Monday, July 23, 2012

Flesh and blood

Michael Cunningham's novel follows, episodically by year, three generations of a Greek-Italian family from the 1940s into the future.

Constantine, the would be patriarch, is a poor immigrant who makes good building fancy but sub-standard housing (there is a metaphor for the modern world there). His wife, Mary, stays at home, making home and elaborate cakes, for her three children - Susan, Billy and Zoe.

Susan marries an aspiring lawyer and politician out of high school. Billy, who becomes Will, is gay and becomes a school teacher, both because it is a love and to spite his father and who settles in to a long relationship with Harry. Zoe has Jamal with a casual but intense Afro-American lover and succumbs to AIDS either through sex or injection.

Cunningham is a master of what might be described as melancholy affirmation. With the possible exception of Will and Jamal, none of his characters lives could be characterised as happy. They all bear wounds - the wounds of relationship, of character or of accident. Yet everyone does more, is more than survival. Each life is a quilted patterning of meaning, in sombre colours, but one that lives, breathes, in glimpses exalts. Each life is held by its author in a compassionate light - even the most problematic is laughed with rather than against (in a manner of speaking as the humour is mordant rather than light). Even Constantine and his second wife, Magda, with their racism, material covetousness, and anger, stand out whole, strangely understandable (as far as that is ever possible with anyone) and loved into being.

I was reminded of a young monk arriving on Mount Athos eager to start his ascent into the mysteries who was given by his elder, his spiritual father, a copy of Dickens' David Copperfield to read. 'What is this?' the young monk disdainfully asked. 'This will teach you to feel,' replied the elder, 'Without a common feeling for the humanity of everyone, how can you expect to enter the way of Christ's love?'

Cunningham is one of those authors who teaches you to feel and recognise the complexity of feeling and in doing so he celebrates the unconventional places in which feeling resides. Zoe, her son Jamal, his god mother, Cassandra, an ailing drag queen and Zoe's mother, Mary is one such quartet of the unfamiliar. Like Dickens, he challenges the expectations of what it means to be family, to be familiar, and by doing so widens the scope of our felt life.

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