Flesh and Blood, by Michael Cunningham

This 1995 work is Cunningham before he found his literary voice. I did finally get caught up by this family at the end of their saga, but for much of this book it is a kind of bildungsroman, a family saga novel in which three generations come of age and a lot happens. But it is life happening rather than one or more characters influencing or motivating the actions of others. And this is the kind of novel that does not appeal to me.

Because, while there is a maturing inside the characters, there is an absence of interaction that prompts the reader to want to know what comes next. That may also be why each time I returned to reading about this family, I found it difficult to remember where I had left off. There was no moment of action, no event, that had me wondering what would be coming next.

But at the end, the characters do begin reacting to the family situation, and to the arrival of death and their own vulnerability. And I ended up being unexpectedly moved by this novel. Moved not so much by the individual fate of the characters as by an interactive portrait of family life that I could relate to.

This novel basically covers the years from 1958 to 1995, a period of significant social change. It begins with a beautiful, ambitious Mary and a shy, immature Constantine falling in love and marrying. But then the portrait of Constantine changes, for once he has children he becomes an old-school protective father, a strict disciplinarian. Whereupon, Cunningham becomes more interested, anyway, in the children: Billy (later Will), Susan, and Zoe. Will discovers he is homosexual, Susan marries a lawyer and enters an unsatisfied but comfortable life, and Zoe has an affair with a black man who leaves her pregnant. This rich material extends through the novel, but while the characters interact with sympathy regarding each one’s situation, they really do not affect each other’s situation.

The final portion of the novel introduces Ben, the son of Susan, and Jamal, the slightly younger son of Zoe. Ben is quiet, and is troubled despite his comfortable life, but we cannot more than suspect the source of that trouble until the end. Jamal is more outgoing but as a half-black boy has his own problems.

Two other major characters are Cassandra and Harry. Cassandra is a friend of Zoe’s, a transvestite, a man whose dress and social life is that of a woman. She was for me the most interesting character in the book, not least because she was very outspoken about who she is and was not afraid to bluntly advise others about their lives. Indeed, she is appreciated by the conservative Mary, who recognizes how much she has helped Zoe.

Harry, on the other hand, is not complex at all. In fact, he seems to serve mainly as an opportunity for Will to be a sexual person and to have an emotional life that is never probed. (Only father Constantine reacts to it.) Perhaps it is because I know the author is gay, but my reaction to Will and Harry is that that their relationship is never developed, and that it exists chiefly to enable the author to treat the fact of homosexuality and, early on, to describe intimate homosexual scenes. I will acknowledge the effectiveness of one such scene, however, in which a stranger lets Will seduce him and then reveals he is to be married the next day and just wanted to have such an experience before his life changed. The unfairness of a gay man’s life in that era really hits home in this scene.

My problem with this novel is that I did not care for these characters as much as Cunningham obviously did. The details of family life, the understanding that each of the children and the mother shows for the others, in fact, made me wonder how much this work may be autobiographical. This was particularly true of the gay life here. Of course, other parts may not be, because the children of this family are carefully split up to express three different life styles, the gay life, the traditional suburban life, and the life of a single rebellious girl in a world of drugs and poverty. Cunningham sympathetically portrays each child, of course, even as he exposes their failures to fulfill their dreams, thus suggesting that their suburban origin is not all it’s cracked up to be.

To sum up, this work was a disappointment until the end, when death enters and the children are finally forced to react to each other’s situation, especially to that of Zoe and Cassandra and that of Susan through Ben. A tacked on explanation of the rest of their lives was unnecessary, however, even as it leaves Jamal as the surviving heart of the family. In fact, its main purpose seems to be to reflect the traditions of the old-fashioned novel. Not that the family stories told here are old-fashioned at all.

This novel will deflect me from searching out more early Cunningham novels, but I am still interested in his more recent work. When gay life is at the heart of the novel, such as coming to terms with it, it works for me in literature. But when it is on the periphery, and yet is explored, it turns me off. Yes, the author wants to present how natural it is in some people, but I do not need to follow it into the bedroom—as I do not need to in straight love stories, either. (December, 2015)

The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling

This is a good novel. No one should say surprisingly, for Rowling is a born storyteller and a solid technician in this 2012 work. What I admired from the beginning was her creation of life in a small British town, Pagford, from the political confrontations to the family jealousies to the juvenile insecurities. And from the class warfare to the social ills to the generational conflicts.

