Binstead's Safari by Rachel Ingalls

Binstead's Safari BY Rachel Ingalls. New Directions. Paperback, 224 pages. $15.
The cover of Binstead's Safari

Binstead’s Safari, a sort of housewife’s revenge novel by Rachel Ingalls, has no patience for interpretation. Like nearly all of Ingalls’s work, the book is heavily plotted but deceptively languorous, and its jumbling of the domestic and the bizarre places it just beyond the apprehensible. While on vacation with her husband, an academic who ignores and condescends to her, a browbeaten American named Millie decides to change her life. Her husband Stan Binstead, who has only reluctantly brought Millie along on his work trip, is too embarrassed to introduce her to his one London friend, and refuses to spend any time with her at all. When he tries to ruin their only outing together, Millie’s face takes “on a peculiar look, as though parts of it had shrunk.” As Ingalls makes clear, Millie’s life is defined by cruelty, and her excessively submissive nature would seem nearly parodic were it not so familiar. “Could anything be worse than the way things are?” she wonders.

All but alone in London, Millie snaps. “If I don’t do something,” she thinks, “nobody else will.” She buys shoes and dresses, gets her hair cut, goes to zoos and museums, and swiftly, imperceptibly, becomes someone else. By the time Stan realizes what has happened, the two have left London and arrived in an unnamed East African country for a safari. The new Millie is beautiful, confident, and far more charming than her standoffish husband. The ease with which she makes friends with the local hunters and brandishes her opinions “amused him a little, but at the same time almost made him feel nervous.”

The Binsteads end up in Africa because Stan has a hunch. A trifling ethnographer, he’s heard rumors of a lion-worshipping cult in a remote village, and has engineered an extended research expedition in order to prove something about “mythic character and its relation to the society that gives rise to it.” Walking in the street with Millie one afternoon, Stan is suddenly overcome by a crippling sense of dread, “like the sky dropping on top of him,” that dissipates as quickly as it sets in, leaving him with “the knowledge that something terrible had come close to him, pushed him to the edge of endurance, and then gone away.” Then Millie looks into a shop window and meets the lion god: an unabashedly virile Canadian expat named Henry Lewis who makes his living as a game warden and safari guide. Beloved by the young and the honest, Henry is known for his bravery, trustworthiness, and uncanny skill with lions—as we later learn, he can actually transform himself into one, earning the kind of awed following someone like Stan might call a cult. Walking around town with Millie, children sing his praises and shopkeepers ply him with free goods. When the Binsteads and their hired guides finally embark on their safari, Millie is already engaged and planning to leave Stan once the trip ends.

Born in Massachusetts in 1940, Rachel Ingalls moved to London in 1965 and published her first novella, an allegory of Jesus’s crucifixion nested in the story of a class uprising, in 1970. She continued writing what would become a dozen macabre novellas and story collections that often revolved around murders, meek wives, conspiracies, and mystical happenings, and met with little fanfare. Her chosen form—stories too long to be called “short” and most not quite long enough to be deemed novels—made it difficult to gain much traction in the literary landscape until her 1982 novella Mrs. Caliban made a coveted list of the twenty best postwar novels. But after a brief period of success (Ingalls continued releasing new work until 2000, and passed away earlier this month) her work fell out of print, and has only recently been introduced to new readers.

Like many of her stories, Ingalls’s two best-known works entertain a kind of escape for lonely women in unfulfilling, demeaning relationships. Her women may live in a world dominated by conniving and often violent men, but that same world, she reveals, is also randomly and absolutely dominated by mysterious forces beyond human capacity. First published in 1983, Binstead’s Safari is Ingalls’s second book to be reissued by New Directions in the last few years. The first, Mrs. Caliban, also features a mistreated housewife miraculously granted an opportunity for fulfilment, this time in the form of a lover named Larry, a six-foot-seven frog-man who shelters in her home after escaping from a government lab. Though both novels hinge on a dramatic encounter with exaggerated otherness, Binstead’s Safari is not primarily an account of its heroine’s awakening. Instead it refracts otherness through a marriage, sending it spinning through two very different consciousnesses and out a shared exit wound.

