Saturday, February 7, 2015

Bleak Houses

The Bradshaw Variations, by Rachel Cusk

"...if love is selfish, can it still be considered to be love?"


I grew up in a conventionally happy family, meaning that all of the unhappiness was kept tucked away with the good silver. The five of us--Mom and Dad and sibs--ate our meals at the same table, took an interest in one and other's lives, celebrated holidays in the way in which American families of the 1950's and 1960's celebrated holidays--together, with all the trappings. But by now we've all read our Betty Friedan and Marge Piercy and Nancy Chodorow and we understand that the thin patina of happiness and tranquility that marked America's "golden age" masked a great despair. Predictably, once the kids were grown, the thing fell apart, like an unstable element whose center was too perturbed to hold the compact little solar system together. It might have been the times: by the advent of Nixonland we had discovered that everything we'd been taught to believe was, at best, a half-truth, so why shouldn't the family have been a half-truth as well?* And then there was the sadism of families, the myriad petty ways in which we took revenge for our own failures on those we loved. Not quite a death wish, but a primordial desire to see what happens when you blow something up. Here's the human condition, or the American condition, in a nutshell. That contemporary American right-wing politicians want to bring back this land of illusion suggests not so much nostalgia as historical ignorance--the economic and political system these people worship is what destroyed the thing for which they are nostalgic.**

Rachel Cusk has written a delightfully sadistic little romp through the malfunctioning Bradshaw family, a mad-cap group based someplace in contemporary small-town England, though they may as well live in Manhattan, NY or Manhattan, Kansas. Just the book to cuddle up with on a cold, bleak evening--it's funny in the way Charlie Chaplin is funny, equal parts slapstick and poignancy. Or: I might have wept at parts of this novel but I chose to laugh instead.

Isn't this true of great comedy? Isn't it true that we pity Falstaff while we grin at his japes? Isn't his mockery of seriousness at one and the same time dead-on and deadly--we can't live straight up with the truth, it would kill us to do so. Comedy in the classic sense is more poignant than tragedy: you don't doubt Hamlet's fate, and I've never felt the play to be "sad," but the three Henry plays, the ambiguous comedies, and the "Tempest," especially the mooncalf Caliban, these can make me weep.***

"I prithee, let me bring thee where crabs grow;
And I with my long nails will dig thee pignuts;
Show thee a jay's nest and instruct thee how
To snare the nimble marmoset; I'll bring thee
To clustering filberts and sometimes I'll get thee
Young scamels from the rock. Wilt thou go with me?"

Comedy is renewal; tragedy is destruction without hope of renewal--"Lysistrata" versus "The Trojan Women." By this measure, the Bradshaw's play out a tragicomedy--something ends and something new begins, but in neither case does Cusk hold out much hope for happiness or even rudimentary contentment. Thomas B. is a stay-at-home dad; Toni B. is chairperson of an English department in a "second-rate college." Thomas is befuddled by his role, though pleased not to be working in an office. He walks about in a cloud of uncertainty and domestic incompetence. Lacking a romantic bone in her body, Cusk doesn't get dewy-eyed about the B's gender flipping--Thomas is a lousy househubby and Tonie isn't much of a professor. He's a better pianist than father or husband, but it turns out that the conceit of Thomas learning Bach has nothing to do with the novel. Even Cusk's epigram from Jean-Paul Sartre ("[Bach] taught us how to find originality within an established discipline; actually--how to live" ) is misleading. Though the novel is organized as a kind of Poorly-Tempered Clavier, short variations on off-key themes, Bach has nothing to do with the story, and if anything the novel is a guide to how not to live. Thomas in a fog; Tonie torn between ambition and guilt--she resents her husband's relationship with their daughter but has no interest in being a full-time mother. Thomas' parents' "traditional" marriage is based on inexpressible mutual loathing. Thomas' wealthy brother lurches after happiness but has no clue what it might look like. There are other Bradshaw's, but their appearances are cameos and merely add to the general sense that this is indeed a dysfunctional family. Cusk offers us Everyfamily. The goal of life with others might be counterpoint and harmony, structure and beauty, but the end result is cacophony. Cusk isn't letting anyone off the hook--there's nothing exceptional about the wacky Bradshaws: they're us. Only Olga, the Polish janitor who rents a room from Thomas and Tonie gets it--how, she wonders, can people live this way?

"It is, he now sees, the problem with the day: it lacks the imposition of a human will. It is formless. It is a lump of clay which must be shaped by inspiration and desire. This, he recalls, is what freedom is. At forty-three freedom generally comes to him refined, in small quantities: decisions, directives, intricate opportunities for success. He has forgotten what the raw material feels like."

Freedom, of course, is the heart of the problem. We all want it, but nobody seems to have a clue what to do with the damn thing when he gets it. Learn to play the piano? Why not--anyone can be a virtuoso. Buy a dog? Good idea, a dog will make us happy. Have an affair with a complete stranger? We're not doing anything else today.  Wife's an alcoholic? Well, that's her business. After all, we're free to do as we wish. Don't want to vaccinate your kids? Then don't. We're all not in this together. What's a family these days but a mini-version of our greater selfishness?

In one of the novel's many darkly funny episodes, Howard runs over the hyperactive family dog and responds to the collective horror of his children by saying, "No one really liked the dog anyway." Yes, there's the grace note. What do we care? None of us liked the thing anyway.

Read the book. It'll cheer you up.

*For the lie, see Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge (2014)
**See Mike Huckabee's God, Guns, Grits and Gravy. Actually, just take my word for it. ("Let it alone thy fool; it is but trash.")
***"Endgame" as Shakespearean darkness:

The Bradshaw Variations is published by Farrar, Straus, Giroux

George Ovitt (2/7/15)

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