Monday, December 31, 2012
Long Goodbyes: Ben Tanzer's "My Father's House"
In my work for Instafiction/Longform Fiction, it's gratifying to note the writers I admire whom I had no introduction to prior to my research. Some of these favorites are due to selections by my partner--Jeremy is responsible for my knowledge and subsequent love of Lindsay Hunter, Blake Butler, and Roxane Gay, to name a few, but I was happy to stumble upon the likes of David Yost, Amber Sparks, and, the focus of this post, Ben Tanzer. Tanzer is based in Chicago, and when I read his 2005 story "The Gift," I made a mental note to return to his stories and other writings. He's been very prolific over the years, appearing in tiny, independent journals and serving as a Writer-in-Residence for bigger publications (he recently did that stint for Necessary Fiction). I picked up a copy of his 2011 novella My Father's House with no knowledge of the plot or how it could potentially reflect the handful of stories of his I've read. As I made my way through the book, I was reminded of an idea I haven't mentioned in quite some time. I usually do my best to make connections (tangible or intangible) between different texts and authors, or between different books by the same writer. In a loose, roundabout way, I kept thinking back to Meghan O'Rourke's The Long Goodbye, and, at least in my mind, I feel My Father's House is a sort of fictional mirror to O'Rourke's non-fiction work. In different ways, both works explore grief, the loss of a parent, and the subsequent activities of the narrator in fresh, unexpected, and intentionally unsentimental fashions.
The narrator of My Father's House is referred to by his first name once or twice, but is best referred to by the title rather than a name. After his father is diagnosed with cancer, his life becomes a revolving series of moments: internal thoughts while running along Chicago's lakefront; cross-country travels while his father seeks out new doctors and treatments; "unofficial" therapy sessions at a local bar, with some unexpected/unsavory reflections on his personality; complex, detailed conversations with his wife; and his work at a drop-in center for homeless addicts. As I mentioned before, the narrator is emotional without veering into needlessly sentimental ruminations. As the novella unfolds, the actions and happenings themselves are strong enough to stand on their own without any added emotions. This is evident from the very beginning. The work is established with clinical details, and Tanzer is smart enough to let the reader determine his or her own emotional involvement in the proceedings.
"I don't remember how this started exactly.
I know it was 1999 and I know that my father had a seizure. I know his blood didn't look right. And that there was something going on with his bone marrow that looked to be pre-cancerous, but needed to be confirmed with a genetic test.
I also know it turned out that he has myelodisplasia, a rare form of bone cancer that causes immature bone marrow cells to explode before reaching maturity; that these explosions are known as blasts and without treatment these blasts are going to escalate until he has full-blown Leukemia.....
My mom says people can walk in to see a doctor, hear they have this disease and die three months later. Of course, she also says that people who get bone marrow transplants can live five more healthy years (Tanzer 1)."
I know nothing about Tanzer's personal life, so I'm not going to assume this novel is autobiographical, but the sheer force of the clinical details feels like the proceedings are being explained by someone in the shock of realization. There's no denial, no acceptance, no rage, but a matter-of-fact, almost terse setting of where the work begins, but with no hint as to where it will end up going. As the story progresses, sadness and memories do come into play, but with no embellishments or ploys. The narrator does end up working through stages of grief, but not in any grand sense. He's cognizant of his mental state, and as he works through toward the end of his father's life, there's so much more he has to tackle beyond the imminent loss.
"'Yeah,' she says putting the book down and looking at me, 'I noticed that, but then again, you never have cried much.'
Which is true, I never liked crying, and I always thought I was above feeling anything that strongly, but I've changed, haven't I. You should have seen me at the end of the movie Affliction, I cried so hard I couldn't breathe. And yet, the tears don't come. Not when my heart feels heavy, nor, when I find myself pursing my lips or when my eyes start to brim with tears while looking at some dumb greeting card or just contemplating the what-ifs.
It might be denial of course. I am clearly not allowing myself to deal with this. Or it could be the surreal nature of this whole thing. I mean what exactly is going on? How did it happen? When did it happen? I don't care what the facts are (Tanzer 16)."
The narrator does deal with things, but in odd fashions that provide a crucial theme to the novel. He ends up cheating on his wife multiple times with the same woman, and at first, he tries to use the excuse of his mental state and stress.
"She's leaning in to talk and touching my leg, and she has long brown hair and a big smile, and I know I shouldn't do this, but tonight I deserve to act out and not act like myself, just once, don't I? How could anyone call me on this?
