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Orchid and the Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes
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Orchid and the Wasp

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Orchid and the Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes
Jul 10, 2018 | ISBN 9781524761127

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Praise for Orchid & the Wasp:

Shortlisted for the 2018 Butler Literary Award
Library Journal: “Best Summer Debut Novels”

“Ireland produces a new literary star at a rate of one a month, it seems; first among equals for 2018, however, has to be Caoilinn Hughes.”
— Irish Echo

“A winning debut novel…Hughes, a poet, touches the prose with a comic wand… Orchid and the Wasp delivers a fantasy of competence, the kind that is in dialogue, if not always complete agreement, with morality.”
– Katy Waldman, The New Yorker

“A gem of a novel about the way we live now.”

“You won’t forget Gael Foess.”

“Luminous… sparkles with acuity and concision…. [Gael] is an indomitable, highly adaptable character who can navigate through tumultuous times and wildly disparate environments with ingenuity and grit.” 
– Los Angeles Review of Books

‘This arch début novel’s … satiric impulse—toward art-world hypocrisy, late capitalism, heterosexual love—is unsparing and ambitious’  
– The New Yorker

“A remarkable, propulsive debut novel … No precis can adequately convey the novel’s startling, impressionistic prose, nor its corrosive humour. Jewels of observation glitter amid the earthy gags. … Exuberant … it zings with energy, ambition and daring.”
– The Times Literary Supplement

Caoilinn Hughes’s debut novel, Orchid & the Wasp, has the fluid gait of something alive…At once exuberant and incisive, Hughes’s writing escapes simple characterization while somehow remaining welcoming…This is not simply a coming of age tale, nor is it an experiment in narrative philosophy. What is it, then? I’m not sure, other than that it’s something new.”
– Taylor Lannamann, Tin House

‘Extraordinary… This is a difficult novel to do justice to, for it is brimming with ideas, and the pace of their arrival and quality of their treatment is noteworthy… Orchid represents an exciting first step into prose for Caoilinn Hughes.’
– Oxford Review

“Hughes has created something special in Gael, who is her own woman in a way we don’t see often enough in books: brave, complex, fractured, intelligent, resourceful, ruthless and unforgiving… Orchid & the Wasp is this year’s Conversations with Friends…Hughes casts her unique gaze, her artistic, analytical and emotional intelligence, on … our capitalist world and the personal, political and social ramifications implicit in our acquiescence to, or indeed, championing of, its values.”
– Irish Times
Orchid & the Wasp, by Caoilinn Hughes, is making waves because it is fiercely bright and moves like a bullet train.”
Sebastian Barry, bestselling author of Days Without End, for the Irish Times

“Orchid and the Wasp is a hugely entertaining novel full of wit, intellect and sharp observations… Akin to Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, Orchid and the Wasp is a modern female coming-of- age story… Caoilinn Hughes is definitely one to watch.”
– RTE Culture Magazine

“Not since Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies have I read such an original Irish novel… Dazzling, heady fiction. Hughes is an award-winning poet and it’s barely concealable. She simply dances on the page, her imagination is riotous, her flawed characters have shape and colour and sometimes heartbreaking humanity.”
– Irish Independent

“Caoilinn Hughes is an award-winning poet and her background in poetry shines through Orchid & the Wasp‘s audacious and meticulously crafted prose. It’s a mesmeric, immersive, often hilarious reading experience, driven by the force of the imagery-rich writing and the cast of distinctive characters…. Gael is a fresh and fascinating picaresque heroine – admirable, reprehensible, empowered, bisexual, containing multitudes, the kind of woman rarely depicted in fiction…. Her high-wire act is exhilarating to witness, as, throughout the novel, is Hughes’s own.”
– Sunday Independent

“Hugely ambitious and richly inventive.” 
 –Irish Examiner

“Caoilinn Hughes’s highly ambitious fiction debut contains multitudes. … Kick-ass, whip-smart and with “a tongue like a catapult”, Gael belongs to a venerable tradition of feisty heroines. … Some serious intellectual themes are explored: the crisis of late capitalism; the redemptive power of art and love; free expression in sexual matters; and much else besides. But maybe most strikingly, Gael Foess makes a telling contribution to the unlikeable female narrator debate… readers are going to love her.”
– Sunday Times

“A remarkable debut novel … intellectual fiction that provides a bracing and occasionally withering account of upper echelon Irish life.”
– Sunday Business Post 

