. Charged with making the Ethel Rosenberg thriller “less bad,” Simon confronts passages like this doozy:

“The prosecutor sensed her presence from all the way down the corridor, overpowering the usual prison smells — disinfectant, sweat — with the crazed perfume of estrous animal passion.”

You can practically hear Prose guffawing over these excerpts; they provide a wonderful excuse for this superb stylist to dress up like a literary tramp. Everybody in Simon’s office knows the manuscript is ghastly, too, but the editor in chief is convinced they can exploit the controversy surrounding the Rosenbergs’ execution to make a bestseller and earn enough money to save the publishing house.

“It was strange,” Simon admits, “that I, of all the young editors in New York, should have been chosen to work on that book.” Indeed, it’s more than strange; it’s downright bizarre, especially considering that his mother’s adolescent connection to Ethel Rosenberg, if revealed, would be enough to get everyone in his family blackballed. But Prose immediately starts spinning her own clever espionage thriller around the absurd one that Simon is editing.

It turns out that the debut author of this “steamy bodice-ripper” is Anya Partridge, who always wears a fox stole. She’s a wealthy young woman temporarily consigned to a mental institution, living in a bedroom designed “for Sarah Bernhardt or Oscar Wilde.” Despite Anya’s ghastly prose, Simon can’t resist her, and soon they’re engaged in sexual escapades all over New York, including one particularly exciting tryst in Coney Island’s Terror Tomb that sounds like a Freudian nightmare.

Ultimately, The Vixen is about guilt and innocence, but not the Rosenbergs’. Simon — so righteous, so horny — is caught in the thighs of a moral dilemma: He’s got to prove his patriotism and help save the publishing house, but he’s convinced that Anya’s manuscript is an act of slander against Ethel. How can he revise this meretricious manuscript, “this three-hundred-page crime against truth,” without betraying his mother’s childhood friend?

As Simon wrestles with the complexity of this challenge, he begins to plumb the depth of his own naivete and complicity. “I was learning how desire can make you unrecognizable to yourself,” he says. “My life seemed to me to have been built upon a series of lies.” He always assumed that his study of folklore and mythology at Harvard was an embarrassing act of irrelevance. But by the time he’s through editing The Vixen, the Patriot, and the Fanatic, those ancient tales of deceit and revenge sound like the very outlines of his life. 

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