Can you teach an old form new tricks?
“Why are we like this?” the daughter screams several minutes into Will Eno’s play The Open House. The question sits between a pair of tense silences, the sort that are standard in that dramatic subgenre best known for fetishizing dysfunction: the family play. A nervy mother and a dastardly patriarch enact the chewed-up end of a long-suffering marriage; their grown children lunge at genuine connection; a neglected, ghostly uncle hovers on the periphery. If this seems like something you’ve seen before, it probably is.
But The Open House renders these tropes only to dismantle them. For Eno, to consider the family play is to consider the family itself, and to consider the family is to consider the body, wellspring of kin—birth parents, blood siblings, shared DNA. Family is not “what you make of it,” but rather what has made us already; our bodies are the case in point. In this sense, a house is the body a family shares, and when the lights come up on this one, everybody in Eno’s house seems painfully misplaced. The adult son and daughter slump like grade-schoolers. Mom and Dad glare in deep expectancy of death. Everyone is motionless for a long, silent opening, as if they had just been lightly anesthetized or were terrified of coming into any sort of contact with their kin. The moment passes. The pain begins.
Pain—both physical and emotional—comes on suddenly and constantly in this single-act play. Unprovoked, the uncle yells, “Ouch. Splinter,” though he has hardly moved for several minutes. “But, you know, old house, splintery banisters,” he concedes, all too familiar with the routine. “No one to blame but myself.” Later there are sudden leg cramps, an aching wrist, maddeningly dry cuticles. The daughter confesses that a mysterious bump has recently been found either on or near her spine. Her family reacts in a diffused, baffled way—as if asking to be soothed had long ago been banned and no one wants to call out her transgression. “It doesn’t sound that serious,” the father says. “I’m holding you,” the mother offers, withholding concern. When the daughter asks what her mother even means by that, the father explains that it’s something people say “without actually having to hold the person.”
As dialogue moves on to more pressing concerns, like car batteries and a lawn mower repair shop, the bewildered daughter goes to the grocery store, beginning the first in a series of transformations: as the stock family members exit one by one, each actor returns in a new role. The daughter is reborn as a real estate agent, the uncle as a prospective buyer, the son as a contractor, and so on. Only two of the new characters are family: a sister and brother, though he’s also her lawyer. This flick of Eno’s wrist is a relief to both the audience and the actors, and in the premier 2014 production, at the Signature Theatre in New York City, the actors proved a gift to the script: with only a costume change and a few minutes backstage, they leaped into drastically new forms. The static blocking of the play’s first half became dynamic and lively. The new characters, brash and limber, admit their weaknesses, call out the father’s bad behavior, eat doughnuts, laugh with and soothe one another. They even force the house itself to transform, throwing back curtains and tearing off flaps of wallpaper.
The contrast between the two sets of characters seems to ask this question: as the contemporary family undergoes redefinition, why should the family drama concern itself with such a narrow purview? Blood families are hostage situations, a group of people yoked together by the circumstances of their birth; in contrast, these new characters ally themselves by choice, literally—physically—deconstructing the set. The Open House seems to suggest that the audience for the family play outgrew the family play long ago, and that playwrights can, perhaps should, divorce themselves from the form they inherited. The trope characters remain offstage, their fates in limbo, as the house itself is bought, sold, and renovated.
We open on a family dinner. The children are mopping up pasta sauce with bread, dropping cutlery, being kids. “Don’t dribble! Don’t slobber!” grumbles the father. “I can’t take you lot anywhere!” This is how we meet the Levis, a Jewish Italian family living in Turin during the tense years between the world wars. Mussolini is growing in power and influence. Fascists are building ties with Nazis. The antifascist Levis are in for trouble. Yet from the very first page of Natalia Ginzburg’s memoir, Family Lexicon, we’re caught off guard not by horror or heartbreak but by an oddly televisual familiarity. We might as well be watching a young Darlene and Becky bicker about bra-stuffing in Roseanne’s kitchen, or listening as Will Smith drums away on the glassware at the Banks family table, or cringing as Monica Geller suffers through a dinner of cooking critiques from her mother.
That sitcoms come readily to mind when reading Family Lexicon doesn’t reflect poorly on the book, which plumbs depths not instinctively cued by a Friends reference. More literary comparisons exist—there are definitely dinner-table arguments in Tolstoy—but while family squabbles feature prominently in Ginzburg’s book, they don’t distinguish it. Rather, the language in those squabbles, the way these interactions knit a family together over time, carries the most significance. No matter how far apart she and her siblings have moved from one another or what has happened to them since they last spoke, Ginzburg writes, “all it takes is for one of us to say, ‘We haven’t come to Bergamo on a military campaign,’ or ‘Sulphuric acid stinks of fart,’ and we immediately fall back into our old relationships, our childhood, our youth, all inextricably linked to those words and phrases.”