Narrated from a distant third-person perspective, Binstead’s Safari strikes a coolly resigned tone. Ingalls anchors her soaring premise with heavily controlled, modest prose, and a reticence to get too close to any character—a kind of insurance policy against sentimentality. Judgement isn’t entirely absent but hoarded and dispensed with a kind of miserly care. Like a domestic thriller, the novel accrues significant mileage from the husband and wife’s competing schemas. Millie’s nascent freedom seems secured by a refusal to ask how or why: she just innocently is. Stan, the academic, can only approach experience from a critical remove. Over and over, Ingalls counterposes their modes of perception: Millie rejects photography as “interpretation”; Stan compares a herd of elephants to a museum display. He tries to deconstruct the lion god; she seduces it. And where she sees melodrama he sees war.

Stan’s interest in the lion cult, Ingalls makes clear, isn’t solely academic. Stan is plagued by a host of insecurities about his masculinity and self-worth, which he endlessly abstracts into theories that obscure their real source: he wants to prove that the lion cult’s “mythic characters,” also known as “heroes,” are narrative creations and useful political fictions, and hopes to witness “the mechanics of delusion. In action.” The experiences and emotions that inform his every impulse can only be prodded from a safe distance, like a kid poking a corpse with a stick. Africa is Stan’s last opportunity to prove or endlessly forestall his worst fears about himself.

By hinting at the identity of the lion god quite early, Ingalls undermines the urgency of Stan’s search. As he airs his latest theory about the cult to Millie, she’s thinking about the next letter she might write to its leader. The plot’s suspense lies not in the discovery of the cult but in what Stan’s reaction will be when he learns what is already apparent to the reader. Out on safari, Millie spends her days at basecamp, painting and gossiping, while Stan visits village elders in the morning, looking for leads on the lion cult, and shoots buffalo in the afternoon. Their evenings are spent with their guide and his wife, now friends, and other visitors who come to see Millie. He still can’t comprehend his wife’s reality: “It seemed increasingly odd to him—astonishing—that she, who always made a mess of everything, worried, and then made the worrying come true, had not put a foot wrong from the moment she’d found herself in foreign surroundings.” We can nearly hear the crunching gears of overanalysis at work as he grasps at any possible explanation for Millie’s rejection, the existence of the lion god, the failure of his own life—but there’s not a story Stan can tell in which he comes out the winner. Stymied by the laborious process of tracking down a cult, trailing scraps of information about songs and celebrations, his search for knowledge drifts into a hunt for blood.

Ingalls isn’t shy with worst-case scenarios (death, ruination), and Binstead’s Safari doesn’t quite believe in peace. She litters the novel with reminders of the unnamed country’s recent, disappointing revolution; during one scene, set at an expatriate-favored hotel, the“black waiters and bar attendants looked on silently, doing their work quickly and politely, as they had before Independence,” suggesting that little has changed. Millie’s miraculous second chance also fails to live up to her expectations (she does, after all, place her hopes for salvation in yet another marriage). Ingalls hints at the halting nonlinearity of any path toward liberation, either for subjugated American housewives or postcolonial nations. As in Mrs. Caliban, the other is not a wish-granting fantasia, but something altogether more resistant. The Africa of Millie and Stan’s dreams ultimately resists either exploitation or full comprehensibility.

Stan is granted his prized knowledge, too late, of course. Driven to his doom by his feckless pursuit of the cult’s secrets, he finds himself lost in the wild, an armed fool trembling in the face of the inevitable. He stubbornly reassures himself that he “knew all about the death wish and he knew he didn’t have it,” and it becomes clear that, just as much as this is Millie’s novel, it’s Stan’s novel. He’s its most recognizable creation, a sadly captivating avatar of just the kind of critic and loser Ingalls’s powers are meant to upstage. He’s last seen marching bravely through the pale grasses, stalked like prey and finally sorry.

Jordan Larson is a writer in New York.