Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A chorus of irony and disomfort

Tolstoy wrote that "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

I think about this often, rather surprisingly often; I'd say about once a week on average. Not a fleeting glance of a thought, but a fully introspective reflection. Usually on my morning commute, having parted ways with the tiny little family of my own making, and wondering what it is that we are, whether we are normal and "happy" (whatever that means) in our quotidian dysfunction. Or sometimes a call from "home" will set me to appraising the actions and motives of siblings and cousins, though they might be unaware of what ripples they may cause.

Since I was 11 years old, perhaps younger, I've been unhealthily(?) obsessed with the question — the problem — of happiness: What is it exactly, and how can I get me some?

When I first read Anna Karenina some 20 years ago, Tolstoy's opening sentence stuck in my mind. I've wondered if families' happinesses are so alike as appearances (or Tolstoy) would have us believe. (Cannot happiness be unique?) Or if their uniquenesses — every family is unique, is it not? — imply that some unhappinesses lie beneath their happy surfaces. Is it the corollary of Tolstoy's pronouncement that all families are unhappy? Or are more of us more alike than we admit, happy — indescribably, ineffably, tragically, naturally and inevitably, our unique and glorious dysfunctions giving us a commonality, lifting us out of our dark secrets? Are we to find solace — happiness — in this newly realized normalcy? By acknowledging our demons, are we redeemed?

Carlos Fuentes's new collection of stories, Happy Families, has Tolstoy's declaration as an epigram. This book, then — in perfect communion with the path my mind follows on my daily commute, accompanying me over the last couple weeks.

In these masterly vignettes, Fuentes explores Tolstoy's classic observation that "happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." In "A Family Like Any Other," each member of the Pagan family lives in isolation, despite sharing a tiny house. In "The Mariachi's Mother," the limitless devotion of a woman is revealed as she secretly tends to her estranged son's wounds. "Sweethearts" reunites old lovers unexpectedly and opens up the possibilities for other lives and other loves. These are just a few of the remarkable stories in Happy Families, but they all inhabit Fuentes's trademark Mexico, where modern obsessions bump up against those of the mythic past, and the result is a triumphant display of the many ways we reach out to one another and find salvation through irrepressible acts of love.


I don't know who wrote this blurb, but they couldn't possibly have read the same book I did. There is no redemption in love or by love for these tragic characters.

(Did Fuentes mean to be ironic? Or Tolstoy? Or the blurb writer?)

Rape, incest, boredom, and infidelity. The tyranny of parents and the rebelliousness of youth. I don't think Fuentes brings anything new to these age-old stories. He seems to wallow in them.

"Sweethearts," mentioned above, is, in my opinion, crushing: the lovers revisit their a nostalgia to have it erased by the reality of aging bodies and the not-quite admissions of the less-than-romantic dynamics of their own weak-willed youth too easily swayed by their families' wishes.

Still, it was to me one of the more interesting stories of the lot, but not a happy one. No salvation there.

On the whole, these stories seemed to be lacking in sincerity; too contrived, endings — whether of stories or of sentences — too cryptic.

Sixteen stories, each followed by a chorus. I haven't figured out the choruses. Poems, it seems, but long and rambling, intended perhaps to shock with violence of language and imagery. I couldn't find the point in them, either as commentary on the stories preceding them or in their own right.

I found only about half a dozen of the stories to have been worth reading, none of them perfect but with some interesting ideas and a little bit of a sense of passion to help them bear fruit.

I haven't read much by Fuentes — I remember having liked it, but that was long ago and now I'm not so sure. One of the most fleshed-out characters (We don't get to know any of these people very well. As I write this I wonder if Fuentes had it in mind that we don't often ever really know our family.) is that of a girl raped and killed:

You have to know who my daughter was. And please don't protect yourself, as my husband does, behind the lie of Alessandra's supposed human coldness. Ah yes, they say, she was promising girl but barely human. She lacked warmth. She lacked emotion.

People who think that infuriate me, beginning with my husband, I'll tell you that with all honesty. It means not understanding that the "familiar address" Alessandra used with genius — or brilliance, I don't know — was an intense, erotic form of desire. My daughter loved, Senor. Not what everyone vulgarly attributes that verb, physical attraction, not even the tenderness and warmth shared with other human beings. Alessandra loved Nietzsche or the Brontes because she them alone, alone in the graves of their books and their thoughts. Alessandra approached the geniuses of the past to give them life with her attention, which was the form her affection took: paying attention.

She didn't want to take anything from anyone. She wanted to give to the neediest. The dead? Yes, perhaps. It's true, "The dead are so alone.: But she sought out the company of the less frequented dead. The immortals. That's what she told me. She wanted to look after, offer her hand to so many human beings, the artists and thinkers who are the subject of studies, biographies, yes, and lectures, but not of a love equivalent to what we give to a close, living being. Offer her hand to the immortals. That was my daughter's vocation.


I wonder if Fuentes thinks it his vocation, too. A cold, passionless bid for genius that misses the mark.
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