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Review: The Tyranny of Grief

Joshua Henkin, The World Without You (New York: Pantheon, 2012). 336 pages.

Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but some ways are more familiar than others. In Joshua Henkin’s third novel in 15 years, political and religious differences are the weapons of choice, but the real source of family unhappiness is emotional tyranny. Compared to it, mere differences of opinion and belief shrink into insignificance.

The World Without You, which is being released today, is about a large Jewish family of four children. “Three,” says David Frankel, the father of the brood. “We had four children,” explains Marilyn, the family matriarch, “but one of them died tragically in Iraq, you’ve probably heard of us, we’ve been on TV.” A year after the death of Leo — the youngest, the only son, who was covering the Iraq war for Newsday when he was killed — the Frankels and the sons-in-law and the grandchildren, also including Leo’s widow Thisbe, have gathered at the family’s summer home in Lenox, Massachusetts, on the July 4th weekend for a memorial service and the unveiling of the grave stone.

Much of the novel’s pleasure comes from getting to know each member of the family. Few American novelists, living or dead, have ever been as good as Henkin at drawing people. The World Without You weaves from one Frankel to another, effortlessly filling in backstories, stitching past to present, exposing old wounds and lingering tensions. It is a tribute to Henkin’s skill that the narrative never flags. The action of the book is in the characterization.

The three Frankel girls are (in birth order): Clarissa, a 39-year-old ex-cellist living in Brooklyn, “home to the world’s greatest population explosion,” who is desperate to have a child before it is too late (“We need to have sex right now,” she is prone to telling her husband when the home ovulation kit says the time is ripe); Lily, a “lawyer for government whistle blowers” who lives in Washington and dreams of prosecuting President Bush for war crimes; and Noelle, a stunning redhead who was unashamedly promiscuous in high school, but who turned to Orthodox Judaism while on a trip to Israel, where she now lives with her husband and four sons. “My sister the Hasidic Jew,” Lily sneers: “The rabbi’s wife” — although her husband is not a rabbi and they are not Hasidic.

The center of the family is Marilyn, an attending physician at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. A Bush-hating liberal who has written 24 anti-war op-eds since her son’s death, Marilyn has “become a mascot for the left.” When President Bush invited her to the White House, she made a public scene about not going. “She wouldn’t allow her son to be used that way,” Henkin writes, channeling Cindy Sheehan, “to become an instrument in the service of the war.” As a doctor, she is a woman of high principle; or a “fanatic,” as her daughter-in-law thinks of her. She believes that sales reps for pharmaceutical companies deserve a special place in hell, for example, and “makes a point of not prescribing any medication that’s been pressed too forcefully on her.” If the medicine might benefit her patients, too bad for them!

With Marilyn in the lead, the Frankels are a family of good secular Jewish liberals. Even their shampoo is politically correct:

A nail file sits on her mother’s nightstand. Beside it is a bottle of No-Poo. It’s shampoo without shampoo, from what Noelle understands, the idea being that shampoo leaches out your hair’s essential nutrients, though the one time she tried it, she found that in addition to leaching out essential nutrients shampoo also leached out dirt.

Noelle is the hold-out. Becoming Orthodox, she found herself “peeling back layers of herself, molting an identity she had wanted to molt for years and hadn’t realized she was capable of molting.” Proud to be a Jew and grateful to the Jewish state that gave her “finally something she could claim as her own,” Noelle has struck out in a different direction from the rest of her family. She cast an absentee ballot for Bush from 6,000 miles away — “and not just once, but twice!” For a family that “holds all fifty million people who voted for him responsible for Leo’s death,” this is heresy. The number of the Iraq war dead is continually updated on a tiny chalkboard next to their phone. “Leo hated that war,” the Frankels reassure one another. Naturally, then, when a fight breaks out among the sisters, the heretic finds herself under attack. “You and Amram, too,” Lily shouts at her sister, “living in your warmongering country, practicing your delusional religion.” “It’s your religion, too,” Noelle says. “It most certainly isn’t,” Lily replies.

And she is right. The Frankel family religion is the Frankel family — the daughters who attended Yale and Princeton (leaving out Noelle, who did not go to college), the brilliant high-achieving sons-in-law, a Nobel Prize-caliber neuroscientist and one of “D.C.’s best young chefs” (leaving out Noelle’s husband Amram, who graduated from SUNY Oneonta and is jobless at the moment), the family’s competitive thirst to do whatever necessary to triumph at board games and tennis, the books and photos and sporting equipment and musical instruments and Williams Sonoma cookware and children’s names carved into the open rafters of the summer house in Lenox, the fun-loving beloved son and brother whose early death has driven the family onto the rocks. “[T]hey’ve made a life out of being indignant,” Noelle observes. Leo’s death is the ultimate indignancy.

If the class setting is familiar, Henkin does something unusual with it. With great subtlety, he reveals that the Frankels’ grief over Leo, as deep and sincere as it is, is not the source of the family’s dysfunction. Marilyn chooses the weekend of her son’s memorial to announce that she has decided to leave her husband after 42 years of marriage. Not because of anything he has done — except perhaps that he does not talk as often as she thinks he should — but because he is not sufficiently upset over their son’s death. Noelle praises her father for being “the voice that understands there are things you can’t know,” but it is David’s very understanding that Marilyn cannot forgive. She demands authority over the family’s grief. Any emotional response that fails to meet her standards is subject to interrogation and banishment.

The British novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett may be the great archivist of family tyranny, but Joshua Henkin has written a novel that will appeal to a contemporary American audience which identifies tyranny with the state instead of private lives. One measure of how well he has succeeded is that, when Marilyn is right about something, not for a minute do you rack up her success to superior moral and political views.

The narrative strategy in The World Without You is what I have described elsewhere, in praising Zoë Heller’s The Believers, as a strategy of narrative disinterest. Henkin has no dog in the Frankel family fight. Although the reader will have a favorite, he does not. There is no central character through whom he filters perception and dissembles his own loyalties and values. The Bush-bashing that has become so commonplace in recent American fiction is never given the author’s voice. Henkin is not one of the Frankels; he has no stake in the outcome of their disagreements and dysfunction. He has only a good deal of affection for them, and a good deal of pity, and the confidence that his reader will come to feel about them much as he does. About that, he is right.

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