Tuesday, November 23, 2010

It Could Always be Worse

Our office is half-deserted. Empty office chairs sit wanly in front of bleakly black computer screens; one lonely coffee mug sits in the sink.

Although our company’s holiday schedule does not technically include the first three days of Thanksgiving week, most people—in the grand American tradition—take them off anyway. Great distances need to be traveled on packed planes and trains and buses; pies need to be made, and turkeys must be sourced. Thanksgiving (and Christmas) are often the only times that families can gather in their glorious entirety, and every moment counts.

Of course, in concert with the vision of a harmonious clan gathered around a heaped table is one of familial implosion, of yet another holiday scorched by age-old grudges that seem to re-ignite themselves around this time of year. Mother, frazzled by a day spent laboring a hot kitchen, picks a fight with Grandfather who has once again become too intimate with the whiskey decanter. Sibling squabbles rise anew; clothes, figures, new boyfriends and girlfriends are judged. “Are you sure you want that second helping?” asks Aunt with raised eyebrows. Uncle snorts derisively when college-age Nephew announces he’s ditching pre-med for philosophy. And so it goes.

The thing about dysfunctional families, though, is that they’re far more interesting to read about than the well-adjusted ones. Tolstoy said it best in Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” That’s why literature is full of debased and fractured families, each one burdened with its own story of secrets and private griefs and never-forgotten betrayals. So, in the spirit of the season, I thought I’d talk about some famous fictional families, in all their fascinatingly flawed greatness.

We’ll start by assuming that the knotty Karenin/Oblonsky/Vronsky cohort is a given; if you know how the novel ends, it’s a pretty obvious conclusion that home life for the protagonists is not so great. Flippancy aside, Anna Karenina is a complex, powerful portrayal of loyalty and love’s potential for destruction; it should be on the “Required Reading” list for life. If you haven’t yet read it (probably the most accessible of Tolstoy’s novels), I really urge you to get hold of a copy and dig in over the holidays.

Feuding brothers and sisters are a common occurrence—almost as prevalent as bad mothers, and fathers who beat their children. But the siblings who love each other too much are also a frequent, and much more disturbing, trope. Silver-tongued Van and beautiful Ada Veen in Ada, or Ardor, by Vladimir Nabokov; Franny, a rape victim, and her protective brother John Berry in John Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire; and, of course, the jackpot of depravity that is Flowers In The Attic. One of the most deeply troubling novels I’ve read in my entire life, V.C. Andrews’s introduction to the Dollanganger family is a catalogue of Freudian abuse—the physical relationship between Chris and Cathy is just one of the family’s awful secrets. Products of incest themselves, the siblings are abandoned by their mother and viciously terrorized by their grandmother. The novel that inspires a wealth of conflicting feelings, because Andrews is a phenomenal writer who manages to traverse what would be, for most of us, unfathomable emotional spectrums of emotion. What would normally repulse becomes, in her hands, uncomfortably compelling.

Illness, both physical and mental, is another cause of familial corrosion. In Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, a family is turned inside out when it is forced to confront the declining health of its angry and borderline abusive patriarch, Alfred Lambert. Alfred suffers from dementia, but as they care for him his children must battle their own paranoia, depression, and pathological jealousy; it’s fitting that Franzen chooses Christmas morning as the moment for his characters’ ultimate showdown. In The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides more explicitly tackles the subject of mental illness through his story of five sisters who, over the course of a decade, kill themselves. Narrated by an anonymous group of teenage boys, this novel provides an outsider’s perspective on the gradual destruction of a family, beginning with the suicide of the youngest daughter. Grief is merciless, even when the immediacy of a tragedy has passed; its repercussions linger, lying dormant until a reawakening that has catastrophic consequences.

Horrible parents/guardians tend to be a mainstay of older novels, particularly Regency and Victorian titles. Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son is a ruthless portrayal of a hostile, neglectful father; Florence’s refusal to give up on her quest for love from her father, Paul, truly rends the heart. Although Mrs. Joe, in Great Expectations, is really Pip’s sister, she acts in loco parentis and treats him with abominable cruelty (her husband, Joe, isn’t spared the blows of her angry fist). And the abuse Jane Eyre endures at the hands of her uncle’s family, the Reeds, is agonizing. Taunted, belittled, and physically attacked, her home life is unbearably miserable—and moving to Lowood School, where she is at the mercy of a tyrannical director, is no better.

All right, I’m out of time. I need to make my own Thanksgiving getaway—there’s an 8 p.m. flight from Newark with my name on it. But, though it is a rather depressing catalogue, perhaps this post will give you something to chew on during the holiday. Remember that, regardless of what drama and anguish goes down at your festive table, you're a real person and not a character in one of these novels…

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