Old Souls, Youthful Dysfunction, and Children Parenting Their Fathers.
My last post dealt with weirdness in fiction. This post is an extension of that topic, related to two works I’ve read recently. The first of these is Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Goldfinch, which I’ve only just gotten around to reading. (It’s nearly 800 pages long–that’s my excuse.) The second is a nonfiction memoir, Not the Kennedys, by a very talented newcomer, John O’Hern, who happens to be my cousin by marriage. These two books have absolutely nothing in common except that I happened to read them in the same month, and that both triggered more thoughts about how we humans confront an incomprehensible and incoherent world by writing about it.
The Goldfinch is, in my unhelpful opinion, less original and less spectacular than critics have made it out to be (maybe my next post will be about the weirdness of literary prizes). It’s a contemporary take on the bildingsroman— the story of a wayward youth who comes into his or her own as an adult. This traditional form consists of a labyrinthine first-person account of how the narrator learned the cruel ways of the world by a series of punishing experiences. Tartt’s twist on this tradition is, however, provocative. Her narrator-hero, Theodore Decker, is a boy-turning-man who involuntarily becomes enmeshed in two very different, apparently unreconcilable, worlds. His voyage takes us through violence, abandonment, drug and alcohol abuse (his own in particular). He becomes immersed in the world of grifters and criminals. And the whole odyssey takes place against the rarified background of wealthy, privileged collectors of fine art and antique furniture.
That foundation alone provides for a good deal of weird disconnect. The novel slowly (very slowly) explores how different forms of perception and representation (including artwork, fine furniture and their forged copies) attempt to make sense of the world’s natural, inevitable chaos while at the same time intensifying that chaos. In the end, Theo concludes (in an overly-long and overwrought meditation) that absolute values such as beauty, purity and truth, can be found only in art. This is what makes objects, rather than people, so precious and so coveted. People, on the other hand, tend to end up as the collateral damage in the quest to create, appreciate and possess these transcendent objects. Art is divine, humans pedestrian. Art makes the world cohere, people tear it apart. Weird, right?
John O’Hern provides something of an antidote to this cynical world view. The antidote is especially applicable in this case because O’Hern is himself a recovering alcoholic and addictive personality who has spent much of his adulthood trying to understand and tame his darker impulses. In this sense, he is nearly a real-life counterpart to Tartt’s Theo. O’Hern recounts, through a series of visits to his psychiatrist, two contrasting tales. One is the story of life growing up with seven siblings in a crowded Irish-American household under the tyranny of a loving but out-of-control and violent father. John Sr. is angry, impulsive, uncompromising and quick with the belt against his children’s skin: the classic bully. The other tale in O’Hern’s life drama, by contrast, has unlikely heroes: the author’s children, Max and Declan (Declan is a girl, despite her name). Max is a kind, patient, prescient child whose seemingly infinite understanding makes the boy the father of the man. “He’s an old soul,” John’s wife, Lisa, exclaims tearfully, holding out their infant boy to display his sage-like eyes. This part of the story is frankly weird–a weary house-husband, a slightly manic wife and an assessment of their baby based on little but intuition. But the thing is…Lisa was right. Max, now thirty, was and is an old soul. I’ve known him all my life and I can’t think of a more apt description. Daughter Declan turns out to have similar effects in a completely different way. She is the yang to Max’s yin: the demanding center of her own world, able to wrap Daddy around her adorable finger from day one. She too teaches her father what it means to be dependent and responsible at the same time.
In fact, as the story of O’Hern’s family life progresses, that is the predominant theme, not just for John but also for his overbearing dad. As John’s children teach him how to be a responsible father and husband, John and his siblings teach their father how to love and be loved without hitting. By retelling his repeated escalating clashes with his father (the culminating clash will leave you open-eyed with terror); his magical summers with the entire brood in Cape Cod; his fights with wife Lisa, who essentially becomes the proxy for his fights with alcohol, O’Hern takes his readers on a voyage of a man discovering his humanity.
So which story of the human condition sounds better to you? Tartt’s implication that our only redemption is through the exceedingly rare transcendent works of art we produce? Or John O’Hern’s portrayal of redemption through the love of those you love. Thanks very much, I’ll take John’s version every time.
Todd S. Garth teaches Spanish and Portuguese Language and Latin American and Spanish cultural studies at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, where he was the first openly gay faculty member. He is the author of two critical studies of (long dead) Spanish American authors and an enthusiastic reader and commentator of fiction of all kinds. He is currently at work on a historical novel, The Mayor of Newark.