I believe all families have a language like this, though it’s often so habitual that it’s easier to notice while observing someone else’s. When I spend time with my husband’s family, I’m almost guaranteed to hear references such as “Just put it on the mesa” or “Uh… blue folder?” These phrases are nonsense to outsiders, but just uttering or understanding them reaffirms my citizenship in the family unit—which is, after all, the first community that human beings know.
Network television has long relied on a similar kind of understanding as a strategy to connect viewers with characters, to the point that we associate the word catchphrase with television. “Come TV with us,” says a current Hulu commercial that cobbles together thirty seconds of well-worn quotations: “D’oh!”; “Hello, Newman”; “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!” This shared language is how we come to know sitcom characters, and how we imprint onto their world a feeling of familiarity and safety (hence the term comfort TV). If you’ve ever watched Family Matters, you only have to hear the phrase “Did I do that?” to be transported into the Winslow family living room; you only have to hear the same phrase from a fellow fan to establish a connection.
You either get it or you don’t, is the point, and when times are tough, that intermingled sense of belonging and normality grows more valuable. In Family Lexicon, as one brother goes to jail, another is exiled to France, and Ginzburg’s father is sent to work in Belgium, the remaining family members double down on their lingua franca. They don’t just lean into old phrases; they also invent new ones that further bind them to one another. “I’ll eat very little. A soup, a chop, one piece of fruit,” Ginzburg’s mother says each day, creating a catchphrase out of her self-imposed austerity program, then another out of her inability to stick with it: “Who knows why I like to spend money so much.” It’s the details that Natalia homes in on, as when she reports that her mother continues to buy a certain kind of apple, carpandues, for the pleasure of being able to say “carpandues.”
It may seem light, flippant, to put such a tight focus on a delightfully named apple varietal when the world around you is imploding. But Ginzburg’s focus is always on the small and domestic, the borderline silly, no matter what else is happening. In the words of her friend the critic Cesare Garboli, hers was “the suffering of someone who doesn’t feel suddenly different about the world.” There was tragedy in her life, but it wasn’t life-changing, at least not in a transformative, phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes way. Through it all, she was herself.
She explores this discrepancy in her writing, but not in the way many writers would. Tolstoy takes the small and explodes it, morphing a newspaper blurb read over coffee into a tome about the nature of love, parenting, and religion; his style is cinematic—you never have to search for the context that imbues the apples and the squabbles with meaning. But Ginzburg doesn’t seek to make sense of life by spinning it into a recognizable narrative, tragedy or romance or hero’s journey. She does the opposite, plucking tiny words and moments from the wreckage of the war, fascism, and family tragedy that defined the first thirty years of her life, then weaving these small treasures into something comforting. She’s a magpie on the battlefield.
Practically speaking, this means you have to read quite a bit of Ginzburg to really understand what’s going on—much as you can’t watch one episode of the original Roseanne and understand everything it’s communicating about class, or catch a clip of Fresh off the Boat and grasp the entire immigrant experience. Like a sitcom betting on renewal, she’s in it for the long game, which can be discombobulating in the realm of literary autobiography. In her essay “My Psychoanalysis,” the most personal thing she reveals to her analyst—and thus to the reader—is that she never learned to fold blankets properly. It’s a silly essay, with just one or two moments of undefined heartache that escape, as critic Gabriele Annan puts it, “through clenched teeth.” The onus is on the reader to explore Ginzburg’s other work and put together the pieces—to discover, for instance, that she sought out analysis only after her husband had been executed for antifascist activity.
Family Lexicon is perhaps the most transparent of Ginzburg’s autobiographical works, telling us more about her tragedies than any of her essays do, but without sacrificing her humor and delicacy. We learn about her husband’s arrest and subsequent disappearance by watching her and her kids move back in with her parents. Bored and craving luxury, her brother would declare, “Let’s go eat snails!” Her mother didn’t like snails, so she stayed home to watch TV; her father thought TV was “nitwittery.” Her mother spoke of the Parisini blouses she bought in the same way she once spoke of carpandues. Everything had changed, and at the same time nothing had changed. Instead of attempting to reconcile these opposing truths through a grand narrative, Ginzburg lets them coexist through her focus on the small details. Terrible things happen but somehow we keep living, keep getting up and brushing our teeth. It is in this very living, her writing suggests—in our habits and routines and catchphrases, in our focus on “nitwittery” even during an air raid—that we might find the strength to go on.
1. Jenny McPhee’s translation.
2. Louise Quirke’s translation.
Left (behind) coast
I have a friend who spent some time in a polyamorous relationship. She lived and slept with a married couple. Their children commingled. They all painted the kitchen together. There might have been another man involved: I’m forever trying to get the details straight. It seems to have been a loving enough arrangement, until the wife decided she wanted her husband back, and things fell apart. My friend was left hurt and homeless.
