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Captured by Dad's Camera Forever : AN AMERICAN MEMORY: by Eric Larsen (Algonquin Books: $12.95; 227 pp.; 0-912697-68-7)

July 24, 1988|James Kaufmann | Kaufmann, a father and a son, works as an educational testing editor in Iowa City, Iowa. and

The deliberately underinflected language employed by Eric Larsen in "An American Memory" is sonorously controlled as to be suspicious. Especially since the object of all this closely guarded prose is that most incendiary of subject matters: What fathers do to sons.

Set mainly in Minnesota, Larsen's first novel chronicles three generations of Reiners as seen or imagined by a third-generation son, Malcolm, born in 1941. He is our narrator, but since he cannot have known his grandparents in their youth, he depicts them through improvisations generated from writings and from snapshots in the family album.

Photography figures in another, more dramatic way, in "An American Memory." As practiced by Malcolm's father, photography is nothing if not symbolic of an overwhelming need to control. This is not lost on the son.

Among the reasons his father was drawn to the camera, we learn, is "because of the deeply rooted satisfaction to be gained from creating images generally assumed not merely to reflect or represent but actually to be the truth." In other words, the father is always right--an axiom of the father-son novel.

Malcolm's father is consumed by rage. "There were times," Malcolm tells us, "when I imagine, had my father been an animal, that he would have devoured us one at a time, then slunk into his lair to gnaw slowly with sullen and furious spite at his own limbs and flesh."

There is always the lingering sense in "An American Memory" that what infuriates the father is that his aspirations are unfulfilled because of family obligations. Few things have a more psychologically eviscerating effect on a son's life than the things his father could not or did not do. Alcohol, another staple of this genre, figures in the equation, too.

The father is also preternaturally silent. Of this, the son says, "What my father's silence meant to me was this: When he was my age, when he was the way I am now, my father had not existed. Therefore I did not exist either." George Bernard Shaw put it more succinctly. "Silence," he said, "is the most perfect expression of scorn."

Malcolm's mother is consumed, but in a different way. "She was a woman, Larsen writes, "whose life was governed by fear." Her specific fears are reported in a disheartening, two-page disquisition, which makes it clear that she too viewed the world with great hostility.

"An American Memory" seems on the face of things to be the story of three generations of a Midwestern family locked in an emotional straitjacket. But it's not: The history is there simply to give historical foundation to an impossible father- and-son relationship.

In this way, the history prepares us for the novel's end, when we are witness to the long and slow return of the repressed. Malcolm begins to have bad dreams, and then the dreams begin to cloud his waking life, "to grow," he tells us, "like invisible vines around my heart." Finally, it all gives way, and Malcolm simply loses it.

Seen backward from the vantage of his crack-up, the expanses of psychologically overcontrolled writing make more sense. Still and all, the examination of the forms of repression and hostility and fear is largely joyless (and sexless), and the flatness of Larsen's writing, which works well at short-story length (six of the novel's 12 sections were published as separate stories in literary quarterlies) seems at times endless.

"An American Memory" is an essentially despairing novel written in an emotionally clenched style. Given the subject, how could it be otherwise?

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