The family as oyster: housing, protecting and endlessly irritating the writer's sensibility to produce those fictive pearls. That's the theme binding together the 15 essays, reviews and speeches in this unusually cohesive new collection by Irish novelist Colm Toíbín.
While most miscellanies descend into randomness -- review this, lecture about that -- the themes and interests emerging from Toíbín's acutely realized fiction ("Brooklyn," "The Master," "Mothers and Sons") also preside here.
"The novel is ripe for orphans," writes Toíbín in the book's framing essay about Jane Austen, Henry James and the death of the mother, "or for those whose orphanhood will be all the more powerful for being figurative, or open to the suggestion, both sweet and sour, of surrogate parents." Mothers, he argues, get in the way of fiction, taking up space "better filled by indecision, by hope, by the slow growth of a personality" -- and by the animating power of solitude in which novels are spawned. In real life, mothers (and fathers and siblings) don't always conveniently absent themselves. And thereby the rub that gives rise to the imagination.
Writing shrewdly and passionately as both critic and novelist, Toíbín divides his concerns between writers from Ireland and "elsewhere." In a fascinating essay on W.B. Yeats, he describes how the poet and his father gradually changed places as the elder apprenticed himself to the younger while struggling over a play that took years to complete -- only to be met with silence by the son. Toíbín's essay on Samuel Beckett ("the sort of young man who was made to break his poor mother's heart") contains the startling news that the Nobel-winning playwright once contemplated a career in advertising. ("It has been in my mind for a long time," he confided to a friend.) An essay on Thomas Mann details the burden borne by his son, also a writer, operating in his father's shadow, "both protective and damaging."
Toíbín seems particularly attuned to American writers. His touchstone, Henry James, weaves his way through most of the book's essays, often apposite, sometimes a surprising guest as in the fine essay on Tennessee Williams and his hothouse of a family. Two essays on James Baldwin (one twinning him with Barack Obama, author) make the welcome case for returning to the neglected work of "the finest American prose stylist of his generation" to help us comprehend "how something has happened that even he could not have imagined": America as penal colony for almost a million black men. Toíbín characterizes John Cheever as "a master of the single, searing image of pure desolation in the midst of the trappings of good cheer and middle-class comfort" -- the very picture of the kind of writer a troubled family can yield.
Fred Setterberg's novel, "Lunch Bucket Paradise," was short-listed for the Saroyan Prize.