“There is something about the body that I find monstrous”: Mona Awad on Shakespeare, comedy, and her new novel, All’s Well

“I love using the surreal to explore the very emotionally and psychologically real fears and desires that we all have,” says Awad.

It takes a scant forty pages before All’s Well, the new novel by Mona Awad, gets weird. Fans of Bunny, Awad’s 2019 satire of academia and female rivalry, will be prepared for the new book’s slide from realism into the fantastical, but those unaware of Awad’s penchant for pulling the rug out from beneath her readers’ feet might react with surprise or puzzlement. While the new novel’s more outré elements are not as thoroughgoing as in the previous book, All’s Well contains plenty of mystery and magic – most of it tinged with a healthy dose of dark comedy.

“I love using the surreal to explore the very emotionally and psychologically real fears and desires that we all have,” says Awad. “And how fantasy can reflect those in some ways so much more potently than a realist treatment.”

In this, Awad shares an affinity with another writer, one whose influence is all over her new work: the Bard of Avon himself, William Shakespeare. In both the comedies and the tragedies, Shakespeare indulges in recourse to fantasy, magic, and the supernatural; it is not unexpected to hear that one of the genesis points for All’s Well was a Shakespeare class Awad took as a graduate student.

“I fell completely, madly in love with the plays. And I became very, very attached to All’s Well That Ends Well,” she says. “There was just something about it that spoke to me.”

One of the things that drew her to the play was the combined villainy and sympathy in Helen, the main character. Another was what she saw as the play’s connection to a different, much better known Shakespeare work – Macbeth. “When both plays open, both protagonists have this hidden desire that seems impossible to realize within the world of the play,” Awad says. “They both circumvent the natural order of things to fulfill that desire. In the case of All’s Well That Ends Well, it goes down the road of comedy. But in the case of Macbeth, it goes down the very dark road of tragedy.”

Readers of Awad’s earlier work – the aforementioned Bunny and her 2016 debut, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, which won the Amazon.ca First Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize – will also be aware of the author’s facility with blending the two genres, which she does with great aplomb in All’s Well. The book tells the story of Miranda Fitch, an actor whose career is cut short after she falls from the stage – while playing Lady Macbeth, no less. (Much is made of the superstition among theatre folk around this supposedly cursed play.) The accident leaves Miranda with chronic hip and back pain resulting in addiction to painkillers and alcohol and reliance on a series of ineffectual male physical therapists.

Determined not to abandon the stage altogether, Miranda lands a job as a college theatre director, where she sets her sights on mounting a production of her favourite Shakespearean work, the notorious problem play All’s Well That Ends Well. Miranda’s desire runs afoul of the philistine student actors, who refuse to push themselves to comprehend the play’s admixture of comedy and tragedy, preferring the easier, more accessible thrills of Macbeth. The shifting power dynamics among Miranda, her beleaguered colleague and stage manager, Grace, and the entitled female lead, Briana – who spearheads a cast mutiny to get the season’s play changed – form the dramatic spine of Awad’s narrative.

Throughout the book, Awad gleefully mines Shakespeare’s plays for references and allusions. Miranda is party to a miraculous healing – where Helen heals the King in the Bard’s work, Miranda is given the ability to transfer her chronic pain to others after drinking an apparently charmed “golden cure” at a local pub, cleverly called the Canny Man (after an actual pub Awad discovered while she was living in Edinburgh). Miranda is provided the potion by three pub regulars who sing in a group called the Weird Brethren, while the bartender at the Canny Man echoes Lady Macbeth’s famous “out damn spot” moment in his constant cleaning of dirty glasses with a rag (he is never able to get the glasses clean). And Miranda shares a name with the female lead in The Tempest – another play with magic and the supernatural at its heart.

Awad’s allusions do not end with Shakespeare. Christopher Marlowe’s Elizabethan Tragedy Dr. Faustus is also a submerged reference point, with its plot about a doctor who makes a deal with diabolical forces. “I was reading that play along with Macbeth and All’s Well That Ends Well. They’re sort of a trio in my head,” Awad says. “All three of them are ‘careful what you wish for’ stories.”