“The novel showcases Hughes’s talent as both a shrewd student of character and an astute observer of contemporary life … [introducing] one of those literary characters whose life is so vividly depicted it’s easy to imagine it continuing beyond the last page of this refreshingly honest novel.”
– Shelf Awareness

“Hughes’ sharp and, at times, hilarious observations call to mind the unblinking writing and dysfunctional families not only of Jane Austen, but also Christina Stead and Jonathan Franzen. Orchid & the Wasp is a deceptively entertaining novel about merit and ambition, society and responsibility, and self-determination and fate, in which Hughes upends expectations and asks big questions, especially about obligation and love, without breaking stride, even for a moment.”
– Readings Monthly

“The excellent debut novel from Irish poet Caoilinn Hughes sees a compelling female protagonist navigate social upheaval in the wake of the financial crisis, as well as dealing with a complex family life…. The novel also has a Franzenesque flair for showing the interconnectedness of western society.” 
– Hot Press

“Debut novelist Hughes, an award-winning poet, employs wry, crackling prose to proffer existential questions about what constitutes a meaningful life…. This inventive book will entice readers who prefer the ambiguity of questions to the simplicity of answers.”
– Library Journal

“[A] visceral and electrifying debut … in Gael, Hughes has created a mesmerizing and compelling force.”
– Booklist

“Hughes delivers a compelling exploration of what it means to create art, skewering the arbitrary restrictions of art-world gatekeepers along the way. At the emotional heart of this book lies a darker question, though: What does it mean to make a performance of your own life, in service of your family, when the cost might be to lose them forever? As strange, musical, and carefully calculated as its unusual heroine.”
– Kirkus

“Orchid & the Wasp
is a gorgeous novel told in an onrush of wit and ferocity. Art-forging, smack-talking, long-distance-running Gael Foess, three times smarter than everyone around her, proves to be an unforgettable heroine, and her journey will rattle your most basic assumptions about money, ambition, and the nature of love. Caoilinn Hughes is a massive talent.”
 ANTHONY DOERR, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of All the Light We Cannot See
“A razor sharp wit and an astonishing psychological and emotional perceptiveness combine to yield uncommonly rich portraiture in this bracing book by a deadly talented writer, in prose so refined one slows to savor each beautifully unfolding sentence. Unsentimental, yet sneakily moving and given to surprising bouts of joy, Orchid & the Wasp becomes a referendum on the resiliency of selflessness in a contemporary world steeped in the logic of ambitious self-advancement.”
― MATTHEW THOMAS, New York Times bestselling author of We Are Not Ourselves

“Though the stories she tells work their way through elaborate worlds, it is her characters, detailed with sharp and subtle grace, which power the engine of Caoilinn Hughes’s vivid prose.”
– AMELIA GRAY, author of Isadora and Gutshot

“Caoilinn Hughes has given us an unforgettable character in Gael – an unflinchingly wise and wise-cracking guide through our fractured times. Hers is a story that holds the fun-house mirror to the society we have built of greed and twisted finance. From the doomed Irish boom to the Occupy movement, the novel lays bare the impoverished spirit that led to economic collapse while providing us a path out of it. By turns poetic, hilarious and raw, this novel gives us hope that love and the retrieval of spirit are not only achievable, but worth pursuing to the very last sentence.”
― ANA MENÉNDEZ, Pushcart Prize-winning author of In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd

Orchid & the Wasp is an ambitious, richly inventive and highly entertaining account of the way we live now. Caoilinn Hughes writes with authority and insight, and her novel is as up-to-date as tomorrow’s financial-page headlines.”
 JOHN BANVILLE​, Man Booker Prize-winning author of The Sea
“​Orchid & t​he Wasp
 is a tremendously engaging novel, brimming with sparky humor and astute observations. Caoilinn Hughes’ prose fizzes with wit and intelligence. A joy to read.”​ 
 DANIELLE MCLAUGHLIN, Saboteur Award-winning author of Dinosaurs On Other Planets

“Gael, the young heroine of Orchid​ ​& the Wasp, is a magnificent and assured creation, breathtakingly smart, never self-pitying, impossible for others to manage, my favorite discovery this year. ​Hughes’s characters​ are rare, like no one you’ve read before. This is an entirely original novel, dazzling and beautiful, disturbingly cold and insistent.”
 DAVID VANN​, bestselling author of Bright Air Black and Aquarium

