Leaning over a lacquered, painted oak table, the prolific essayist and novelist Francine Prose is hawking a book of dirty poems—not her own, but a collection of her friend Charles Simic’s doggerel illustrated with raunchy drawings by her husband, Howie Michels (who built the table, too). “I didn’t think they were so dirty,” she says of the book, titled Aunt Lettuce, I Want to Peek Under Your Skirt. “I thought, Oh, this should be used as a sex-education manual for children. Then when they all got put together, I thought, Oh my God!”
Prose, slender and raven-haired at 57, gives out a low laugh at her own naïveté. It’s the eye roll of bemusement she sometimes uses to signal her own effrontery, which includes essays in which she’s suggested that Maya Angelou is overrated, or that women and men don’t write all that differently. Prose takes full credit, though, for the increasingly confrontational ideas in her fiction, especially her latest book, A Changed Man.
Among her current targets: the sentimentality of the “Holocaust industry,” the egotism of professional humanitarians, and the spotty morality of a victim-besotted media that edits out all ambiguity. Prose’s last novel, Blue Angel, a send-up of a scholar’s midlife crisis, was nominated for the 2000 National Book Award—but she shrugs off the honor. “Academia is like shooting fish in a barrel,” she says. “About halfway through this one, my husband read it and he said, ‘It makes Blue Angel look like an Anna Quindlen novel.’ And I went, ‘Yes!’”
The hero of A Changed Man is Vincent Nolan, a repentant upstate neo-Nazi who flees to the midtown offices of the anti-hate organization Brotherhood Watch. In short order, he’s offering his services to founder Meyer Maslow, a Holocaust survivor and the kind of fellow who carefully steers media appearances toward his forthcoming book. Meyer is prone to petty vanity (why, he wonders, does Elie Wiesel get all the press?) and manipulative catchphrases (“One Heart at a Time,” “a moral bungee jump”). Then there’s Vincent’s still-racist cousin Raymond, a paranoid lunk who nonetheless manages greater insights than many of the bleeding hearts around him—and, in his own inarticulate way, offers a potent critique of a media that’s shut out poor rural Americans (even if he thinks all the money’s going to rabbis in Hollywood).
Prose, a great admirer of Susan Sontag, aspires to be a provocateur. But her fiction was once more earnest than edgy. Raised in a rambling Victorian in Flatbush, Prose began her career writing lyrical explorations of Jewish spirituality. Her first novel, 1973’s Judah the Pious, was narrated by a rabbi; in Hungry Hearts, a woman is possessed by a dybbuk. “I can’t even figure out who the person who wrote those books was,” she says now. “They’re so optimistic—and all the interest in the miraculous—I have zero interest in that now. Less than zero.”
In the eighties, Prose turned to more worldly themes. She blames the change on the Reagan era: “I was watching humanity being leeched out of the society in which I lived.” In Primitive People, she skewered the rich; in Hunters and Gatherers, feminists. Guided Tours of Hell featured rivals sparring on a trip to visit Auschwitz.
Critics sometimes responded by intimating that Prose, her byline gracing not just Harper’s but People and O magazines, was stretched too thin. She responds that she would stick to novels and essays if she could. “When my kids were small, I wrote endless pieces about how to make vegetables,” she says. “I get these reviews that say, ‘Oh, she’s so prolific,’ as if I’m some bunny rabbit that can’t stop spitting out these little bunnies. There’s something I’m not getting. They must have trust funds or rich spouses.”
Prose has another pet peeve with critics. “Anytime anyone says that I’m writing satire, it makes my blood run cold,” she says. “I like the characters, and I want the best for them. They’re all trying to be good in that way that people in nineteenth-century novels were trying to be good. On the other hand, they live in our culture, in our city. And everybody is just scamming everybody else a mile a minute.”