Back to that choice of subject. What’s in the subtext of that decision? I am a white male writer, an immigrant from the UK of nearly forty years—not exactly a refugee. Not even underprivileged relative to many US citizens, even. But I’m not setting my tale amid the black community of Flint, Michigan, or from within the Sioux Indian lands of North Dakota. Charlottesville? Well, that incident happened too late in my creative process. As for recent hurricanes, the shooting in Vegas, or the latest, wildfires? Well, I’ll touch on the Vegas thing, I guess, as it retroactively relates. Earthquakes? Earthquakes get a hearing in my story, because they lurk. We’re waiting on those. What’s all this got to do with Blended, a novel about a step-mom in a third marriage, juggling that third effort with half-hearted career choices, life in a blended family; an effort to help a refugee family blend into American society? Again, subtext.
It’s interesting to write about a female protagonist—only the second time I’ve done that in the decade I’ve been writing novels. Am I qualified? I wonder. So, I take care, I think. I protect Tillie Marsden from harsh judgment while trying to make her imperfect, and thus likeable—something I didn’t achieve with Daniel Pierce, my protagonist from Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole. Ironically, this task means introducing elements that are unlikeable, but not too unlikeable. Tillie’s a bit snotty about Jacob, her soft-bellied, mischief-minded step-son. She’s a modest social critic, insinuating comment about western consumerism, turning her nose up at mainstream branding, like Target stores, popular sport or vulgar music. She’s like a lot of middle-aged women, frankly, so maybe she’s relatable. I hope. Meanwhile, there’s evidence of her body-shaming attitudes, which seem adjunctive to overly healthy exercise and diet habits. There’s a back-story there, the reader may discover. The flip side of her sometimes muted, sometimes not muted criticism, is a deep-rooted guilt. On the whole, Tillie feels lucky and safe. She has arrived in middle age, in some ways dissatisfied and unfinished, yet clearly dealing with first world problems. Even her thwarted career path seems undramatic. Though she might have been passed over for privileged males, it’s not obvious that this happened, nor is it clear she’d bother to fight that problem if it reared itself again. Therefore, her volunteer job helping Bahram and Mira carries a melting pot of purpose: it is vaguely redemptive, but also an escape from home-grown troubles.
According to the laws of subtext, Bill Marsden, Tillie’s husband, would have even more to feel guilty about, and thus defend against. For him, this manifests firstly as protectiveness. He protects women from vulgarity (his testiness with Jacob’s offhand humor), and by denying women’s capacity for harm. Meanwhile, he exhibits a restrained skepticism about immigration, the trustworthiness of his blue-collar subordinates at work. As a middle-management figure within a construction company, he is a man in charge, ostensibly in a power-up position. But he’s not an obvious top-dog: a once-cuckolded husband, he betrays a fear of usurpers and infidels, across contexts. Regarding contractors who move on if work isn’t available (read the parallel, if sex isn’t available), he openly suspects, “their eyes wander.” The progressive view, attaching itself lately to object relations theory, would cast this as projection, a defense against guilty feelings that pervade the thoughts of presumed top-dogs. Therefore, he wanders/wonders: is he doing right by Jacob? Does he or did he neglect the needs of others, including his other two adult children, his cheating ex-wife? Subtext principle declares that each of these subordinate figures rebels against him, and now Bill Marsden—decent, hard-working, loyal and patriotic Bill Marsden—is taking it on the chin.
How much can people take? The tensions in the plot of Blended encircle eruptions that may or may not happen, so the reader waits for each figurative or literal event. An earthquake might happen, says neglected nature. Psychic tremors stir in the form of children’s acting out: the children of Tillie and Bill; the gaggle of nerves and play that Bahram and Mira seven-deep flock enact; the oblique, sometimes refreshing, sometimes merely annoying comments and toilet humor of Jacob. Children, the underprivileged: they provoke, and we ask them to apologize and thus repair. Adults in charge (including therapists) absorb the acting out of children; their unconscious defiance of power. Sometimes they apologize, repair. Each person’s task is to grow up, to take responsibility, protest against corrupt, self-serving leadership, or to yield authority with care.
