The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg
November 22, 2012 § 3 Comments
In the last couple of weeks I’ve read my favourite book of 2012 (Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods) and been admonished about lazy reading by a great writer (not personally; I read Steven Heighton’s excellent Workbook). So feel sorry, then, for Jami Attenberg, whose novel was the first I read after that literary double whammy.
Luckily for all concerned, Attenberg is a good writer. Her new novel The Middlesteins tells the story of Edie Middlestein, a plump child who is now an exceedingly obese woman about to have surgery for the second time to keep her alive. Despite knowing that she’s killing herself with food, Edie can’t stop eating. Her husband, Richard, no longer able to live with this fact—that his wife is prepared to die rather than face a life without constantly shovelling in the food—abandons her at the start of the book, leaving more responsibility on the shoulders of Edie’s children, Robin and Ben, or more precisely Ben’s wife, Rachelle.
Ben, Robin and Rachelle have all the usual problems of middle-class Americans their age. Children and spouses for some; lack of same for the others. Their kids are acting up. Their parents are acting up. Their jobs are going nowhere, they’re incapable of fulfilling their promise, they can’t seem to grasp the reality that this life is not a dress rehearsal. We know how they feel; it’s all quite familiar.
This familiarity is something of a problem (does the novel feel too much like something we’ve already read, even as it’s particular subject is different?) as well as perhaps guaranteeing The Middlesteins some success. Jonathan Franzen blurbed the novel, and Attenberg describes writing the book as having a conversation with The Corrections. The similarities are obvious: vaguely dysfunctional family life in the suburban mid-West, ungrateful and uncomprehending adult children who have moved away, but who nonetheless inhabit a small world that is mostly comprised of interactions with family members and a few others, usually chorus-type characters (synagogue attendees, for example).
A strong feature of The Middlesteins is how the parents wrest back some of the control from these children who can’t, and definitely won’t, understand them. Edie and Richard have much more sense of self than The Corrections’ Enid and Alfred, who were confused by the modern world and cowed by authority. Edie was a very competent lawyer before being forcibly retired because of her size, and we see her going through some of the same existential crises (early promise fading to mediocrity) that are usually ascribed to the generation below her. Richard stumbles for a time into the stereotypical world of a newly single older man in a novel, but quickly finds his feet and becomes more interesting, less slapstick.
The novel is described several times on the cover as funny, hilarious, humorous. I can sort of see it: it’s full of the sort of sly, knowing writing that has become almost obligatory for a literary domestic novel, particularly the type that deals with love and death in families. It gives a little distance and makes the reader more comfortable than something more earnest. But do we really want our writers to be funny like this (and I’m not sure it is actually funny. Arch isn’t the right word either, but it’s closer) about everything, all the time? I’m not trying to bring up the old debate about whether humour can or should be used for weighty matters, I’m simply wondering whether this blasé-morbid voice (usually described with words like “searingly honest”) has become automatic for a certain kind of literary writer. Attenberg’s good at it, but is she really doing herself justice? I think the book deserves to sell well, but I also think she has much more potential than this voice allows her. With The Middlesteins she’s been adventurous in subject matter and the way she depicts her older characters. With the next one, I hope she’ll take a huge leap into the unknown and do something really exciting with language.