Posted by: Neil Hollands
As the staff group of the Williamsburg Regional Library launched into discussion of books about parents, at a meeting timed to coincide with its proximity to Father’s Day, I took some flak for choosing The Family Fang. Kevin Wilson’s tragicomic debut novel is about performance artist parents who include their young children in their reality twisting performances, and the psychological damage to the kids and broken family relationships that result.
I didn’t tell them that I’d almost opted for a much darker choice, Pat Conroy’s classic The Great Santini, a novel about one of the worst fathers ever. As the meeting progressed, it became apparent that no apologies were necessary. The books about bad parents and dysfunctional families far outnumbered the books about happy families. This wasn’t a statistical fluke. As Tolstoy famously starts Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” While he may be exaggerating for effect, the solid truth is that literature is built on conflict, and for every great book about terrific parents, there are a dozen books like Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle, Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors or the plays of Tennessee Williams.
I’ve often heard book club members yearn for happier stories to critique, but such stories are hard to find, and it’s no accident. Without conflict, it’s difficult to create much tension in a book, and attempts to write that way often prove bland, or worse, patently false. Instead of trying to avoid the blows, perhaps well-adjusted readers need to learn to find catharsis in tragedy, appreciate overcoming dysfunction or maintaining hope instead of fantasizing about idealistic families.
Colm Tóibín, the great contemporary Irish writer, has made a career writing about dysfunctional families, and his new book of essays, New Ways to Kill Your Mother, might help provide insight into the family lives of writers. In it, he catalogs how family tension shapes the works of writers like John Cheever, W. B. Yeats, Henry James, Roddy Doyle, Sebastian Barry, Jane Austen, and even President Barack Obama. It might make an interesting companion read for a meeting themed around the dysfunctional family in literature.