- Family Practice
One doesn’t have to look far to find literature about the stuff of family—its importance and often its discord in our lives. The oldest writings dramatize the significance yet precariousness of family histories—from the totem poles of the Pacific Northwest to the writings of ancient China, Assyria, and Egypt—which record and retain records of ruling families to validate lines of power, succession, and inheritance. Much classic literature has to do with family. Dickens mixed harsh realism with fantasy in writing about lost family connections and families of choice or exigency. Twain described the found or made family in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the falseness of then-current racist ideas of blood inheritance as the definer of identity in Pudd’nhead Wilson. Shakespeare dramatized the most dysfunctional Sophoclean families in some of his best-known plays: King Lear, Hamlet, and even Romeo and Juliet.
Family function and dysfunction are central themes in many of the standout novels of the last half-century. Toni Morrison’s Beloved shows the ways slavery warps and disfigures families, inflicting physical and psychological scars that never fade. In the twisted morality that slavery produces, a mother’s killing her baby becomes an act of love. In Winter’s Bone, Daniel Woodrell’s seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly protects her mentally ill mother and two young siblings as she goes in search of her meth-addicted father. It is a brutal yet beautiful tale showing both the wrenching destructiveness and powerful resiliency of families. Zadie [End Page 5] Smith’s novel White Teeth portrays the tumult of London at the turn of the millennium, where the complexities of history, class, and human choice are at play in a story about the families and friends of two World War II veterans, British working-class Archibald Jones and Samad Iqbal, an intellectual Bengali waiter. Samad’s twin sons show the conflicts arising from culture and family, as one of them thoroughly accepts English culture and pursues genetic science while the other falls into religious extremism.
Edward St. Aubyn’s five Patrick Melrose novels are a perfect divine comedy of surviving the worst sort of family life. Most recently, Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan Novels follow the volatile friendship of two women, Elena and Lila, from childhood in a rough neighborhood through academic careers, loves lost and found, motherhood, labor movements, and their work lives. All the while, they feel deeply conflicted about family, and the extended families of the neighborhood, flying there for comfort and breaking free when the rules get too confining.
This issue’s story “Somewhere Else” by Charles Harmon is a comic tale of how quickly a family can break apart. The protagonist, Matt, father of two, is forced by his outraged wife to “break up” with his best friend over an incident of domestic violence that has ended his friend’s marriage. Matt is stunned that that’s all there might be to a split—one angry act, and it’s over. His own marriage is not in the best shape, and Matt acts out by having long make-out sessions with his autistic son’s twenty-four-year-old virgin babysitter—a young Christian woman who is surprisingly in control of things.
In Cynthia Robinson’s “Maison des Oiseaux,” a couple is suffering even more dramatically. Della and Peter’s college-aged daughter vanished, and their marriage falters as Della begins drinking. Tasked by their counselor to work on repairing their relationship, they travel to Morocco, where they meet Joseline, a young Belgian woman in the company of some dangerous-looking men. They rescue her with the intent of helping her get home, and Della grows increasingly angry at the young woman’s obliviousness to her own safety.
Matthew Baker’s wonderful language- and math-conscious story “The Golden Mean” describes the life of Tryg, a high school math genius and member of two blended families, one suburban and one rural. Because his divorced mother and father share custody, he has to move between the two, which in Tryg’s mathematical way of thinking means that the families are two intersecting sets, with himself...