“In lush, envy-inducing prose we’re introduced to Gael Foess, the spikiest adult-in-training since Lolita, who has parents worthy of a Roald Dahl novel, in their poor caretaking efforts and self-absorption. We can only hang on in wonder as we witness the savvy Gael’s progression through life from such beginnings. Caoilinn Hughes’s crafted, intricate language is a joy and her characters strut their many flaws with panache. Orchid & the Wasp is an up-to-the-minute, radiant début from a deeply talented writer.”
― NUALA O’CONNOR, author of Miss Emily

“Fresh, playful and exuberant: Hughes has arrived with a heady style that is full of surprise and invention.”
– PAUL LYNCH, Prix Libr’à Nous-winning author of Red Sky in Morning 

“Caoilinn Hughes is the real thing – an urgent, funny, painstaking and heartfelt writer. Orchid & the Wasp is a startling debut full of the moral complexity, grief and strange bewilderments of humanity. As the world spins ever more quickly in response to the demands of grifters, parasites and liars, this book offers a troubling, beautiful and wise response.”
 A.L. KENNEDY, Costa Prize-winning author of Day and Serious Sweet

Author Q&A

A conversation with
Caoilinn Hughes,
author of
(On Sale: July 10, 2018)
Q.  You’ve said that Gael’s character has been with you for a long time, but that you had to hone your skills before writing this novel, to truly do her justice. What is it about Gael that stayed with you? How did you come to write this story, now?
A.  Orchid & the Wasp went into submission a few weeks before Hilary Clinton lost the white female vote. She won a meagre 54% of overall female vote: a whole percentage point less than her male Democratic predecessor. Those least likely to vote for her were white, heterosexual, married women. I started writing this book in 2013, so I couldn’t have predicted how grossly prescient this character would be. How intelligence and capability get a woman nowhere, if she isn’t soft around the edges and vulnerable. Among many things, I wanted to explore aspects of macho culture: Gael has some traits that could be seen as macho—she’s gregarious, confident, unapologetic, ambitious, experiences success as an aphrodisiac, she’s resilient, willful and demanding. She has no trauma to explain or excuse her temperament. Even Clinton had a painful private ordeal bared publically; and yet, 54%. I wanted to resist using trauma as a legitimizing factor. I couldn’t find the books that followed a female character living and thinking and acting; in which the whole thrust of the narrative came not from that woman’s relationships, but from her ideology, interests and career. Even Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is propelled by Becky’s pursuit of good marriages, albeit upon non-traditional grounds. A scattering of novels is appearing now (Rachel Cusk’s Outline, Elif Bautman’s The Idiot, some of Nell Zink, Zadie Smith and Ottessa Moshfegh’s protagonists), but the acted-upon/apathetic versus acting is still bafflingly under-explored. We need a greater variety of female protagonists for a historical moment in which white women are grappling with misogyny, and the larger culture is struggling to accept women as actors. And unlikeable, Machiavellian ones? Perish the thought.
Q. What inspired the title of your novel, Orchid & the Wasp?
A.  In their philosophical writings, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari write about the relationship between a wasp and a rare type of orchid that resembles a wasp and lures the wasp to carry out its pollination. What this became in my predacious mind (veering far from Deleuze & Guattari’s conceptions) was a shorthand for describing an exploitative societal phenomenon, and I borrowed that analogy for my novel’s title. Besides mimicking its physiology, the flower emits mock female wasp pheromones. When a wasp tries to mate with it, pollen latches to his head. The wasp eventually gives up, aware of his new burden but unable to shake it off. Soon he’s lured by another orchid, and so becomes the pollen-bearer. It’s one of the few examples in nature of a non-symbiotic system. The wasp gains nothing. One of the questions whirring through the novel is: is it really exploitation if the loser isn’t aware of his loss? This question is asked on multiple levels: personal, familial, national and societal. Gael is the orchid in this dynamic; a person (from a downwardly-mobile broken home) who perceives individualism to be superseding mutualism; who believes meritocracy to be a fallacy, and who goes to extraordinary lengths to protect her (to her eye) exploitable loved ones.
Q.  Orchid & the Wasp is picaresque in structure, each chapter showing one day in Gael’s life over a decade. How did you come to this structure?
