I’m back in Duluth this evening after my annual Christmas circuit south through Chicago and rural Wisconsin. It’s a trip that includes raucous family parties to more intimate connections to long hours alone on the road, a pattern that suits a person who needs some of everything in his life. Aunts and uncles, wine, cousins, lots of food, more wine, grandparents, beer, an old college friend, Brandy Alexanders, trains and planes and automobiles, presents, more wine…and then, later on, some time to sit back, relax, write, and read. My reading choice this time around was Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections; I’ve written some about my connection to this author before, and the theme in this book—a family coming together for one last Christmas in its hometown—seemed all too fitting. But despite its incredible potential, the book disappointed; Franzen’s characters just aren’t real enough to inspire any deep connections. It succeeds on many fronts, but it does not work as the thing it sets out to be above all others: a portrayal of family life.
Tolstoy wasn’t off the mark with his opening line in Anna Karenina: “all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Families are troublesome, and remain so because they never follow the same pattern. Hence the conceit of a novel like Franzen’s: the design just can’t be universal. To quote another notable author, Flannery O’Connor: “anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life.”
And so family life becomes easy pickings for novelists, especially ones like Franzen who are trying to say important things about the human condition. (He just takes a bad path in trying to get there.) There is no greater engine of supposed “irrationality,” no greater challenge to the strictures of efficient economics, than the ties that bind people to one another. For those who are always asking why things have come to be the way they are, there is a tendency to fixate on the shortcomings of family members, to blame parents or more distant relations for passing along their own foibles, for failing to explain certain things to us, and for any number of possible failings. Many who come from less-than-ideal families are quick to disown them; many who come from strong ones don’t realize how lucky they are. Wounds fester and grudges linger, long after people would have moved on in relationships not bound by blood. Maybe they constrain us and never let us be who we want to be; maybe they give us so much freedom that we have no clue what we’re supposed to do. Appearances from the outside may look nothing like perception from the inside, where oddities can be so familiar that we never notice them. There are indeed some families that are broken beyond any point of repair. Thankfully, they are less common than one might think, and with a healthy dose of humility, people from those families teetering on the edge can find, if not love, at least a snippet of wisdom. Even stable families can be draining, and have their share of differences that can be tough to bridge.
And yet, what is Christmas if not a story of family? It’s about a birth, after all. Finding meaning in Christmas can be very difficult these days, especially for those of us who run in circles where most people don’t put much stock in the transcendental side of the holiday. We’re supposed to give and be generous and take meaning from that, but it is so very easy to stress about what we’re giving: is this enough, will it surprise and delight, how does it compare to last year or the other gifts people are giving? Too often, a focus on the giving becomes overly materialist or status-obsessed. That leaves us with the inertia of tradition and the occasional spurt of serendipity, two forces that are flimsy on their own but given meaning when shared with people we know best. The real meaning is brought out in simple facts of existence, of roots that cannot be cut off: the people we come from. It all circles back to the family, no matter how far we wander from the manger in Bethlehem.
This is, of course, far easier to say than to accept in practice, and also can tip into mawkish sentimentalism. Holidays have their awkward moments, especially when shared with those with whom we are not all that close. In those cases, Franzen might offer some wisdom in characters like Alfred in The Corrections, a man who “had shown his faith in [his daughter] by taking her at face value: by declining to pry behind the front that she presented.” There are times when this is the best road to take. People need to coexist comfortably before daring to go any deeper.
But, being human, we get tired of comfortable coexistence before long. We want more. We want intimacy and meaning; we want signs that our existence has value that goes beyond our own myopic desires. For that, Alfred and the other flimsy Corrections characters aren’t of much use. Instead, we need people who cannot stand to be left in the dark, who want to learn as much as they can, even if that means finding a few skeletons in the closet. Impertinent and even dangerous at times, perhaps, but in search of underlying truth. Honesty, sincerity, and the whole backstory; a willingness to let others be stakeholders in one’s own destiny. If we can’t give that to one another, what can we give?