One hundred and six years ago, Huck Finn lit out for the Western territory to escape domestic life. The high proportion of American novels about family life published in recent years would almost suggest that there is now no place for him to go. An ordinary English family might have a reproduction of a Constable or a Gainsborough in the house; an American family is more likely to have a photograph album. Family Pictures, Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart, and To the Birdhouse suggest each in different ways that the idiosyncrasies of family life are among the few real national common denominators among Americans.
Sue Miller’s Family Pictures is the story of a middle-class Chicago family from 1940 to 1979, presented in vignettes (family dinners, baseball games, Christmas, neighborhood cocktail parties, etc.) and narrated largely by their photographer daughter, Nina. David, the husband, is a psychiatrist, “tall and sober and steady,…reliably connected to the world of events” and of knowledge: he knows the names of stars and the Mendelian laws. His wife, Lainie, is a force of nature, a woman of “desperate quick embraces,…sudden anger…. A set of mysterious private emotions…ruled her.” Together they have six children, the third an autistic son named Randall, whose illness determines the course of their marriage and family life.
David practices and teaches at the University of Chicago medical school during the period when autism was thought to be caused by maternal rejection, before it was widely held that the illness is neurological. David, hoping to find a cure for Randall’s illness by tracing it to what he believes to be its source, subjects Lainie to a barrage of psychiatric evaluations and interviews to understand her contribution to what happened to the child. Over the years she retaliates by keeping the boy at home, demonstrating a tortured devotion to him, and by having three other children without her husband’s consent, “hoping that…these bright, beautiful, normal babies would mend the rent in their marriage that had begun with Randall.”
Miller manages some elements of her family chronicle well; she describes vividly the sheer physicality of family life, the cycles of shared meals, house-keeping, nighttime vigils with feverish children. And she shows how inevitably children are affected by and even brought up in the style of their parents’ marriages. But perhaps in her outrage at the burden of guilt placed on the mothers of autistic children, Miller has stated here a counterclaim by focusing intensely on the mother, Lainie. The reader is constantly cued to perceive her as blowsy and imperfect, but compensatingly vital and full of feeling. Miller’s prose lights her flatteringly; when she is overheard talking to a friend, one of the daughters remarks, “It seemed female to me…. When my father talked to his friends, there weren’t these long rich silences full of meaning….” Sitting up at night with her autistic son, she is shown with “her hair still matted from sleep, her robe stained,…her hopeless fatigue, and her love for Randall.” Undressed, “the heavy curves of her arms and shoulders were nearly as white as the bra. There was some deeply female dignity to this whiteness, this heaviness….” Cooking breakfast, “she looked like a teenager, neat and pretty in her flowered pajamas,…a pair of [her husband’s] own socks on her feet.” This presentation of Lainie is applied to her like a moral cosmetic; the husband is never allowed to seem so adorable or vulnerable or selfless.
Yet despite the moral lipstick and rouge, the author seems to have unwittingly portrayed the mother as self-regarding and smug. We know what we are supposed to think of her, but we run aground on how she is written. The disparity between how we are supposed to perceive her, and how she exists on the page is crucial, since she is the real center of the book.
Lainie never lets anyone forget for a minute her power to give birth. On her children’s birthdays she says, “I love all you children’s birthdays—I think of you each as a baby,” precisely what a birthday represents an escape from. She is unable to have orgasms, we are told, until after she has given birth. In the lovemaking scenes, she tells her husband not what a wonderful lover he is, but how generous and all-mothering he makes her feel. Making love, she tells him, makes her feel holy. The husband is dealt with severely for his transgressions—his rationality, his belief that she is implicated in the son’s illness, his adultery. One of the daughters lashes out at him, “Why do you always have to preside over us? Why can’t you just live with us, like Mother does?”
Lainie’s imperfections, on the other hand, are dealt with as somehow life-giving, even appealing. This earth mother gets in bed with her autistic son at night while he masturbates, “wishing, even hoping, that he’d connect his masturbating under the covers to her presence, that he’d try to touch her or look at her.” When a history teacher approaches her to ask about one child’s school troubles, she replies, “Well, the thing about home is, there’s life, at home…and life is sometimes not easy. Don’t you agree?” Life at her house is life itself. As the moral center of the book she is given the speeches that sound most like an Oscar acceptance speech: “I loved you all so much…couldn’t you feel it?…It had so much…of me in it…It had all of me…it was my love for you other children that I loved.”