If the modern family has anything to offer us, it should be a place where we’re granted a home, and where hurting one another isn’t tolerated. But kitchen-table issues arise when we try to figure out how much individual agency each member is allowed within the framework. Where is the line between membership in good standing and having your privileges revoked?
Shelley Stone, the primary concern of Elisabeth Cohen’s debut novel, The Glitch, is nothing if not a tester of lines. She’s the CEO of a Silicon Valley tech firm that hopes everyone will wear its Conch device, “situationally aware technology” that fits behind the ear. When you start your car, the Conch says things like “For a scenic drive that avoids traffic hassles, head northwest on A-2 toward Esparreguera.” Shelley is also the wife of Rafael and the mother of two, but her family operates as more of an accessory to the centerpiece of her overall achievement. She fantasizes about a day when meals are in tubes; insists that her four-year-old, Nova, work on her Mandarin; and is less nervous giving keynotes at conferences than changing her clothes in a locker room. No one is better at picking up corporate slack:
I added some vibrant insights to the directors’ call, pushed back against a subordinate’s idea, assigned some deliverables, clarified the next steps, and then clicked off, stumbled back in, dropped the robes on the floor, and climbed into our palatial bed.
Shelley’s ambition is her superpower, but it also makes her a woman with few friends, and a kind of absentee mother even when she’s physically present. It’s easy to link her parental detachment to our own era of Conch-like devices, but individual thinking has been around at least since we’ve been allowed private lives. Austen’s Emma clearly has her own ideas. Hamlet operates, on one level, as an ode to insularity while one’s house spins out of control. Even the Buddha had to escape his son to find enlightenment. By comparison, Shelley seems almost exemplary. She’s trying to do big things here. Someone else can change the diapers.
Rafael is the one who raises the red flag about the way they live, prompted by Nova’s brief but scary kidnapping. We expect a parent to freak out when her child is abducted, but Shelley has a hard time pulling away from a business call to focus on the search. In a great moment, Cohen renders her protagonist’s skewed moral compass while allowing the rest of us a front-row view of her equivocation:
Hang up the goddamn phone, a voice in my head said. It sounded remarkably like my own in a managerial moment. I countered: If I don’t find her in sixty seconds, I’ll say there’s a problem I have to deal with and I’ll call him right back. I’ll say I’m up against a hard stop. No, new approach, even better—I’ll say I can’t hear him, that my connection is breaking up.
Despite her drive, Shelley has the kind of inner life that suggests an ability to eventually choose her children over shareholders: breaking the rules is exactly the impetus to get her back on the straight and narrow.
Elliot, a parent of an entirely different stripe in Andrew Valencia’s Lord of California, is more the impulsive type. He’s prospered in a futuristic California by setting up farms in five different counties, each with its own foreman, crop, and wife. One could imagine a comedic tale following Elliot as he tries to keep his separate family lives from crumbling upon him, but this novel starts after Elliot’s death leaves his five deceived brides and thirteen children to deal with the fallout of his recklessness. “I’d been waiting for one of [the mothers] to set me straight, but now I was starting to get it,” reflects his teenage daughter Ellie. “They could smile and talk over a plate of barbecue, but they were every bit as lost as me.”
A central tenet of dealing healthily with mistakes is admitting them quickly and directly. Hiding them only grants them power. Elliot is the kind of person who manages to harness the power of his mistakes and jujitsu it to his benefit—not an unheard-of trick, turning that which should be shameful into personal capital without consideration for how it might harm everyone else. (If only a modern-day analog came to mind.)
A parent who can acquire land has value, but there’s so much more required of the role. Once the farms were platted, each of his households might have been better off had Elliot just moved on. His oldest son—also named Elliot—seems to have suffered the most from his father’s presence, such as when the old man took him out to a bar at eighteen:
I watched Dad raise the glass and sip the lukewarm bourbon. He didn’t react to the taste beyond a few gentle smacks of his lips. His eyes weren’t even on me, and yet I felt compelled to compose myself in the same way, as though I had been drinking hard alcohol every day of my life for years.
No doubt Elliot père thinks he’s offering his kid something special by taking him out for his first drink, but future events prove the egregiousness with which the father misses the mark. Karl Ove Knausgaard claims, in My Struggle, to have one goal as a parent: for his kids not to be afraid of their father. Elliot actually relies on his children’s fear as leverage in the battle to maintain his chosen life. But so much bad faith must eventually come home to roost.
Unlike Shelley, who challenges the family dynamic from within, Elliot seems to have the capacity only to break in, exploit, leave. It’s no surprise that he forgoes conventional life in favor of seemingly more amenable rubrics: there’s nothing more human than wanting to make our family accommodate every aspect of our souls. Such adjustments offer the sense that we’ve managed to escape our destinies, if only for a moment.
