on Burning Down the House, by Charles Baxter (Graywolf), and A Friend of the Family, by Lauren Grodstein (Algonquin Books)
“Insight is one of the last stands of belief in a secular age,” writes Charles Baxter in his punchy essay “Against Epiphanies.” Like many other assertions in Burning Down the House (1997), recently reissued by Graywolf with two new essays, this one prods fiction writers and poets alike to examine their most basic impulses and assumptions:
“Insight’s connection to the loss of innocence, to a vestigially religious worldview, and to conspiracy theories, makes it particularly suited to a culture like ours that thrives on psychotherapeutic models, paranoia, and self-improvement. A belief that one is a victim will lead inevitably to an obsession with insight. There is really nothing wrong with any of this except for the conventions it is capable of fostering.”
In “Dysfunctional Narratives,” Baxter springs a stinging rebuke by quoting Mary Gaitskill: “Most of us have not been taught how to be responsible for our thoughts and feelings,” meaning both writers and readers who approach literature from a sense of embedded grievance:
“The injury takes for itself all the meaning. The injury is the meaning … There is only acting out, the acting out of one’s destiny. But acting out is not the same as acting. Acting out is behavior that proceeds according to a predetermined, invisible pattern created by the injury.” Such narratives are “dysfunctional” because they implicitly moralize from the start, spun by writers whose self-identities as victims draw them to “avowals, passivity, and the disarmed protagonist.”
In poetry, the use of narrative structure to imitate the action of clarifying feelings may not be a favored mode. But even when it isn’t, one may ask if a poet is speaking to a community of individuals or to an “audience of fellow victims.” Baxter’s categories are intentionally exclusive in order to provoke, forcing a differentiation between poets who act (specifying emotion, staking out ideas, taking responsibility) over those who act out (repeating a script, expecting sanction in advance for their complaint). And then there are those, more calculating and desperate for recognition, who want it both ways at once.
I revisited Baxter’s essential book while reading Lauren Grodstein’s second novel, A Friend of the Family. My timing was lucky – because Grodstein provides a sophisticated example of how to agitate the reader over the issue of insight. The story is narrated by a man who picks apart his past in search of answers but may simply not have the capability or desire to recognize them. A Friend of the Family is a shrewdly imagined narrative, bringing memory to bear on a tensely unraveling present moment.
The story is narrated by Pete Dizinoff, 53, an internist with a preference for “specialty cases, the sleuthy diagnoses nobody else had been able to figure.” In the first few pages we learn that he is separated from his wife Elaine and dogged by a malpractice suit, yet “when people ask how I’m doing – some of them still ask, you’d be surprised – I shrug and say, as manfully as I can, ‘Much better than you think.’ And this is true.”
There are the Sterns, longtime best friends of the Dizinoffs – Joe Stern, an obstetrician engrossed by high-risk cases, and Iris Stern, a million-a-year investment banker and Pete’s college heartthrob. Also, their wayward 30-year old daughter Laura, notorious in affluent Round Hill, New Jersey for having given birth to and killed her newborn in a library rest room while in her teens.
So begins Pete’s attempt to diagnose how and why his departing son despises him, his medical partners have dumped him, his best friends are repelled. Grodstein’s ear is attuned to a narrative voice alternately contrite and self-justified, empathic and unresponsive, perceptive and benighted:
“I was never as grateful as I should have been for everything I had … Until my recent troubles, I’d always had a pretty good idea of what good would come of things, and what bad, and I knew how to prepare … Where was I during that time? Looking back, all those years ago, it’s hard to remember exactly. Absorbed in my work, I guess, making money, worrying over some stocks and daydreaming about renovating the kitchen. I was captain of the JCC men’s basketball league, thirty-five-and-older division. So maybe that – and then of course there was parenthood, and work, and my own marriage, which was suffering from predictable twelfth-anniversary doldrums.”
The true subject of A Friend of the Family is not just Pete’s tale, but his imagining of a perfect listener -- the reader, someone willing to put in an equivalent amount of time in order to understand. Grodstein manipulates the distance between the two parties – sometimes we identify with Pete’s empathies, hunches and values, and sometimes we hesitate or recoil. The reader is the only person Pete can talk to. He knows he has come up short. But he insists his actions had “best interests” in mind. Grodstein nudges us to judge him, then makes it uncomfortable to do so.
Pete Dizinoff at times reminds me of those exposed politicians who finally admit that "mistakes were made." The admission is passive and there's a whiff of victimization in his wake. Nevertheless, we empathize with Pete. This is how Grodstein maneuvers us into experiencing -- and having to evaluate -- the conventions of insight.
Joanna Smith Rakoff’s plot-dump book review in the New York Times says the novel is less “about one imperfect citizen than a sharp account of the status-driven suburban culture that turned him into a monster of conformity.” Here we go – another victim mentality reading a novel according to an extra-literary script. But there is nothing in A Friend of the Family intended to persuade or even imply that Pete is anything other than directly responsible for the outcome of his actions. He concerns us because his complexities are recognizable and fixed, even though he senses the dark influence he has exerted on family and friends.
About the novel’s action, I’ll say only that Alec, Pete’s 20-year old son, and Laura Stern develop a relationship. Although Laura’s behavior grates on Pete’s values and makes him fear for his son, the reader never fully sides with him. Then in a final scene just as Pete confronts Laura, Grodstein draws the two characters up even, with the effect that we move closer to the protagonist even as he makes a grievous error, and move away from Laura just when we might have most empathized with her.
It’s a marvelous maneuver, “melodramatic” in the best sense of the word -- per Baxter’s fine essay, “Maps and Legends of Hell: Notes on Melodrama” in which he writes, “In melodrama, those with the power to hurt are enacting that power. In such situations, melodrama informs us, words fail. Melodrama commemorates this feeling for mute disaster.” Ultimately, what agitates me about Grodstein’s novel is how it contains me within Pete Dizinoff’s muteness, a familiar, unsettling and intractable space.
[Burning Down The House: Essays on Fiction, by Charles Baxter. Published September 2, 2008. 234 pages, $15.00 paperback.]
[A Friend of the Family, by Lauren Grodstein. Published November 10, 2009. 304 pages, $23.95, hardcover]