LI’s Erica Abeel talks about “The Commune”
Like William Faulkner with Yoknapatawpha County, Long Island native Erica Abeel has turned her native region into a fictional place she returns to again and again in her novels. East Hampton lookalike Islesfordd is back in Abeel’s sixth book, a semi-autobiographical satire titled “The Commune” (Adelaide, $22.30). Millionaires, monstrosities, pashas and parties are all here, skewered in wit, style and insider smarts – “an exuberant, irreverent party of a book”, according to no less a local authority than The East Hampton Star.
“The Commune” is set in 1970, when a motley crew of writers, artists, and parasites took refuge on the unforgiving world island of New York and incubated the Women’s March for Equality that took place in August – now considered the beginning of contemporary feminism. As Abeel puts it, “They were a small group of extremely flawed, selfish, hyper-ambitious individuals in a group house in the Hamptons who started an event that transformed the world.”
Like Leora, its protagonist, Abeel was there – struggling journalist and single mother on the fringes of the group, taking notes for a novel that, 50 years later, is in our hands. Now settled in Sagaponack, she joined us by Zoom for a literary conversation.
Why write this book now, after all these years?
“La Commune” is dedicated to my grandsons, Jasper and Otis. For one of the recent women’s marches, they made a poster that we could wear that said WOMEN’S RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS. Looking at their blocky, childish handwriting, I suddenly made the connection – this commune is where it all started. That’s why we have women’s marches and why my grandsons are feminists.
To what extent is the novel a roman à clef, in which fictional characters and places can be matched with real characters?
Their emblematic leader, the manhunter Gilda, is of course Betty Friedan. His rival, Monica Fairley, who is much talked about although she never appears, is Gloria Steinem. The rest are either composites – based on characters like Phyllis Chesler, Andrea Dworkin, Clay Felker, John Leonard, Lee Radziwill, Little Edie Beale from Gray Gardens – or made up entirely.
Their home, Cormorant Cove, is also a composite, typical of the white elephants that the Communards rented, easy to mark because impossible to heat. The actual place, in Wainscott, was called Sheldrake Cove and overlooked Georgica Pond. I merged it with a rather creepy pile on Drew Lane in East Hampton.
Gotham magazine is clearly New York, the Rottlesey Club is the exclusive Maidstone Club in East Hampton. And the horrible mansion they visit, Dragon’s Gate, is a pretty accurate description of an infamous Southampton monstrosity called Dragon Head which I believe is now owned by Calvin Klein.
You have great fun describing the different sectors of Islesford society.
It’s a perfect culture for a satirist, because there’s so much pretension and complacency. New wealthy characters like Kaz horrified the posh types of Lily Pond Lane, with their pop art lawn sculptures and other ostentation. And while the old guard hated the idea of a group home – so vulgar and illegal, by the way – the communards somehow won them over. The charade parties I describe in the book were real, and on Saturday nights, eclipsing all the lavish perks, they were the hottest ticket in town.
And the feminists in the book are all crazy about men.
Especially Gilda, the mother of feminism! Yet all of them experience the tension between romantic love and ambition. On the one hand, they fight Vivian Gornick’s idea that women can’t have romantic love and self-respect at the same time. Or maybe love is OK, but the problem is men – like my character Edwina, many have embraced lesbian relationships.
These women created a revolution, but were they ready to live up to its ideals? They oscillated between the more traditional past where they came from and the new philosophy they were creating.
Will you be bringing your readers back to Ilesford soon?
The book I’m currently working on is partly set in Sag Harbor. I’m interested in the developers’ efforts to plunder this charming little town and turn it into Disney World, like what happened to parts of the left bank in Paris. They’ve already sullied the harbor view with ugly glass condos — a stratospheric price tag attached — that bear no relation to a former whaling town.