Elegies for Parenthood
The literary legacy of the stifling 1950s family.
Aggrieved by the recent death of his mother from cancer, a childless fortysomething New Yorker contributor writes a coming–of-age memoir in which the author never truly comes of age. The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History, by Jonathan Franzen, and The Afterlife: A Memoir, by Donald Antrim, are so filled with likenesses, reading them back-to-back is like grading student essays. To be fair, there are obvious differences: Antrim's mother was a boozed-up harridan, Franzen's was the likable bulwark against adult reality a parent is supposed to be. Nonetheless, the two books are eerily similar, as if laying the groundwork for a new literary genre. What would be its watermarks? First, it would mirror an old genre, the high-literary suburban melodrama (Revolutionary Road; Rabbit, Run; The Ice Storm; Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe trilogy) in which the death of a child tears down the postwar suburb's pretense to total human satisfaction. Instead of a child, the new genre would take as its starting point the death of a parent. Its central revelation would be that the old-fashioned nuclear family, once suspected of being an emotional prison, in fact delivered an enormous amount of psychic and material comfort. Franzen's and Antrim's memoirs, in other words, are only superficially about childhood. They're elegies for parenthood as we, the children of the midcentury middle class, once knew it.
To those who have read it, the idea that The Afterlife is an elegy for parenthood may come as something of a hard sell. Donald Antrim drew a crappy hand in life, nurturewise, and his narrative persona is toned accordingly. Hardly a sentence in the book isn't engulfed in abjection. "All our lives were given over to her," Antrim confesses of his mother, the spectacular drunk. "I once marveled that my father could endure my mother. I found his martyrdom, as I thought of it then, honorable. It seemed to me that our family was guided by a bleak, incomprehensible fate. It wasn't incomprehensible, though, and it wasn't fate that was guiding us. It was alcohol." If Antrim's book is predictable—and it is, taking us through all the standard clichés, including an episode of sexual abuse—what accounts for its strange power? The Afterlife is indeed an addiction memoir, but with a twist. Antrim is addicted to his own unhappy childhood.
Antrim drawing comfort from his ill-starred family romance is every bit as seamy and provocative as Exley crawling inside a bottle or Lennon nuzzling a warm gun. For even the most damaged child can derive from the most terminally incompetent parent what he most needs: a measure of consistency. Antrim's mother is addled, capricious, deranged, narcissistic with such a high degree of regularity, she provided him with a steady parental presence, one he insists on maintaining, even after she has died:
Years after her death, my worry over her persists. Worry may be what I am trying to overcome when I talk to my dead mother, as I did that evening in the stairwell at the New York Public Library. I was brooding over some problem that had existed between us, and sharing with her, out loud (though not too loudly), my thoughts. On the first floor landing, I briefly imagined her floating near the ceiling. Stitched onto her silk kimono were provisions and companions for her winged journey into eternity. "Mom," I said, and, as I called out to her, I did not glance over my shoulder, and I did not, in that passing instant, dare to see, at a modest height above the ground—my mother, not there.
In that "Mom," The Afterlife sounds its note of elegy. How comforting it once was, to be offered, even in an unhappy family, a stable and consistent role to play. In contrast to Antrim, Franzen made out well in the parental lottery, and so Franzen's miseries are the stuff of small-bore comedy—a dismal trip to Disneyland, girl trouble, etc. Nonetheless, for all its happy triviality, Franzen's memoir has something about childhood dead right. The delectation the middle-class American child once took in his or her own unhappiness, even when torqued all the way to genuine misery, was, in retrospect, a fantastical luxury, hardly to be believed. And it was a gift from the very parents we thought were torturing us all along! For the elaborate rituals of middle-class cosseting assumed no particular right to self-fulfillment on the part of the average adult, whose job it was to earn a decent living, to keep house, to pair bond for life. These rituals, unthinkably dreary as they may appear to us now, were once universal, so that when they were breached, they gave children the greatest gift of all—a lifetime high on the narcosis of resentment.
Franzen equates these expectations with a specific moment in American history: "I grew up in the middle of the country in the middle of the golden age of the American middle class." Franzen is explicit about this: For better and worse, an entire midcentury social structure, itself the legacy of the New Deal and a permanently militarized state fighting the Cold War, allowed him his sheltered childhood. For a brief moment, some time after child labor had been eradicated but some time before the absolute supremacy of the culture of divorce, people role-played within a nuclear family and with a fairly high degree of confidence: father, breadwinner; mother, homemaker; child, mooncalf. "My father was plagued by the suspicion that adolescents were getting away with something," Franzen writes, "that their pleasures were insufficiently trammeled by conscience and responsibility." Franzen's father liked to drive home the difference between him, a hardworking engineer, and his layabout son. "He had a double-edged phrase he couldn't stop repeating whenever he came home from work and found me reading a novel or playing with my friends: 'One continuous round of pleasure!' "
Franzen is astute enough to know that, yes, he has grown up to be, as the author of The Corrections, the bearer of an enormous amount of cultural capital; but still, but still … "At forty-five, I feel grateful almost daily to be the adult I wished I could be when I was seventeen. I work on my arm strength at the gym; I've become pretty good with tools. At the same time, almost daily, I lose battles with the seventeen-year-old who's still inside me. I eat half a box of Oreos for lunch, I binge on TV, I make sweeping moral judgments, I run around town in torn jeans, I drink martinis on a Tuesday night, I stare at beer commercial cleavage, I define as uncool any group to which I can't belong, I feel the urge to key Range Rovers and slash their tires; I pretend I'm never going to die."
When, earlier this year, the New York Times asked a group of 200 or so editors, critics, and novelists to name the single best work of American fiction from the past 25 years, no writer under 50 made a meaningful showing. If the survey can be lent any credence—and it's not clear it can—the postwar period remains just that, the postwar period, a mini-literary epoch dominated by writers born in the 1930s (Morrison, 1931; Updike, 1932; McCarthy, 1933; Roth, 1933; DeLillo, 1936). Children born in the early '30s experienced the Depression and World War II before they turned 18 and soon after were caught up in the rising tide of postwar affluence. It is a recipe for the big-themed, resonant works of very, very American fiction that followed—the Rabbit epic, Beloved, Blood Meridian, and American Pastoral. (Interestingly, DeLillo, born in the mid- to late- '30s, feels like a much younger writer, having hipped to the tones of Postmodernism in a way his elder siblings never did.)
Richard Ford grew up in the '40s, and his Frank Bascombe novels (soon, blessedly, to be a trilogy) are arguably finer books than any two Rabbit installments, but they are also undeniably smaller in their achievement—a strange paradox until you realize that Ford came of writing age parallel to the Beatles, to a pop universe that, having matured, drew glamour away from literary product. The novels that resulted are smaller, subtler, truer to life, and yet less grand, less assured of their large ambitions, less frankly self-important. Now note the birth dates of Antrim (1958) and Franzen (1959). They are tail-end baby boomers, and in them, the pathos of diminished expectations has hit its—what—zenith? Nadir? A family line, after all, can be traced to its conclusion along literary, as well as genealogical, lines.
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.
Photograph of Jonathan Franzen on Slate's home page by Keith Bedford/Getty Images.