There’s this sort of subset of literary fiction I like to call “The Fucked Up Family Novel”.
You know what I’m talking about.
These are novels that were fucked up family dynamics are the centerpiece. The reasons for and results of those dynamics drives the narration. I’m not talking about the sort of novel that has one character with issues, but the family itself is functional. I’m talking about the sort where the whole family in general is fucked and their lives together are essentially fucked as well.
These sort of novels are my wheelhouse. I am SO down with these. I loved “The Virgin Suicides” and Zoe Heller’s “The Believers”. I loved Meg Mitchell Moore’s “The Admissions.” I live for these stories most likely because I have my own fucked up family and like to feel as if I’m not alone in having messy familial relationships. It feels nice to feel as if you can commiserate with your book, you know?Recently though, I’ve read a few of these sorts of books and I wasn’t feeling the love for them they way I’d hoped I would.
James Bailey’s “Sorry I Wasn’t What You Needed” was the first in a list of Fucked Up
Family Novels to disappoint me this summer. The premise sounded spectacular: CJ, who lives far from his family, gets a what seems to be a random, late night phone call
from his dad. Later he finds out that his father commits suicide. Now he has to return home and face the family he’s kept his distance from for the better part of 10 years.
How could that not be amazing? It wasn’t. I found the prose to be juvenile – almost like a YA novel and the characters were ridiculous. Their actions were nonsensical
and they were stupid. I can take a lot of things, but not idiotic characters. I didn’t see any real humanity in them – they sort of felt like caricatures of screwed up people rather than actual damaged people. I felt there was no subtly; no nuance. Because of that, I found it boring.
So next, I went on to “The Artificial Anatomy of Parks” by Kate Gordon. Here, we have our protagonist, Tallulah, who is estranged from what remains of her family. She receives a call that her father has had a heart attack and she gets thrown back into the orbit of her unstable family. This family is a mess, is damaged and there’s secrets and betrayal everywhere.
I enjoyed “The Artificial Anatomy of Parks” far more than “Sorry I Wasn’t What You Needed.” I felt the writing was clearer and with more of a voice. The novel seemed to have more to say and a more elegant way to say it. The stakes seemed higher and more defined. And I thought that Gordon nicely explored Tallulah’s family’s past in a way that made the fractures more understandable.
I didn’t love this, however. I didn’t find the male characters somewhat undeveloped and not very convincing. Tallulah herself isn’t particularly interesting – she’s pretty apathetic. She’s cold; but no only to the other characters. I found her cold to me. I don’t require – or what – my characters to be likeable – I just want to care about finding out what happens to them.
Finally, I read “Married Sex” by Jesse Kornbluth. So, here, we have a long married couple, David and Blair, who agree to have a threesome as David is attracted to this woman, Jean. David is the narrator and I found him completely and utterly uninteresting. I found David, Blair and Jean to be uninteresting. It felt a little like the author thought the plot was risqué enough to avoid having to write interesting, fully defined characters. There’s no personality or depth. And everything is so goddamn on the surface.
I think Kornbluth took this to be a novel about a marriage in shambles, which I think can allow you to be a little bit more surface. Maybe you don’t have to get into the nitty-gritty because you’re watching the couple keep secrets from one another, research divorce lawyers on the sly and lament issues to their friends. You can see how the way she slurps her soup has begun to bother him or the way he never, ever throws his clothes into the laundry basket now makes her blood boil.
Because so much of “Married Sex” focuses so much on getting the threesome together,
having the threesome and the fall out of the threesome, surface isn’t enough. We gotta do deep digging to keep it interesting because you’ve essentially hung this novel on one event. We’re not shown or given enough information about David and Blair to understand why they do what they do – particularly Blair. The actions taken aren’t shored up by thoughts, actions, ideas, personality quirks, etc that the characters have displayed before. I was so indifferent to Blair and David that I could not bring myself to care about this whole situation. And since this is a pretty narrow situation, this is problematic.
When it comes to Fucked Up Family Novels, I want/need/expect depth. Being from one of those families myself, I know that those dynamics don’t just happen. They don’t just fall from the sky. My rocky relationship with my dad has a lot to do with his upbringing – how he was raised affects his world view pretty significantly. My grandfather has a frosty relationship with most of his siblings – he and his brothers have fought each other numerous times and threatened to kill one another in the really bad times – probably has something to do with the fact that he wasn’t raised with his siblings as he was darker than they were (my great-grandparents were very light-skinned and so sent him to be raised by his elder sister).
Family dynamics don’t exist in a vacuum. And those books I mentioned above treats them as if they do. “The Artificial Anatomy of Parks” absolutely handles family issues far better than the other two, but I’m still on the lookout for a new Fucked Up Family Novel I can love.