That which has been unveiled
“To Chloë: it is work to understand who we are and how we have been made.”
This is the beginning of a note I scribbled in my journal in early February 2018, after reflecting on a post, from Chloë Bass’s Obligation to Others Holds Me in My Place, that reads:
The way I see it, being Jewish is not antithetical to being Black, but rather an aspect of it. If I am able to hold the recent effects of one genocide with sensitivity and care, this should help me hold two. As a person, I am always better in dialogue.
“These days,” my response continues, “it feels as if everything I write is about my family, even when I am trying not to write about my family. This is because I have spent so much time not trying to write about my family when I should have written about my family.”
Bass has presented me with an opportunity to confront myself. Obligation to Others, part of her 2018 digital residency for the New York City artist workspace Recess, is organized as a research project, the third phase of an intimacy inquiry that has scaled outward from the self, beginning with The Bureau of Self-Recognition, in 2011, and The Book of Everyday Instruction, in 2015. Mining the places and people and things most familiar to us, Bass creates performances and installations designed for no one in particular—to steal a phrase from the artist herself—yet meant for everyone. In Obligation to Others, she renders public the preparations for what will become a film that looks closely at the structure of mixed-race families in America, deliberately troubling the myths we tell ourselves about American racial progress.
Within the structure of the residency, which posts artifacts from the artist’s process at a set interval over a twelve-month period, Bass has chosen to share weekly texts and images that speak both to the historical frameworks that have dictated the legality of interracial romantic relationships and to the anecdotal narratives of interracial families—the project looks specifically at biologically related families—from a myriad of backgrounds. In some instances the texts are written by Bass, herself a mixed-race black woman, and the images are pulled from her personal archive; in other moments, she shares article clippings, magazine covers, and other archival materials that trace the origins of our inherited vocabulary of mixed-raceness, discuss racial demographic shifts within the U.S., or gather stories of individuals contending with their own interracial identities. May 21, 2018’s post is the cover of Time from November 18, 1993, featuring the face of a racially ambiguous woman wearing a slight smile. “Take a look at this woman,” the cover copy reads. “She was created by a computer from a mix of several races. What you see is a remarkable preview of… The New Face of America.” May 31’s entry is a collage of portraits of interracial families from various backgrounds, photographed in their homes by the artist CYJO. Aside from her own writing, Bass offers no didactics to accompany the found materials she culls. But taken collectively, the materials have begun to congeal as their own sort of family album (the film will take on the format of a home video) that will continue to unfold throughout the remainder of the year.
In September 2017, before Bass began her residency, I wrote her a letter that closed with the following lines: “and so, here is fragility in a story of which I had always been so certain. Here is the beginning of a different type of investigation.” I was responding to a letter Bass had sent me earlier that summer attempting to unpack, or rather make a place for nuance in, as she put it, the “mystery that strangers find in my face.” This was after Bass and I, having found ourselves thinking in dialogue about our families, both decided to take DNA tests—a decision that was, in hindsight, more fraught for matters of surveillance than for what might be genetically “revealed.”
“Remind Grandma to take the test too” is another note I left myself in response to Bass’s post from February 10, 2018, an excerpt specifically about biracial black people with one white parent. As I had told Bass, I wanted to hear my grandmother talk more about her white father, so I asked her to take the test with me. We have never talked much about her mixed heritage, my grandmother and I. “If you are a biracial black woman who came of age before Loving v. Virginia,” my reminder continues, “how do you make sense of the fact that your very presence was a troubling of sorts?” The DNA test was less about discovery—in my family, her racial identity has always been a thing not discussed—than an attempt to find a neutral ground from which we might unveil a story hiding in plain sight.
Floating around us is the allure of the promise of post-racialism that white liberalism loves to embrace: Didn’t we elect Barack H. Obama president? Wasn’t he black? Wasn’t he a mixed-race black man? Look at what at this nation can do, what it is becoming. Bass calls its bluff, pointing toward the declarations of white nationalism sweeping the nation, the fruition of the “threat” from which early miscegenation laws were created to “save” whiteness. As our country becomes less white, it only becomes more dangerous to assume post-racialism will save us, that it is even a possibility. Haven’t we always been more complicated? Bass asks. What do we miss if we don’t attempt to see beyond the statistics and platitudes?
And what, then, do we do with that which has been unveiled? Racial categories are nebulous; the material consequences of how one is racialized are not. What can we learn from looking at what is right in front of us instead of what we imagine to be around us? I feel obligated to tend to it all. This is what it means to be a person in a family, trying to make sense of our world. This is the potency of Bass’s project: the message that it is OK to peer at ourselves in order to gather those lessons. What better place to start than with the people who have made us?