Although the dates that introduce each section imply that the book will show us a family moving through history in the era of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, the family’s contact with events outside the domestic circle is intermittent. When the older son, Mack, graduates from a large public high school in 1965, no one seems worried about the possibility that he or at least some of his classmates may be drafted—the taking of family photographs is paramount. It isn’t until he inexplicably drops out of Harvard that the Vietnam War becomes a concern.
This family seems part of neither time nor culture: they are distinguished by their nearly complete lack of curiosity about anything in the world but their relationships to each other. They move from the Fifties to the Sixties without any appreciable change in manners or preoccupations. The arrival of TV, astronauts, birth-control pills, the violent fights over school integration—all events that directly affected domestic life—pass them by. Chicago could just as well be Minneapolis or Seattle; it consists almost entirely of their home, like a city in a soap opera, made up of only interiors and a few quick establishing shots.
In Family Pictures, feeling overrules the claims of the external world, but as with its characters, the novel communicates a subtle hierarchy of emotion. The highest value is given to a kind of glamourized fatalism, the moment of accepting the home truth, tear in the eye and lump in the throat, like the moment of reconciliation between husband and wife: “He waited a minute, then spoke again. ‘But tonight I wanted you. Maybe because of all that, all we’ve done to each other. Because, in some way, it’s all been done. And we’ve forgiven each other so much.’ ”
Toward the end of the book, the photographer daughter, Nina, is commissioned to take some wedding pictures. She says,
The best pictures, from my point of view, would be the ones the family didn’t even want—shots of a wailing child, clinging in lonely misery to the leg of his happily talking mother…. Of the elderly couple, sitting for a moment unattended and speechless in their lawn chairs, each of their faces sunk in isolation and exhaustion.
There is a kind of prestige granted here to suffering that no other feeling earns.
During a consultation, Nina’s psychiatrist sums up her situation admiringly: “My dear, you come from such a life, such a background, that problems and conflict have been of central importance for you, and for your family. Always there was such drama. But such meaningful drama.” It is this element of self-congratulation through all their trials that makes Family Pictures seem enacted rather than observed, exhibition without narration.
Joyce Carol Oates is a poet as well as a novelist, and the intricate structure of her fiction, with its subtle recurrences of event and strong awareness of pattern, suggests the influence of her work in poetry in a way that brings to mind Thomas Hardy, another poet-novelist. She shares Hardy’s humorless but impassioned solemnity toward human life, even his sense of destiny, and she has something of his gift for panorama, both of environment and emotion, as well as his compromising weakness for melodrama.
Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart (the title is taken from a poem of Stephen Crane’s) is the story of a white girl, Iris Courtney, and a black boy, Jinx Fairchild, growing up during the 1950s and early Sixties in a deadend upstate New York river town. Iris is the daughter of a flashy, socially and financially ambitious couple who don’t realize they are on their way down because of the husband’s compulsive gambling and the wife’s incipient alcoholism. In the beginning of the book, they are a young couple whose youth is as much of a windfall as a win at the blackjack table, something they can afford to be spendthrift with. They go to parties and give local exhibitions of ballroom dancing billed as “The Incomparable Courtneys,” and quarrel over the money the husband loses at horse races and clubs, moving to cheaper and cheaper lodgings. Oates manages to convey both what is rank and what is fascinating in the couple’s idea of distinction; they have movie fans’ love of lush decor and looks and outsized performances, but they are fans of themselves, both self-worshiping and naive about it.
Jinx Fairchild grows up in the better section of the town’s black neighborhood, in a bungalow whose modern kitchen (“four-burner gas stove and oven, full-sized Kelvinator refrigerator, decent sink, faucets”) reflects the determination of his mother, Minnie. Minnie’s love for her children is demanding, almost military; her children, like soldiers, will be exposed to potentially fatal dangers outside their home if they don’t learn perfect discipline within it. Her love is relentless as is her contempt for any family member who fails to live up to it; she is merciless toward her older, gentle, good-willed husband for his retirement; she feels that retirement is the act of someone in a dangerous state of delusion, a drunken dream that struggle can end.
Iris and Jinx are drawn together in high school. Iris has an unspoken, half-realized schoolgirl crush on Jinx, a basketball star, and walking home one night from the candy store where he works, she is harrassed by the town brute, Little Red Garlock, the teenaged son of the most notoriously degraded white family in town. She runs back to the store for protection, and the Garlock boy picks a fight with Jinx, who kills him to save himself and Iris, and dumps the body in the river. The body is found, but the killer and witness are not. They spend the rest of their high school years in the enforced intimacy of their secret, impersonating ordinary teen-agers.
