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Thicker Than Water

December 17, 1995|CHARLOTTE INNES

"God, I hate families," Mikal Gilmore says. It's a cool fall evening at Book Soup's Bistro in West Hollywood, but the emotional temperature rises when Gilmore reads. He's appearing with writers Geoffrey Wolff and Leonard Michaels. All three have stories in "The Granta Book of Family," a collection of fiction, memoir and journalism on family relationships, culled from the last 15 years of this venerable British magazine. Each of these men carries a burdensome emotional legacy from difficult, even vicious, fathers. Yet they relay very different messages. Gilmore's excerpt comes from "Shot in the Heart," his award-winning 1991 memoir of his violent, unhappy family whose most famous member, older brother Gary, was executed for murder. He blames his parents' bitter fighting for the violence that led two of his three brothers to death and a third to dull passivity.

Mikal, the youngest, suffers guilt, death-filled dreams and a rage tinged with compassion. He does not hate his parents, he says. Yet he does hate. "I see [families] walking in their clean clusters in a shopping mall," he reads. "Or I hear friends talking of family get-togethers or family problems. Or I visit families at home and I inevitably resent them. I resent them for whatever real happiness they may have achieved and because I didn't have such a family. . . . And I despise them for the ways in which the notion of family good is still used to shame or subjugate children within the family, long past the time they become adults."

Gilmore's painful honesty reminds me of George Bernard Shaw, pooh-poohing family ideals as so much sentimental "humbug" in his "Treatise on Parents and Children," which forms the preface to his play "Misalliance." The great Irish playwright denounces family as a dictatorial institution, compelling affection where there is none, too often warping and cramping a child's flowering into self-hood. Wolff and Michaels, apologizing for a dearth of unhappiness in their essays, seem to subscribe more to the view of Tolstoy, who said in "Anna Karenina" that "happy families are all alike" and "every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way"--from which we must deduce that only unhappy families are worth exploring. Indeed, there is a wealth of evidence from Shakespeare's "Hamlet" to Jane Smiley's appropriation of "King Lear" in her 1992 novel "A Thousand Acres"--that family pain and family drama are the bone and sinew of creative work.

Michaels' piece lacks "complexity," he says, because "I loved my father. We had no problems. As far as I'm aware, he loved me. And he died. And he was terrific." I'm puzzled. To me his essay seems to contain a message about a father's subtle dominance over a sensitive son who feels he can't match up. Tonight Michaels reads "The Cat," an unpublished, fatalistic work about the danger of wanting something too much.

Wolff says his piece lacks the necessary narrative component of "friction," which I take to mean it's relentlessly upbeat. Reading a section from "A Day at the Beach," a series of essays about "being a father" excerpted in the Granta book, Wolff tells of a sea journey taken with his wife, Priscilla, that was mapped out earlier by their son, Nicholas. This story of a happy marriage and a beloved son is the flip-side of "Duke of Deception," his much-praised, heart-rending memoir of his brutal father. The voyage, Wolff says, is "payback" for when he was his son's age and spent a terrible summer visiting a mental hospital near San Diego where his troubled father was undergoing electric shock treatment.

One offers bitterness, the other denial and the third a cautious redemption--brushed by "friction" after all. Different messages. Yet all three are angry, conscious of something lost in childhood, proving perhaps that it's unhappy families who are all alike--united, as a multitude of self-help books and confessional TV talk shows suggest, in their common family dysfunction. Of course misery is not the only criterion for great literature about family. Wolff's sea voyage makes me think of Odysseus, who braved a one-eyed giant, seductive sirens and an army of inheritance-hungry suitors to reunite with his wife and son in surely one of the longest-lived tales celebrating family happiness.

But what of the future? Will the so-called traditional "family" even survive in literature? We'll hear about different kinds of families for sure--lesbian mothers and gay dads, cross-cultural families, friends who form families and more stories like Hamlet's, perhaps, connecting family dynamics with global politics--stories different in form. But in substance?

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