Friday, August 10, 2012

Family Matters

Jump the Devil, fiction by Richard Rathwell
8th House Publishing, 2012

“There is no doubt that it is around the family and the home that all the greatest virtues, the most dominating virtues of human society, are created, strengthened and maintained,” observed Sir Winston Churchill.

I take the opposite view. Families are torture chambers in which one’s potentials are ignored, mocked, and killed. Our parents foster those qualities that help us adapt, stifle those that lead us astray. They want us to be quick and smart and conform to society’s standards so that we will have the skillsets necessary to score good, high-paying jobs and get out of the house so that they don’t have to feed and shelter us anymore. Our siblings want us dead so that they can get all the attention. Fathers turn into King Lears, constantly demanding proofs of our love and gratitude. Mothers turn into emotional blackmailers. Siblings turn into shrewd and tireless competitors. We turn into neurotic exiles, forever trying to return to a home that never existed.

Ok, I’m playing devil’s advocate here. My family life wasn’t nearly all that bad. Few are (I hope). The truth is probably a combination of both views, and we all have vastly different experiences with family life growing up. But whatever our particular experience happened to be, and the many complex shades of conflict and harmony in which we initially drew nourishment and evolved into the people we are now, that labyrinthine domestic entanglement that is the family is our first taste of social reality. It only makes sense, then, to make stories about it. Which is what Richard Rathwell has done.

Jump the Devil is a collection of five stories, three of which deal specifically with family life. The other two touch on issues that have a familial edge.

“Crawl Space” chronicles the relationship between a father named Virgil and his adult daughter, Maureen. Virgil has become deaf and has “disability ears.” He was on assignment for a peacekeeping force, enjoying a glass of whiskey with a sergeant, when a bomb blast injured his hearing. He has been compensated and lives at home, where he is periodically checked on by the social services. His mental condition does not appear to be good, and it is remarked, at least by his wife Beatrice, that he has been getting “crazy in the head,” but his comportment within the story appears to be gentle and retiring. His wife is a harridan who obsesses over maintaining an appearance of normalcy, and respectability. Virgil just wants to be left alone in his crawl space. Maureen, who comes regularly to visit, despite open hostility between she and her mother, is a godsend, helping her father make applications “for every possible entitlement.” “She got clothing allowances, dental work, food vouchers, everything going. She made it all exciting, like a game.”

The crawl space - “used originally for an iron boiler, now defunct” - is a place of refuge. “It was a unique thing to this house. It was one of a kind. The house was built on the edge of a rock left by a glacier. That is why the crawl space. Virgil loved the idea of that.” Virgil is encouraged to keep a journal, ostensibly as a mental health exercise. “The rock was clean and cold. It had a flat space. It was perfect for writing the journal on.”

Virgil keeps a mysterious object in the crawl space called a “skin bag,” whose contents remain inscrutable throughout the story. One thinks of this place as a sanctuary for the imagination. The mother weirdly associates the skin bag with her daughter. “His wife believed the bag in the crawl space was the last straw to be tolerated of Maureen’s wickedness. Maureen had always been a bad child.” Beatrice is clearly a bitch. Maureen is angelic. The dynamic among these three personages is what drives the narrative, which is written in a style of exquisite simplicity, somewhat reminiscent of Richard Brautigan’s droll constructions in Revenge of the Lawn, or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. For instance, Rathwell’s description of Virgil’s penchant for storage is rendered with simple, delicate charm:

Virgil had always been very diligent about storage. He was proud of that and the way he used space. Unused things had been arranged around the rock in layers, each one labeled on a tape. They could be used later. At one time, the stored items were so numerous the rock was obscured. Virgil could hardly get through the half door. In the dark the piles of boxes looked like people. Sometimes he could see their faces.

“Christmas Tree Hill” concerns a family living in (I’m guessing) London. The story is told from the point of view of the mother, who remains nameless, is married to an aging husband she refers to as “Dad,” and owns a mobility scooter, they type of contraption old people use for getting around, and which seems to have the equivalency of Virgil’s crawl space, serving as a vehicle of escape from family dysfunctionality. The main protagonist has the wonderful name Woozer, and appears to be the narrator’s son-in-law, married to her recently deceased daughter, Mo. It is Woozer who has tinkered with the scooter and given it a little added horsepower, and providing several other enhancements that appear a bit dubious, as far as safety is concerned. He has, in fact, assumed control of the household finances, phoning “every month with new ideas” for refurbishing the house, buying materials (although he has inherited a hundred thousand from the death of his wife, Mo) from the couple’s savings. There is also a son named Jack, who “became terrible later with bad behaviour, deceit and lies. He would say dreadful things about everything and everyone, including his own family.”

Nothing is resolved in this story, but the implication of the final paragraph is less than auspicious: “We should all reach the crossroads at the same time.” Woozer in the “snappy car Dad loaned him some money for,” accompanied by either of two new lovers, and the mother-in-law on her scooter, crackling “black smoke and sparks to heaven.”

“The Biting of Doctor Condor” involves a bite of indeterminate origin. It could be a scorpion or burrowing jigger. It might, in fact, be more than one bite. Bites. The resulting fever manifests itself “as a sudden displacement into a vast room with throbbing, retreating walls. There was a constant disembodied, echoing noise of coursing blood. The room darkened. The air misted. The ceiling inflated into a dome at a great speed. The bed shrank suddenly into an earthy plot of white flowers. As he [Doctor Condor] shrank, his leg hairs closed into a net of metal mesh tightening around his knee joints.”

Doctor Condor, whose real name is Jack Cantor, is in central Africa working for a health agency. He is in love with his assistant, a native inhabitant named Alice. His love is unrequited. Alice, in fact, hates him, “cursing his monkey’s balls.” She hates all foreigners. “She would never stop hating them. She would teach her children to hate his children.” The only reason Alice cooperates, and has sex with the doctor, is his promise to build a hospital for her people. It is an old, familiar story. What is fascinating is the way Rathwell links his descriptions of the fever, which are marvelous, with the passions of unrequited love.

“Tina’s Style” concerns a young immigrant woman and her visiting Muslim family in London during New Year’s Eve. Her best friend, a young, stylish woman named Hannah, favors clothing fashioned by people like Stella McCartney. Tina wears a party dress (“a simple, thin, red thing”) under a burka during her parent’s visit. Her brother Abe wears a “silly suicide vest.”

Poofear and Refluff concerns a private networking community with a fantastic array of usernames: Godbottom, Sandscream, Philopeace, Swordofrighteous, MisterSing, and Doctorsrus. A revolution appears to be in the making, and one thinks of the chaos in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring of 2011. The story is, in fact, set in Egypt, and hints of its background add a flavorful dimension to the irreality of the social networking pool:

Sometimes a jeep or motorcycle roared by on the road to Cairo, or something else, a cry might break the quiet. When that happened, sleeping ibis birds were disturbed from where they waded. They spun around on their thin, tall stems, wings flapping, feet stomping, racing to get up speed towards flight. In the midst of scattered white flowers they rose in great arcs. Water rats squeaked alarm from the reeds.

Rathwell has also added an “Author’s Note” to this collection, which I’m not sure was entirely necessary, as the stories are strong enough on their own not to require an explanation regarding their genesis and structure, but the essay has a certain intrinsic value, firstly as a piece of reflective writing on narration in general, and how it comes to associate language with memory and senses and to “create empathetic reactions,” and as a prose aperitif at the end of a five-course meal.

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