The knowledge of death preys on this racially mixed Adam and Eve: Jinx ends his basketball career and hopes of college scholarships with a self-destructive accident. He drifts from menial job to menial job, until he eventually drifts into the army, and dies, it is implied, a casualty in Vietnam. After her father deserts them, Iris endures her mother’s decline into alcoholism and her death from cirrhosis of the liver. She moves to Syracuse and cultivates a daughterly relationship with an academic couple of independent means. She is drawn to their gentility, their security, the reliable good taste that confirms their place in the world. Witnessing a family joke, “Iris’s vision mists over in the warmth and wonder and hope of the moment even as she’s calmly calculating: Families like to laugh together: remember that.” Iris painstakingly learns the family’s ease and stability like an actress mastering a role, and in the end, marries her mentors’ son.
Oates’s storytelling is less straightforward than her extroverted manner and streamlined prose make it appear at first. Through parallels and overlaps of coincidence so carefully constructed that they often seem only a part of the intangible atmosphere of the novel, she communicates a sense of the inescapable enlacement of life and life, that the consequences of an event cannot be confined only to the people immediately involved. There is a wonderful moment late in the book when the grownup Iris encounters a cousin of the murdered boy in a hospital waiting room, and the conversation turns to the shock of the killing. The cousin tells Iris, “not quite boastfully, but with an air of pride,” that the Garlock family knew who murdered Little Red. “A quarrel like that is bad blood between folks dating back to home…. It gets settled…. Don’t matter what the fool police think they know or don’t know.” Iris “feels…as one whose comprehension of the universe has been mistaken and is now exposed.” And the cousin repeats that the men of the family settled it, “Like they always do.” A whole chain of murders of innocent people may have been initiated by the death of the undeniably brutal Garlock boy.
Oates captures the interplay of feeling between people and the places they live in. She describes a local swimming spot,
picking up sludge from factories in its passing, and bottles, tin cans, old tires,…used condoms and sewage from drains—…but it’s…fast-running in its approach to the river so the scum doesn’t accumulate…and…deliciously dark, a cool glossy serpentine feel to the current, reflections under the bridge dancing and darting like shreds of dream pulled out into daylight.
When Jinx returns to Peach Tree Creek after the murder, the dream is different. The creek isn’t a place where teen-aged vitality can challenge pollution, but a “place of perished things come alive again—like that part-submerged tree trunk he sights, a tangle of mean-looking roots still attached,…corpse of a red-furred dog,…loose boards, part of somebody’s rowboat—all these things alive.” At its best, the novel awakens the reader to something like the unexpected new comprehensions of the universe that Iris experiences.
When the book runs into difficulties it is largely a result of a somewhat histrionic impulse in Oates’s writing. She seems at times not to be able to rouse her interest in a character unless the character is in crisis. The novel proceeds with two violent murders, wife-beating, an attempt to kill a small child and cat with boiling water, a marital rape, the baroque squalor of an alcoholic death, and a sexual assault on the night of the Kennedy assassination. The need to stay at emotional fever pitch gives the novel a tedious rhythm; when describing the courtly, devoted academic couple, Oates almost visibly becomes restless, and the wife is sent to the hospital for an operation complete with ether-induced hallucinations.
The melodramatic tendency may reflect Oates’s greater strength in describing events than people. Iris and Jinx are never quite as vivid as the extraordinary conditions under which they live, and that may be because we don’t know them outside moments of maximum tension; it makes them seem somehow intermittent presences in the book, even though they are its main characters, so that when Iris confesses before her marriage that she loved Jinx, we aren’t convinced. He never seems as omnipresent in her consciousness, as thoroughly imagined, as someone beloved would be. The imaginative force in this book is given over to the description of social life, especially the daily presence of racism, its domestication of violence and hopelessness. Here Oates is brilliantly matter-of-fact, from the opening question asked of the fisherman who discovers the murdered boy: “White or colored? The dead man.” She needs no set pieces here, since the most ordinary aspects of black people’s lives—taking a drive, joining the army, playing basketball, going to school, the grocery store, the movies—were shadowed with violence during the civil rights era. Oates has put aside the fear common to white writers that they will be considered presumptuous in attempting to comprehend the lives of black people, and has lived up to the novelist’s obligation to imagine the lives of her people. At its most powerful, Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart shows us history refracted through fiction, as it becomes moral knowledge.