We don’t yet know what happened in Vegas. For the moment, that incident suggests something we haven’t thought much about recently: indiscriminate hate. A man in a hotel holes up in his room with an arsenal of weapons, and during an outdoor concert that his room overlooks, he opens fire, spraying bullets and scattering people, killing and/or injuring hundreds. But he has no particular target, as far as we know. We’ve thought of hate, and we’ve certainly thought about discrimination, with respect to numerous such incidents in recent years. The culprits of violence are racists, or anti-western terrorists, we think. Amid progressive circles, at least, discriminatory hate has assumed a position of highest sin. As we gradually erode ‘judgments’ about sexual deviance, about substance use, for example, we’ve catapulted discrimination and hate to the top tier of social ills. And while selective hate has gripped our concern, the most pervasive form of hate—misanthropy—appears to have slipped past the hotel desk. I think of clients, even friends or colleagues, who sometimes jovially quip, “people suck”, or “people are disappointing”. I’m not suggesting that I or anyone else rebuke such expressions as if they necessarily portend atrocities, but consider this: what would be the reaction if the phrases were “black people suck”, or “whites are disappointing”.
Melanie Klein and others within the object relations school offered that hate and guilt live in the minds of infants, and are not easily extinguished. It’s not even clear that such a goal is realistic, or even desirable. Hate and guilt are innate capacities, not so much learned as inflamed by fateful development. By moving from what she termed the paranoid schizoid position to the depressive position, we experience our aggression, our love, our fear, and our power. We do damage. We have chances to repair. That’s life and humanity. In Blended, I have one character—a minor one—who embodies the civilized veneer that collapses and threatens to go postal. Then there are the characters who are more central to the plot. The people I want you, my would-be reader to care about. It is good to be an adult. I feel qualified to say that now that I’m grown and middle-aged. Yet I am a child. I will always be one.
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?
Stay close to home: that was the advice—more of a plea, actually—of Tillie’s mother. She’d been widowed when Tillie was sixteen, and when she was in middle age, where Tillie is now. Where the author of Blended is now. Write about what you know, advise some. And I do, in bits and pieces, with the rest culled from various sources. I know a bit about immigration, actually, because I’m an immigrant from the UK, of almost forty years. Despite that fact, I know something about staying close to home, especially in recent years. I am middle-aged…sigh. The rest of Blended emerges from bits and pieces observed—in some cases poached—from others’ lives, reliable if imperfect witnesses. The subtext of Blended involves that which everyone observes, or ought to, anyway. That’s the stuff everyone gets to think about.
Tillie Marsden, my protagonist, is not an immigrant, but she once departed from another culture. I write that comment as an assimilated Californian, as someone who has never visited Tennessee, Tillie’s birthplace, which she left behind to attend college as a late teen. Today, I—and a lot of Californians, I think—look upon states like Tennessee as foreign countries. It is the heart of Red-state America—red-stained America according to some. It is Trump country. Before it, Bush country, and before that, it was the battleground (or close to it) of the civil rights movement and confederate heritage. In my stereotyping mind, it is linked with provincial conservatism, and therefore it is the backdrop of Tillie’s reactive interests.
And yet, she hasn’t traveled that much. She hasn’t learned that much about foreign culture, exotic or not. She hasn’t had the adventures she may have pined for as a girl; the freedom she may have craved as a young woman. At fifty-two, she has found stability in genteel, suburban, not-quite foreign life. She has a husband of seven years—a man who seems to provide normalcy, even a benignly backwards mentality, in all matters. Bill Marsden, a stalwart Oregonian, has stayed close to home—perhaps too close to home—for he struggles to understand his kids’ separatist ways. He seems split between his parents’ divergent models: father a veteran and rogue; mother a hoarding, hypochondriac nest-builder. Bill’s tacit compromise is to vacation with ardor, but otherwise stay home. Keep mother happy. Keep wives happy.
A one-time divorcee (Tillie has failed at marriage twice), he has yet to get it right with women, and Tillie’s satisfaction is ambiguous. He is vulnerable, and she is at least distracted. There’s a sense in Blended that Tillie’s one-time aspirations, her fanciful dreams, got away from her, but she’s not quite done with them. Former adventures are un-finished; plans were aborted (don’t take that literally). She’s had a stop-start life, both in love and work. In play she has been more careful, though her friends, with whom she lives vicariously, are less so: her workmate, Gina, for example; Bahram, the Pakistani man whom she befriends through her current volunteer work. That volunteer job, seized in serendipity, is the residue of a one-time dalliance with social work: a life that got away.