A.  We often describe the events and circumstances of our lives and cultures as if they’re progressive, logical, as if causality is controllable by will rather than by a coven of megalomaniac loophole-dwelling billionaires and the cold chance factors of time and place! Narrativization can never be truthful and its consolations are often dangerous. But I didn’t want to write a meandering modernist novel that bends its form backwards to render unmediated lived-experience—Gael would have neither patience nor finesse for that—so I decided to just live with her in a selection of days from her life. To begin with, these days are distanced by a few years, then they progressively cluster—usually with several months in between. In the book’s countless settings, barely any place is revisited. So not only is there a temporal movement, there is a continual physical one (even people’s houses keep changing … downsizing). I knew this unconventional structure would present a challenge for the reader, as they wouldn’t be able to predict where the novel was going. They would sense thematic fibres binding the structure—and there’s the fact that the character has family members she cares about, and there’s a love interest in the book—but fundamentally the form comes from Gael’s long drawn-out argument with the world, and—as Yeats would have it—with herself.
Q.  There’s a rich engagement with art and music in the book. Gael’s mother is an accomplished conductor, and you write beautifully of the relationship between conductor, orchestra and score, audience and performance. Later, Gael makes her way into the art world. How did you approach writing about music and visual art?
A.  Music can envelop a person—a passer-by—without any action or interest or desire on the part of the hearer; even against his will! Music can govern an atmosphere in milliseconds, where so many words are required to do the same. Until I began researching for this novel, I’d thought that if could pick another career, I’d be a composer. (Not that I have any talent for music whatsoever! Though I have been known to air-bow in the second violin sections of bad orchestras!) But I discovered that—especially if you’re writing orchestral works—it’s a grimly exclusory, non-meritocratic, shifty and tough profession. Still, when Gael tries to get her mother’s scores performed after Sive is forced out of her conducting position, her chances as composer surely beat conducting: In 2014, the website Bachtrack reported that only five of the world’s top 150 conductors were women. 3%. In spite of the statistics, researching the music in this book was sheer joy. I spent weeks on YouTube, trying to understand what symphonies Sive would have programmed in the past, and what she’d be programming in the moment we see her conduct through. I didn’t want the selection to be an intellectual exercise, as it wouldn’t have been for her.
On the fine art side, I graduated high school at sixteen and was a little too young for university, so I went to art school, where I was the least talented person by such a huge measure that the tutors told me there were other uses for a pencil and pad! But having proximity to visual artists then allowed me some understanding of that mode of expression. For this book, I enquired at various galleries in Chelsea about exhibiting material! I probed to find out where work is typically sourced, about the general code of conduct and belief system of that world. And it is not what it says on the Campbell’s tin.
Q.  You’ve said that the novel challenges the notion of a meritocratic system. How have current events, or your own thought development, influenced that theme in the book?
A.  Susan Sontag said that rules of taste enforce structures of power. She could equally have said that structures of power enforce rules of taste. For 2018, I think the latter version is more exonerating! Perhaps we’re living through the start of a low-magnitude seism in power structures, but it’s still true that success is often a foregone conclusion, even in the art world, which is insinuated by politics, sexism, nepotism and self-perpetuating privilege. It’s absurd that the American dream is still tendered to the patrons and populace for hope and solace, but it is. Gael is interested in this, though her grasp of it is cynical, and fairly straightforward. Mine is murkier. (I still wanted the book to be pulled from the slush pile of my dream agent! Artists are romantics, and hypocrites!)
There’s a huge gap between political rhetoric and reality, the world over. But the rhetoric has really penetrated the national psyche in America: that hard work will be met with due reward. That is one hacked reward system. Gael knows that Ireland and England have both been following the American corporatist model, so perhaps one reason she goes there is to see how it extrapolates. This is the way she treats everything: by fast-forwarding, by modelling and speculating, trying to protect who she needs to, trying to build a fall-out shelter for the mind, if not the heart.   
Q.  You had a previous career working at Google, and you’re also an award-winning poet. How did your other forms of work influence the novel?
A.  Whenever I teach, and undergrads ask me about MFAs (I don’t have one), I advise them to come back to it as a mature student. Writers will be writers in the end. It can be damaging to produce books and be peer-reviewed too early. It can form bad habits and it can close off so much life, as you try to get by and accumulate bylines. Knowing other modes of living expands your vocabulary (‘googler’, ‘googley’, etc.). My years in business helped me to conceive of Gael and her father. I probably couldn’t have written either convincingly without that time. That I was writing poems during those years helped sustain my cognitive dissonance.

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