Fredrica Wagman, a Philadelphia-area native now living in New York, has been toiling without much fanfare in the world of fiction for over 30 years. That wasn't always the case. Her debut novel Playing House, published by Holt Rinehart and Winston in 1973, packed a wallop. First was the subject matter — a tale of incest between a domineering brother and his younger sister.
Wagman's style was as disturbing as her topic, but it was also captivating in a strange, hyperkinetic sort of way, unlike anyone else's prose in American fiction, then or now.
Playing House begins in an unforgettable manner: "Can't concentrate. My mind is wandering over him crouched on top of me, over his shoulders to a summer day again, always back to then when a room was filled with sun gold, when the walls were white, when the window glass was crystal clear and there was sunshine always dancing on the floor. Heavy brown silk rugs made a border all around the bed where he pinned me there and said that if I told he'd beat me with the branches of the tree and I never told, no matter what he did. I never told, he was my brother."
The work was also touted by Philip Roth in Esquire magazine, and then the piece was reprinted in Roth's collection Reading Myself and Others. "It would appear from Playing House," wrote Roth, "that the prohibition forbidding sibling incest is designed primarily to protect impressionable children against sex thrills so intense, and passionate unions so all-encompassing and exclusive, that life after the age of 12 can only be a frenzy of nostalgia for those who have known the bliss of such transgression. It is surely not the loss of childhood's famous innocence that unleashes this dazed outpouring from a young woman who was, as a girl, her sadistic, bullying brother's little mistress. Wagman's nameless heroine madly yearns to recapture her past, but not so she can dwell once more in the pure, untainted world of a Phoebe Caulfield, Holden's saintly kid sister in The Catcher in the Rye. Rather, some 20 years after Salinger's famous novel depicting adolescence as the fall from prepubescent grace, it is the lost corruption of childhood that is elegized and the passing of a little girl's erotic frenzy that is wretchedly mourned."
Playing House, despite the things Roth said about it, never became the famous book it still deserves to be. It was just too raw and powerful — and remains so more than 30 years later.
Wagman has written three other novels since 1973, with long stretches of time between each. But luckily, for her small band of fans — and for those who enjoy and seek out quality fiction — she is returning soon with a new novel called His Secret Little Wife, which was previewed in the Sept./Oct. issue of The American Poetry Review.
The voice in Wagman's novels is their most distinctive feature, and it's clear from the excerpt that this new work will be closer to Playing House in subject and sound than anything else she's written. I can't wait to read it.