The cover of Blended says something of her present life, blending iconic images of middle America with ominous clouds hovering above. On the back cover, in the back yard, so to speak, are the onlooking squirrels, symbolizing mischief, possibly menace. Judge it (the cover), for I think you’ll be impressed by the evocative art of my friend and collaborator, Philip Lawson. The interior of the Marsden’s American Craftsman is closed, but not boarded up or wrapped in iron railings for protection. Complacency and comfort, situated on the eve of disruption, is implied. Naivete or ignorance may be suggested also, but for that you’d have to look beyond the cover and read. Reading might be the best antidote to naivete and ignorance, but I don’t know, really. I don’t know anything about the refugee’s immigration, for example. Haven’t lived that. Can’t just read about that. So there. I don’t only write what I know.
So, the plot of Blended centers around Tillie’s decision to volunteer through her local church to help a refugee family from Pakistan assimilate into American society, or more specifically, into the fictional middle-American mini-pot that is Bishop Grove, Oregon. The family consists of a thirty-something couple with seven kids, recently emigrated from the area of Pakistan that is near the dangerous Afghan border. The father is a former translator for a private security force attached to an unidentified American corporation. He says little about this background and Tillie doesn’t inquire, not so much because she isn’t interested—more because she is discreet in her approach. Half-internalizing her ambiguously xenophobic mother, she is reticent in her queries, not wanting to intrude. Tillie is…what’s the word…polite?
This lends an air of tension as the story proceeds, as curiosity builds and mysteries grow. What were their lives actually like in Pakistan? Why did they leave, or why did they leave so suddenly? Why is this foreign couple—Bahram and Mira are their names—so brittle and seemingly distant with each other? It seems inevitable that something will be revealed, and it won’t be pleasant. The reader may observe that Bahram seems enamored of American life, its seeming abundance, material promise. Actually, what he likes most is the fresh, unpolluted air, the greenery in the landscapes; the chance to see an ocean and relax on sand that is devoid of warfare. The rest of the family seems numb, and Tillie wonders: How are the children—aged 1 and ½ through 12—coping with the upheaval in their lives? They seem variably adjusted to circumstances: some are playful and bright; one or two others seem withdrawn and haunted. Whatever is the truth, none of it seems normal to Tillie.
And Tillie herself doesn’t know what normal is. Or, she is re-appraising that vague construct. Such and such is the new normal. That’s commonspeak today, for none of us knows anymore, I guess, what normal is. Peripherally interested in the politics of 2016, and critically observant of her own society’s norms, Tillie is perhaps best positioned to guide a new immigrant without judgment or fear. She is open-minded, and at least imagines that she will not be subject to any fears or judgments from this immigrant family—an assumption that will be tested when they begin to inquire about her. What will they make of her background: of divorce, of blended families, a third marriage, an unsatisfying working like in which she is straining for purpose? She might imagine their envy of so-called first world problems. Meanwhile, what will they think of American consumerism, or the various icons of American culture that they have previously experienced (especially the covetous husband), but only from afar. And will they experience xenophobia, or its umbrella concept, racism, as they settle in?
BTW, in telling this story, I’m not trying to assert myself as any kind of expert with respect to immigration, society’s norms, the politics of the Pakistan-Afghanistan region—none of that. Also, commentary on domestic politics is at best allegorical, perhaps facile, even. We’re not talking to one another properly: that’s the main subtext of Blended. The remaining thematic residue is really in the title. There’s a mix here of background, of present, of future fears and hopes, which block clear thinking, blinds vision. But it’s there to see. Characters observe in others what they might see in history and in themselves, but if they stopped and observed themselves—what’s called the observing ego in object relations/ego psychology—then…well, society would be better, let’s say. Projections are interlocking, moving fast, and in various directions. The author corrals ideas, other bits and pieces, but I, for one, don’t really know how these stories end. My endings are contrivances, my best guess (es), reflecting a desire for tidy order.