“It’s really scary to be told it’s just a matter of your mind. Because then, what steps can you take?” (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)

And so, in its way, is All’s Well. What Miranda wishes for, of course, is an end to her chronic pain, something her creator has vast experience with. Awad suffered similar pain following unsuccessful hip surgery that led to a serious back injury. What she calls her “recovery limbo” lasted for years and provided much of the background for Miranda’s pain and her attempts to alleviate it by appealing to an unsympathetic, disbelieving, and – it must be said – resoundingly male medical establishment. At one point in the book, one of Miranda’s physical therapists gives her an animated video of a cute brain on a stem condescendingly lecturing about psychosomatic causes of pain – a video Awad says actually exists. “It’s really scary to be told it’s just a matter of your mind. Because then, what steps can you take?” she says. “It’s a terrifying place. Which is why there are these elements of horror in the book. And a lot of nods toward religion.”

Religious faith is germane to the portrayal of Miranda’s doctors – four of whom are, not incidentally, named Matt, Mark, Luke, and John – and their approach to her treatment. This also involves a good dollop of magical thinking and blame, to the extent that Mark accuses Miranda of not improving because she is neglecting to do the exercises he has prescribed for her. In the novel, and in conversation, Awad is quick to cast suspicion on a medical establishment that tends to disbelieve women about the extent of their pain or to dismiss them with band-aid solutions like anxiety pills and exercises that serve only to exacerbate the condition. Awad’s depiction of the bro-like physical therapists in the novel paints them just to one side of venal snake-oil salesmen. “That’s the stuff of horror,” Awad says, “but it’s also the stuff of comedy.”

Much of this is mordantly funny, a testament to Awad’s sharp humour – a humour that is always tinged with darkness. “I love comedy so much; it’s part of what makes a scary scene even scarier,” she says. Awad is not afraid to deploy comedy in situations that are apt to make her readers uncomfortable; for her, it is the confluence of comedy and tragedy – so evident in Miranda’s reading of All’s Well That Ends Well – that really appeals. “It’s part of the way that I think,” Awad says. “It gives a brightness. It gives a depth to the dark, a dimension to the dark that I think is so important.”

Here, too, Awad finds kinship with Shakespeare, who was able to locate room for comedy even in his bleakest tragedies. This is emblematic of the way both authors view character – not as something static or immovable, but malleable, unpredictable, and complex. All’s Well presents a challenge for readers who are asked to empathize with characters who are multidimensional and who often act in ways that are frankly unsympathetic. This, too, is part of Awad’s design for the novel. “I love those kinds of characters, who are problematic in that way,” Awad says. “I really do think that’s the beauty of fiction: that we can step into a different person’s skin. But we also bring with us our experience, our pain, our desire. And we can have kinship, too, with people who are different from us.”

One aspect of Miranda that is bound to make readers – especially male readers – uncomfortable is her frank expression of sexual desire once her pain is miraculously lifted and she is again able to use her body. Here, Awad sees another connection with Helen in Shakespeare’s play. One of the things that makes All’s Well That Ends Well so difficult for viewers and critics, she argues, is Helen’s unrestricted and unapologetic desire for Bertrand. “All of her enterprising, all of her actions in the play are toward that end: to get this man in bed with her,” Awad says. “That’s very disturbing to men. And because of that internalized misogyny women have, we also spite each other when we express that kind of unbridled desire. It’s very difficult for us to deal with other people’s pain and it’s also very difficult to deal with other people’s joy.”

Both are on display in Miranda. And both are manifest through the body, a locus that has been central to Awad’s fiction since her debut. Awad is a highly visceral writer, attuned to all the ways a body can excite, aid, and betray its owner. And it is in the physicality of Miranda – just as it was for Lizzie in 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl  that the comingled elements of pain and pleasure, horror and comedy, reside most completely. Awad’s almost Cronenbergian attention to the body and its various ills helps distill All’s Well – easily one of the books of the year – to its painful (and painfully funny) essence. “There is something about the body that I find monstrous. It’s the nature of being alive and how many ways things can go terribly wrong. And that’s very scary,” she says. “It’s exciting, but it’s very scary.”

“There is something about the body that I find monstrous”: Mona Awad on Shakespeare, comedy, and her new novel, All’s Well