The novel begins when a pillar of the town, Barry Fairbrother suddenly dies. This calls for a vote to replace him on the parish council—which introduces political conflict, since the dead man wanted to keep the town together rather than exile a poor community to another jurisdiction. To explore this conflict, we meet the families on both sides. There are Howard and Shirley Mollison, who run the council and want to rid the town of the poor, including a local clinic; their son Miles, a candidate following his father’s wishes; and Miles’ wife, Samantha. There are the Prices, whose son Andrew resents his father Simon and his decision to run for the council to take advantage of potential graft. And there is Andrew’s pal Stuart (Fats), whose father, Colby, is running to preserve the policies of the dead man.

Beyond the political intrigue, there is social conflict, centered on the poor Weeden family. Daughter Krystal is a teenager whose mother Terri is a self-centered prostitute and a heroin addict. Krystal adores her three-year-old brother, Robbie, whom her mother neglects. The daughter is the novel’s most fully developed character, and Rowling seems to identify with her insecurities, her contradictions, and yet her sound family sense. The Weedon’s friendly social worker is Kay Bawden, who has a beautiful daughter Gaia. Kay has come to Pagford hoping to find security with Gavin Hughes, a local lawyer. Finally, there is Parminda Jawanda, a doctor with a conscience, a handsome husband, and a plain, insecure daughter. Sukhvinder.

This is a complicated roster of characters, actually eight families, to follow during the town’s political and social intrigue. And it is complicated further by the five children. Andrew is buddies with Fats, and is in love with Gaia, who is best buddies with Sukhvinder. Meanwwhile, Fats has a continuing affair with Krystal, who wants to have a child in order to escape her family. And the still further complication is that each of these five children has a major problem with his or her parents.

In sum, I was impressed and absorbed by this portrait of a town and its families in conflict. But then “The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother” enters, leaving scandalous messages about the parish council and its candidates on the council’s website. Now, the more significant plotting of the novel truly begins, for these messages are being left, we know, by the three children, Andrew, Fats, and Sukhvinder, to revenge themselves on their parents. It is a unique plot device that is credible and certainly is in keeping with modern technology, yet it also reflects, in its way, the hand of the author—an author who has just written a classic series of novels about teenagers, the Harry Potter series.

And, indeed, the rest of this novel revolves around the actions of these five teenagers. The political conflict and election now recedes into the background, except for one argumentative but anti-climactic parish council meeting. The novel’s pace also quickens, as the children’s actions replace the verbal altercations of the adults. The final action centers on the desperate actions of Krystal and their impact on her family and on her fellow teenagers.

As I began reading this novel, it seemed that Rowling was determined to convince critics that she could write a true novel for adults. This came across from her portrait of this town, its political situation, and its various families. I sensed she was now writing from a life she knew, as serious writers do, rather than from a life she imagined. Toward the end, however, while I still considered it a valid, serious novel, it seemed to me that a commercial aspect, an emphasis on plot more than on relationships, was seeping in. Finally, the emphasis on the children at the end seemed to reflect the type of characters, the record has shown, she is most comfortable with.

It is this emphasis on the children at the end that most concerns me. The novel began as a portrait of a town, of its hypocrisies and its prejudices. This legitimately included the frustrations of its teenagers with their parents. But these frustratione began to drive the plot, and the reader gradually isn’t sure where the emphasis is meant to lie. Finally, the action of one teenager to take all the blame for the website messages and the death of another seems insufficiently prepared for, seems insufficiently motivated.

Perhaps the one aspect that I agree with in Kakutani’s very negative Times review is that there are no good characters here that the reader can identify with, as there would naturally be in an average small town. All are intended to come alive through their weaknesses. The social worker Kay is a good person at heart, but she is ineffective, and emerges as inconsequential. And Krystal’s goodness is outweighed by her anti-social rebellion. The result is an expose of this town more than a recreation of it. And a novel that leaves us depressed more than exhilarated, having introduced us to characters we would not really want as friends or neighbors.

On the other hand, the teenagers are more interesting as individuals than the adults. The prejudices of the adults could be considered more stereotypical, whereas the teenagers have their own individual problems and react to one another, and talk to one another, in their own individual way. As a result, we get to know them better, understand them better, and so sympathize with them better, even if we are disturbed by much of their conduct and remain unconvinced by their final actions and final fate.

To sum up, this is an admirable, old-fashioned novel about small-town English life, but it is peopled by unsympathetic characters and somewhat manipulated by the author to convey a message of social injustice and personal hypocrisy. It is dominated in the end by children, with whom she seems more comfortable, and who perhaps reflect the experience and emotions of her own past. (November, 2014)