Tuesday, June 19

McSweeney's 18; "The Stepfather"

The wonderful publishing house McSweeney’s, which is linked to on Book-Loop’s sidebar, distributes quarterly a subscription-based product titled simply with the issue number. Each issue is quite different, and there don’t seem to be too many rules governing the production of the material, but all are also similar in that each is primarily a collection of short fiction pieces. Number 18 is a conservative entry – a smallish paper-bound book of short stories.

I’ve read one so far. “The Stepfather,” by Chris Adrian, is a hazy little story about a quirky family. The location of the setting in both time and space is ambiguous, but the text suggests the family lives a wealthy rural lifestyle in the second half of last century. The matriarch of this family has a habit of marrying and divorcing frequently, almost seasonally. The various stepfathers drift into and out of the family’s life. And while the mother finds her comfort in these multiple males, the children have been alienated from fatherly attachment and are welded to one another very thoroughly.

Also ambiguous, in an almost comical, but somewhat sinister, fashion, is the exact number of children in the story. Sinister, I say, because a new name will pop up on almost every page with no real introduction. The author seems to enjoy springing the characters on the reader. “Yes, there’s another one, haha.” All in all, there are about a dozen children in the tale, pairs and triples of whom are the offspring of the different rotating stepfathers. Curiously, each stepfather is referred to as “stepfather” in relation to all of the kids, as if their mother was the only parent involved in their making.

What is not unclear to me is the violence marbled through the story. Only one physically violent act is described in the text, though others unfulfilled are contemplated. A word about that violent act: I am always fascinated by the ways in which authors describe terrible acts, especially those involving inhuman savagery. Do they choose to sensationalize? Is the prose viscerally present at the scene, or is it detached? Adrian chooses detachment, detailing a crime committed against one of the siblings through declaratives spoken by one of the brothers. The crime is this: Calvin, a closeted brother, goes to have a rendezvous with a sailor in a dark park. His body is found with hundreds of stab wounds and fingers bitten off. Semen from multiple assailants is found inside of wounds in his abdomen. Ok, yuck. It makes me wonder how an author decides to convey such a plot point in his story. I read that description multiple times, as it came somewhat out of nowhere.

As I mentioned, that is the only physically violent event in “The Stepfather,” but I have another definition of violence that I once wrote as a thesis in a Women’s Studies paper at university. My basic idea was that violence can be usefully defined as victim creation, and the presence of physical aggression is a secondary consideration. For example, a boxing match may be awfully damaging and brutal, but because of the agreed-upon circumstances, it is not so much a violent thing. There is no victim created. I feel that violence is essentially action which causes abuse that converts a person into a victim who before was not: victim creation.

Under this rubric, “The Stepfather” is speckled significantly with violence. The violence of alienation of children by absent parenting, the primary and secondary victim creation from Calvin’s horrific murder; these events lead to the last part of the story in which the cabal of slighted sisters and brothers plot to kill the latest stepfather, so unhappy are they with his performance. However, each in turn fails to accomplish the deed. He remains in their lives, and they remain victims, as they see it, of his lamentable presence. The last act of violence in the story remains an imagined one, their potential victim remaining a culprit instead. And Calvin’s unknown murderer remains as well.


Ben said...

An engineer who enrolled in Woman's Studies and reads McSweeney's. You're a fucking gem, Michael. We're lucky to have you.

Nice review!

Marfa said...

I have "The Children's Hospital" right now... I can't say it's my favorite, nor is Adrian. You're right about his approach to catastrophic events. At least in the particular book that I am reading, he falls off pages and leaves the reader to wonder. He doesn't pull it off so well.

MJA said...

I would be curious to hear more about The Children's hospital when you've finished. That's a really funny coincidence that you are reading that right now. After I read this story, I checked his little bio page, and it mentioned that that book was near publication (this story is from 2005-ish).