Saturday, September 27, 2008

The book ... Happy Families

HAPPY FAMILIES Stories
By Carlos Fuentes. Translated by Edith Grossman

Did Tolstoy really believe the throw-down challenge with which he began “Anna Karenina”? Are happy families really all alike? Is every unhappy family unhappy in its own way?Carlos Fuentes’s new story collection not only takes its title and epigraph from Tolstoy’s famous opening, but also makes us reconsider the bold statement the Russian writer uses to draw us into his novel.

It’s true that the households at the center of these 16 stories could hardly be gloomier or, on the surface, more dissimilar, as each labors under its own burden of tragedy and grief. Yet as we read through this offering from one of Mexico’s most celebrated literary figures, the author of more than 20 books, certain patterns emerge, likenesses suggesting that the wildly dysfunctional may share more in common than do their harmonious neighbors.

Children repeat and compound the mistakes that have ruined their parents’ lives; loving marriages devolve into rancor and resentment; poisonous secrets explode at the most destructive moments. The thread that runs through many of these tales seems, if not exclusively Mexican, then characteristic of a Latin culture, still predominantly Roman Catholic. North of the Rio Grande, these cases might be likely to wind up in divorce court and inheritance litigation. But in the cities and villages, mansions and modest dwellings where Fuentes’s stories are set, suffering and tradition are what bind these mismatched couples and their ungrateful offspring. The closer your family is, Fuentes seems to suggest, the greater the chance you’ll sustain major psychological violence and lasting damage.

Possibly the most useful lesson to be extracted from “Happy Families” is that it’s smart to stay single. Among the most content (or anyway, the least tormented) characters are bachelors: Leo, who in a pair of stories turns out to be having simultaneous affairs with two married women, and the elderly traveler in “Sweethearts,” a regretful ballad of lost love that evokes an off-key karaoke version of Gabriel García Márquez’s gorgeous “Love in the Time of Cholera.”

The hero of “A Cousin Without Charm” destroys his marriage when, to amuse his cherished wife, he invites a group of relatives to visit, and the ugly spinster-­cousin turns out to be hot. Sons grow up to despise their fathers; siblings betray one another; one mother mourns the terrible fate that has befallen her daughter, while another, overwhelmed by motherhood, gives her baby to his movie-star father. The bond that links a homosexual couple in “The Gay Divorcee” falters when they take on a sort of adoptive son, a serpent who reveals and widens the fault lines in their supposedly Edenic relationship.

Early on, we begin to notice details and plot turns that seem, at best, tasteless and unfeeling. In the opening story, “A Family Like Any Other,” a woman retreats from the gropings and humiliations of her job as a flight attendant and returns to her parents’ home, where she spends her days watching reality TV. One program features a race from northern Mexico to the Guatemalan border, during which two gringa contestants are murdered and found in a ditch near the Rio Grande — a bizarrely jocular reference to the unsolved murders of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juárez.

Some of the most off-putting stories are those that function partly as political or social critiques and wind up seeming nearly self-parodic. In “The Armed Family,” an ambitious man reveals his rebel brother’s hiding place to the military because having a guerrilla in the family is bad for business. In “Mater Dolorosa,” a woman corresponds with her daughter’s imprisoned killer, a man whose homicidal impulses are somehow linked to the injustices he suffered as a member of the country’s indigenous population.

Throughout, one senses Edith Grossman — the expert translator who made the language of “Don Quixote” newly accessible — working to persuade us that a character could deliver a line like “My specialty is launching penury in pursuit of wealth,” or to find lucidity and originality in observations that are either gnomic and incomprehensible or, alternately, sententious and obvious: “The storm of nominal and adjectival scorn that poured down on Mexican homosexuals perhaps only hid, crudely, the very disguised inclinations of the most macho of machos: those who deceived their wives with men and brought venereal disease into their decent homes.” Even with Grossman’s help, it’s hard to read the poems narrated in collective voices (“Chorus of the Children of Good Families,” “Chorus of the Rancorous Families” and so forth) that separate the stories and that, in several instances, provide sensationalistic recountings of the massacres of the peasants at El Mozote and elsewhere. Fuentes’s excursions into the incantatory suggest that the novels of William Faulkner may have had mixed effects on certain South and Central American writers.

How troubling to realize that the author of “Happy Families” is the same one whose novel “The Death of Artemio Cruz” was suffused with so much complicated humanity. Perhaps what’s most troubling about the new book is that we are so often made aware of what can only be a gap between intention and execution, between Fuentes’s apparent desire to inspire empathy for his characters and the way we’re made to feel contempt and even repulsion for these inadequate fathers, aging wives, oppressed peasants and philandering husbands, for the decrepitude of the old and the impotence of the helpless. Too often, the construction of the plots and the rendering of the characters seem simply inattentive or lazy, and there are hints of the telenovela, though not, it would seem, deliberate ones.

So we come full circle to Tolstoy, who also wound up doing something different from what he’d intended, though he took the opposite route. If Fuentes makes us impatient with those we’re supposed to support, Tolstoy set out to condemn his adulterous heroine and ended up being swept away — and sweeping away his readers — in a torrential compassion for the sinners and the sinned against, for every family, happy and unhappy alike.

Obviously, it’s unfair to measure Fuentes against Tolstoy. But if you’re worried about your next novel being compared with Melville’s, think twice before calling it “Moby-Dick.”Ultimately, though, none of that matters very much. The problem with “Happy Families” is neither its title nor the fact that it isn’t by Tolstoy. The problem is that we sense these stories are getting something wrong. And that makes us question how much energy Fuentes has put into creating a world, real or imaginary, that we can believe in.

Original Review in New York Times

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