I'm in pain. I've got a dying father and this girl has something to offer, something almost medicinal, and it's okay then, okay, okay, okay, something I keep telling myself as we have sex in the backseat of her car, legs everywhere, and then I walk back to my father's house, stopping long enough to shower once there before climbing into bed with Kerri and drifting off to sleep, drunk and restless (Tanzer 29)."
He knows what he's doing is wrong, and one gets the feeling that his excuses are merely that--it's an easy card to play. What I get from Tanzer's prose is the understanding that human frailty and bad decisions are parts of life that don't stop when faced with loss and dramatic changes. To be blunt, the narrator can be an asshole at times. But this is rendered very realistically. There are no dramatic realizations, no overt confrontations, and most importantly, no apologies on the part of the author. Perhaps the narrator wouldn't give into his impulses if not faced with his father's demise, but his faults march on even when the reader should be giving him sympathy. He's not completely without redeeming qualities. While he notes his attraction to his therapist, there's the implied realization that he's attempting to sort through his problems, even if the therapy sessions intentionally leave us with more questions than closures.
Tanzer also provides some unexpected detours into the sociology of death and the reactions it garners. The narrator makes comparisons between his father's looming death and the news coverage of the death of John F. Kennedy, Jr. Of course the deaths of famous people receive more coverage than everyday citizens, but when these differences are explored in the text, they provide for some curious explorations of how public and private grief are such different animals.
"Of course, it has nothing to do with what he has done, but who he is. JFK, Jr. is a rock star. No, he's more than that, and he's more than a celebrity. Maybe he's even royalty. Well, no matter what he is, he will always be the little boy saluting his dead father. So yeah, I know why he's getting all of this attention, and maybe, maybe even why he's being called a hero, but it doesn't change the fact that my father who is likely to die sometime soon won't receive anything remotely similar.
Is JFK Jr. a bigger hero than my father? I don't know if either of them are heroes, but one of them has the dead father, and the assassinated uncle, and the endless family history of pain, and so somehow his loss is more tragic. The thing is, even as we lie here in our air-conditioned hotel room, trying to protect my dad from whatever horrible things lurk outside I just don't know what's going to happen or if it even matters (Tanzer 21-22)."
The fact that my review is focused more on the surrounding events rather than the main plot line shows how My Father's House provides a complex exploration of such a common life event. Some of the happenings in the work were well written, but didn't speak to me. The narrator deals with a series of confrontations with the jealous boyfriend of a woman in his care, which leads to a mutual understanding between the two men about the nature of honesty and perceptions. These sections of the plot are just another stress dealt with by the narrator, but I didn't find them as compelling as his other ways of acting out and dealing with his upheaval. Again, I don't want to make any assumptions of autobiographical undertones, but some of the scenarios feel just specific enough for me to wonder. I'm not implying that there are "throwaway" sections in such a slim work, but I simply found more value in the other chapters. Tanzer provides meticulous details of hospitals, the physiology of his father's disease, and the variety of treatments, but I was more drawn to the psychological impulses of the narrator. The medical side of the book provides realistic material in a work that is just as realistic in its fictional depictions of how we deal with grief. Returning to The Long Goodbye, the similarities I found between Tanzer and O'Rourke were thematic rather than literal. O'Rourke's biographical examinations of her mother's death also contained references to running, sexuality, and the trials of everyday life continuing in the face of such a monumental occurrence. Tanzer's fiction is a little more emphatic on the narrator's shortcomings, whereas O'Rourke grapples more with her guilt and pain. But both works are two touching, literary additions to writings about death, which will never stop being written and will always highlight such universal and unique reactions.
I genuinely don't like ending this review on a criticism that might seem trivial, but it's more an act of tough love due to my support of independent publishing. My Father's House was published by Main Street Rag, a publishing company based in North Carolina. The passages cited above are done word for word, and there are occasional, slight typos throughout the work. Independent publishing is quite often a labor of love, since most small houses don't have the recognition and advertising power of the bigger publishing companies--their strength is the art of the writers, and I found it disheartening to note a handful of typographical mistakes. Am I being picky? Perhaps, but these mistakes jumped out at me in an otherwise worthwhile reading experience. Have I made my own typos and mistakes in my own writings? Of course. But when a publisher has a chance to put out a work by a respected writer, there should be more of an emphasis on editing, even when pressed for time and resources. I bring this up because I've read Tanzer's work in other publications without issue. I'm not at all doubting or picking on the people behind Main Street Rag, but these small details are important to me.
And on a final, happier note: Happy New Year. I'm looking forward to reading, reviewing, and promoting more writers and independent publishers in 2013. Thanks for reading this blog, and here's to a productive, enlightening, and creative new year.
Tanzer, Ben. My Father's House. Copyright 2011 by Ben Tanzer.