Monday, March 24, 2014

The Post-Modern Family

Tirza, by Arnon Grunberg

How many books have actually caused you to laugh out loud?  I remember laughing to the point of crying at the Major Major sections of Catch-22.  Vonnegut can still make me laugh in one paragraph and nearly weep in the next; Dorothy Parker's little stories ("The Cradle of Civilization") are quite funny, and while I don't think this is entirely normal, whenever I need to cheer up I reach for Thomas Bernhard--the only writer I know of who can make suicide seem witty--or I'll reread the sections of Pale King that reliably do the trick (e.g. David Cusk's sweating episodes).  On the other hand I don't find the New Yorker's "Shouts and Murmurs" funny--ever--nor do I even chuckle at David Sedaris, Calvin Trillin, or the late Nora Ephron. But I at least smile when I try to read Heidegger or Hegel--what else can one do?--and so I admit that my sense of humor is quirky and probably says more about the oddities of my character than anything else.  I've been reading The Island of Second Sight by Albert Vigoleis Thelen (which is why I haven't been writing here), and it occurred to me at about page 150 that it was the heavy-handed, almost self-parodying irony that, more than anything else, was keeping me from enjoying the book.  But irony, deftly deployed, can be funny, as it is, for example, in A.M. Homes's delightfully weird novels.  Bernhard's running joke is the same one that made MAD magazine so smart back in its Al Feldstein/William Gaines years--namely the conceit that everything is absurd if examined properly, that is, honestly.  Irony, of course, is the recognition that the "meaning" (scare quotes de rigueur) of experience is slippery at best, that there are no "final" or definitive correspondences to anything in our relationships and our inner lives; every human exchange has an ulterior motive or is fraught with ambiguity.  There's nothing in this formulation that is inherently funny, so that Thelen's pounding away at the quirkiness of his alter ego's experiences isn't funny, while Bernhard's repetitive, Beckettian, over-the-top formulas (the Cone!) do the necessary work of humor, which is to relieve us of the burden of seriousness--after all, comedy releases us from fate, assuring us that either we are in control of our lives or no one is. I remember reading once that there could be no Christian tragedy; maybe so, but there can't be any Christian comedy either, except in Dante's sense of comedy as transcendence.  There is no point in lamenting a world that makes no sense, so one might as well laugh at it.  (See Watt, page 37)  The forbidden is funny, as is the gross, and even the unspeakable can be funny in context--comic relief--but then all of these things are stupid and embarrassing if not done with intelligence.  Tragedy is natural in storytelling--the narrative arc is built in--but the comedic plot presents an altogether difference sort of problem.  I respect a writer that does tragedy well; I marvel at one who can do comedy.

"One more thing about paranoia and irony: paranoia without irony is unbearable. And the combination of paranoia and irony might still be the best answer to the horror of our times." 

Aaron Grunberg, the Dutch novelist who lives in New York, and who is, I suspect, right at this moment working in his kitchen in Queens (he writes in the morning, in his kitchen, listening to music, and, apparently, hooked up to an EKG as part of a study of the creative process--I like picturing this), also writes a blog that I have been enjoying--he has opinions on everything, and they're often good ones: as in the quotation above: paranoia without irony is unbearable.   You can tell Grunberg has been in the U.S. a while--paranoia has replaced optimism everywhere: we're being watched, and what we're doing, though hardly worth a second thought, is probably illegal.  His novel Tirza, which I enjoyed, is set in an upscale enclave of Amsterdam, though its disturbed and disturbing central character Jorgen Hofmeester could just as easily live in Gotham City, though not in Ed Koch's favorite borough--maybe on the Upper East Side--where the horrifying and hysterical (in both senses of the word) unraveling of his family would seem no more absurd that anything else currently transpiring (how's this: "A Generation Redefines Mourning: Millennials have begun projecting their own digitalized sensibilities onto rituals and discussions surrounding death," NYT, 3/23/14; my emphasis). 

 So: Hofmeester's wife has left him, but, spectacularly, returns on the eve of the big party he is throwing for his youngest daughter, Tirza.  Mrs. H has been off with a lover or ten, living on a houseboat; she is, it transpires, a slut, while hyper-bourgeoise Jorgen has fantasies of "dirty" salesgirls. Hofmeester's reunion with his estranged wife is one of the funniest and most cringe-inducing enactments of marital hatred I have ever read.  Ibi, Hofmeester's oldest daughter, loathes her parents and has run off to France; Tirza has what can only be described as unnatural affection for her father--who reciprocates by making his youngest daughter the center of his paranoid and ironic universe. Hofmeester himself has been let go from his job as an editor and passes his days at the airport, acting the role of a person who awaits the arrival of a loved one; he also cooks and cultivates the image, but not the substance, of a concerned father.  Tirza has a boyfriend who looks like Mohammed Atta, at least to her father, and is ingenuous to the point of idiocy.  The party, which occupies much of the book, is hellish and yet utterly banal--Grunberg excels at depicting the calamity that is everyday life.

Yes, we've come a long way from "Father Knows Best," all the way from bland patriarchy through emasculating feminism to unmitigated domestic horror.  But the horror stories no longer require ghosts or vampires or zombies--now everyone is a monster, and the wittiness of a book like Tirza derives from the absurd notion that there ever could have been such a thing as a happy family.  I won't mention the Sopranos here, or Walter White, but what Grundberg does with the nuclear family evokes the sort of rueful smiles of recognition one often had in watching Tony at table with Carmela and Meadow and little Anthony.  The post-modern family: no longer is the home a refuge from an unkind world but rather a perfect replica of that world.  Cruelty has become the face of love, and aside from the banality of pop fiction and network TV, everyone gets it--from Amsterdam to New York--the family is where we sharpen our claws, nothing but a dress rehearsal for the flaying we are expected to dish out in the "real" world. Ironically the roles have been reversed: now one goes to work to find a modicum of peace and quiet, bracing oneself for the return home, to the horrors of one's family.

   "Ibi was at a cafe with friends, the wife was painting in her studio and receiving her almost exclusively male models. Jorgen Hofmeester sat in the living room and underlined one paragraph after the other in the informative book about his youngest daughter's disorder, and in her bedroom beside the cello Tirza was busy giftedly starving herself to death.
   That was how the Hofmeester family lived at the start of the new millennium."

Tirza is published by Open Letter, University of Rochester, and translated by Sam Garrett.

George Ovitt, 3/24/14

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