Cathleen Schine’s To the Birdhouse, (with a wink at Virginia Woolf’s grave, elegiac novel of family life) is a comic look at what makes family bonds durable, which turns out to be a capacity for shared malice as much as a capacity for shared love. The Brodys, each recognizable through a signature trait or verbal mannerism, are a well-to-do New York/Westport, Connecticut, Jewish family. Alice, newly married to a man who studies baseball, is a bird photographer, her brother Willie is distinguished by a parade of international girlfriends who speak wittily foreign English. Alice’s father is a fanatic Anglophile, and her mother, Brenda, a child psychologist who “was sure life was pleasant, and so had determined to experience it that way.” Alice has a grandmother whose leitmotif is an ardent nihilism—she hates the world with total engagement. When Alice tells her and her mother that she and Peter are getting married, the grandmother responds, “Oh! Oh! I’m so happy and please God don’t let him turn out like that malekhamoves your father he should go to hell the dirty bitch what he did to my Brenda.”
When the book opens, Brenda is having an affair with a man named Louie Scifo, who has an almost improvisational gift for insult; he is the Dexter Gordon of the faux pas. The poem he writes to his girlfriend’s daughter to go with his Christmas gift of a nightgown is a piece of virtuosic vulgarity:
To The One I Love
Here I’m the Dirty Old Man
I wish I was Young
and gay to see You in this—
You and I with your loveliness
Body and Soul
For You are a lovely Woman
to have a Man
Want you hold you and love you
Everyone in her family wants Brenda to break up with Louie, and when she does, Louie begins a campaign of harrassment that expresses perfectly the mixture of insidious threat and unrequited love he feels for Brenda, following one or another of the Brodys as they shop or go to work, leaving inimitable phone messages (“Your mommy’s a whore. I worry about her, you follow?”) and kidnapping the family cat. (“Your little friend will not live to see the morning. Ever.”)
The Brodys join forces to free themselves of Louie, “mobbing, an exciting and sensible bird behavior, a preemptive group strike against an intruder.” It’s a wise authorial strategy to surround the Brodys with Louie, since his speeches with their inspired malapropisms, their unfailing tactlessness, their equal proportions of obnoxiousness and pathos are the comic heart of the book. Louie’s speeches reanimate the phrase “perfectly awful.” The speeches are in fact more important. than anything he does, which is both a testimony to Schine’s skill and a key to a weakness in the novel.
The reconciliations in great works of social comedy have to be won in the face of both internal and external forces, some of them permanently irreconcilable. In Pride and Prejudice, for instance, we are conscious both of the happiness possible to a couple like Darcy and Elizabeth, and the equally real possibility that they may not be able to achieve it. They are surrounded by models of unhappy marriages—the Bennets, the Collinses, the Wickhams, and even when they do unite, the foolishness of Mrs. Bennet, the abusiveness of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and the presence of ne’er-do-well relatives exist as permanent irritants and challenges to their happiness. But the world of the Brodys is so personal that no external threat is allowed to exist. The Brodys, even under stress, never fight with each other—the only flaw in Alice’s perfect husband is a mild dislike for her cat. Nothing impersonal confronts them in the world of work; their rather annoyingly adorable professions ensure that. Alice is nearly the sole staff member of a bird magazine, her husband writes a baseball newsletter, her mother makes up psychological tests using words like “Yik” and “Vom” and conducts therapy sessions in whosoever’s apartment she happens to be. The brother, who aims to be a TV reporter, spends his time videotaping his family.
The world cannot really intrude on the Brodys. The threat of Louie is a familial one; his way of harrassing the Brodys after all is to continue to live with them. Even death is treated as a member of the Brody family circle: at a family funeral, Brenda insists on “driving through the various graveyards, pointing to especially pretty headstones, remarking on the interesting names and the marvelous diversity of American society.” She is perhaps the ultimate Jewish liberal; she concedes that death not only has its rights, but appreciates that it is marvelously good at what it does.
It is entirely characteristic of these characters that in a traffic jam, everyone getting out of his car to complain will turn out to be a family member or friend. The external world is just another Brody, which keeps the characters little more than charming cartoons. In their way, they are as insular as the English Hons Nancy Mitford caricatured in her novels, but the English lords and ladies reinforce their insularity by exclusion, while the Jewish Brodys protect theirs by incorporation. The Brodys can’t even hire a lawyer without drawing him into the family circle. It is both uncanny and deliciously just that the spirit of Nancy Mitford, the deft satirist of xenophobia, should have reawakened in a satirist of Jewish family life, poking fun at the domestic roots of Jewish liberalism.
August 16, 1990