This subtext I reference: it’s nothing special. I mean that all stories have subtext, so it’s not as though authors do so much to inject it. Actually, the perception of subtext is more the job of the reader, in my opinion. These characters of Blended, who live in suburban Oregon in 2016, with the backdrop of an impending, contentious election, have elements to themselves that place them on different sides of social order. They’re parts of groups—some large and dominant, others small and vulnerable. I don’t have to spell it all out. As in therapy, you’d feel where everyone fits, because I think you’d relate.
Tillie Marsden is different from her mother, is closer to the spirit of her dad, who passed away when she was a teen. Mom is parochial, has barely ever left Tennessee, never mind looked beyond American borders with interest or concern. As Tillie volunteers through her local church to help a refugee Pakistani family assimilate into American life, she is re-igniting old, altruistic as well as internationalist leanings. Unlike her family, she is more in touch with her world citizen self. She’s a natural joiner, fits in seamlessly at church, at her non-profit workplace (though she dislikes its autocratic, national politics-mirroring new leadership). She is intuitively inclusive, open to new experiences and people. She is perhaps naïve.
Bill Marsden, her husband, is indulgent of Tillie’s volunteerism, but is skeptical. In between lines, a reader might detect his curmudgeonly scoffing. He’s decent and industrious, and in these ways, he embodies a familiar ethos in western society: he’s a provider, a father; a tacit advocate of neo-liberalist economics, which decree an individualist notion: anyone can make it in this world if they just roll up their sleeves and work hard. Therefore, anyone who isn’t making it is presumptively lazy or unmotivated, or else spending too much time whining. Jacob, his indolent twenty-something son, is therefore something of a challenge, not because he whines, but rather because he doesn’t work hard enough, or doesn’t seize his days properly. Bill is torn between competing needs: to commonly bond with his son versus lighting a fire under him.
Tillie is supportive of Bill’s parental stance, but becomes quietly sympathetic to Jacob’s idiosyncratic, indecisive nature, knowing it’s a function of his individuating path, which ought not be forced. Besides, she remembers a time when she was young and undecided over life’s direction, and was similarly wayward in her habits. Bill, meanwhile, is manifesting his own split internalizations. His late father was a Korean war veteran, and—I sort of hint—a roguish, perhaps womanizing husband (I don’t actually give evidence of this. Again, reader’s job?) Anyway, having not donned a military uniform himself, Bill is solely an economic warrior, and he protects women and children in the plainest and less dramatic ways, eschewing only emotional chores, to his detriment. His mother, still living, is a close-to-home figure—too close, actually. She hoards belongings, clings and irritates, and in so doing, exhibits her unconscious, chronic fear of loss. Thus, Blended is partly about people in relationship who are like one another, and otherwise how they live with differences.
Foreigners intrude, almost literally, and set up a few mirrors, but mostly provide contrast. That’s not the author’s POV, necessarily, but that’s the sense a reader should have if immersed in this fictional Bishop Grove world. My Pakistani refugee family cling together for survival and warmth, and seem ever-calibrating from lingering trauma and seeking fresh air to breathe. The father and husband, Bahram, seems most enamored of his new home and community, and he will look for Tillie’s help in ways that will test her limits. She must figure out a way to help him, to help Mira, his wife, and to help them all while protecting them from common, middle-American projections: that these poor, refugee immigrants are helpless, reliant upon charity; soaking up public resources or Tillie’s time away from her real family.
For many, family is not just the most important unit of society, it is an accomplice to that neo-liberal economic and individualist myth, and this generates considerable stress in some. I have clients, for example, who lament that they don’t have enough time to occupy themselves with social causes, community outreach, and they usually cite the dual priorities of work and family as the reason. I have Tillie belong to a church so as to compliment religious institutions for providing a compromise, for church programs manage to do both, I think: they confront social problems, organize events around community causes while engaging families in a process that brings them together at the same time. This traditional pastime isn’t uniting Tillie, Bill, and Jacob, but that’s only because Bill and Jacob are not religious, which isn’t the fault of the church.
I didn’t have to place action away from American shores to spark this contemplation of outsiders and insiders, similarity and difference, and in an important way I haven’t. I might have fashioned a drama that was closer to home but still compelling notice of diversity and disadvantage: an event based upon the water crisis that has befallen Flint, Michigan, for example, or the Standing Rock controversy, regarding a pipeline project that threatens to impinge upon Sioux Indian lands. Progressives, who can also be parochial, might complain that home-grown oppression is more important for artists and writers to address. As an immigrant and now American (and world) citizen, I lean towards depicting the less fortunate visitor, the truly outside and exiled individual—the refugee—and emphasizing not so much the political triggers of their escape but rather moments of assimilation blended with needs we all have in common. Water is, of course, a need everyone has in common. Oil? I’ll leave that as a question mark.
However, the focus of Blended is upon emotional needs that Americans, foreigners, people from Tennessee, all presumptively have in common: love, attachment, and—paradoxically—separation, and freedom. Hard work. Hard writing. If I keep going like this, I should make it, you might think. I might make it. But for now, I am almost done orienting the reader to what’s important about my novel without giving everything away. I want the reader to do some work, after all. Will you?
Graeme Daniels, MFT