Which reminds me…
Staying with a theme. But first, a departure: last entry I wrote about some public musings (that’s like, thought plus something) of Salman Rushdie, who remarked that there are too many books in the world, sort of. He didn’t sound as elitist as I’m making him sound, but he was cautionary. Should we keep publishing? Do we need to, he meant, given the volume of titles that exist? He forgot one factor, it seems to me. This will sound elitist. People don’t read. Or, they don’t read old-fashioned print–not as much. And they don’t read novels, especially. Or do they? I don’t know. I heard all this on the radio, another declining medium. Perhaps if books could be downloaded onto I-phones. Actually, can they? Is there an AP for that yet….someone?
Anyway, a man in my office—not the same one as last time—also mentioned squirrels this week. I guess people have squirrels on their minds. Coincidence? Maybe not. Maybe squirrels are a new zeitgeist. Squirrels are important because they feature metaphorically in my novel, Blended. They scurry about the property, stealing food, getting in places they shouldn’t. That was the problem, the man in my office said. Squirrels were climbing atop his roof. One had fallen down the chimney and gotten stuck. He had to get it out. Can’t let it—them—run wild.
They run wild in my novel, also. Or, they are onlookers. They comment on us secretly. Tillie Marsden, my protagonist, ignores them, has other nuisances in mind, at home and at work. Home comes first: where will Bill, her third and by far her best husband, insist on taking them on vacation this broken year of 2016? Tillie likes modest getaways to seaside villages. Bill prefers rugged adventure in the wilderness. I know. What first world drama, you’re thinking? How will you, the reader, stand the suspense? Do I know how to grip you, or what? Well, hang on. Give me a few pages. So far, I’ve given you squirrels as metaphors, so you must be intrigued. And there is that interesting title, Blended, after all.
Tillie’s step-son, Jacob, a largely idle twenty-something, is part of that blend. He is an ambiguous nuisance, not stealing but certainly consuming food, and getting in places that he might have left by now, such as the living room couch. He’s back and forth between home and school, drifting towards his future. What he really wants to do with his life is unclear, but what you’ll read (hopefully) are the offhand comments from the millennial crypt: his thoughts about life as it is in art, as in action movies, as in war, terrorism as a spectator sport; modern diet. Tillie is mystified by Jacob, but were she to look more closely, she’d note similarities between him and her younger self.
There is little that is mystifying about Bill, to whom Tillie has been married for seven years. In his late fifties, he is stably employed, financially secure, having launched at least one of his three adult children. Cuckolded by his first wife, Bill seems decent and reliable, if slightly insecure. His only other foible is a curmudgeonly edge, which he betrays as Tillie introduces plans to help refugee families. Bill is skeptical the way that middle America seems skeptical: he doesn’t know much about life in Pakistan, and doesn’t care to know much. Though careful with his thoughts, he probably thinks that immigrants are a problem. They represent security risks. They steal or consume too much; will get in places they shouldn’t.
A man in my office spoke of chasing squirrels and laughed. Prone to using comic metaphors, he explained the link to his current life circumstances. The squirrels represent lost causes, things we cannot change—but also the things we shouldn’t try to change. Let things go. Let nature be nature.
I reflected for a moment, struck by the synchronicity. See, this was yesterday, the day before my plan to write this entry, an introduction to my new novel, entitled Blended. Among other things, the first chapter begins with a brief rumination upon—you guessed it—squirrels. In my story, squirrels are also metaphors. They are likewise out of control, symbolic of the wild, yet they mirror humanity, for they are greedy, compulsive, hierarchical, and frail. They dart about our properties, seizing the unseen territories, taking what they can get, but trailing more elegant creatures, like hummingbirds, in the hearts of genteel homeowners. If squirrels care or have boundaries, as in rules, it’s not apparent. They are strong and quick, yet they do not make good choices. They seem blind and reckless, so they keep dying unpleasantly on man’s roads.
Allusively set in 2016, Blended is otherwise about a middle-aged woman, a mother of three, a step-mom to another three, who begins the story roaming the garden of her Oregonian home, picking fights with troublesome thorns, committed to aesthetics. Tillie Marsden observes the critters but she does not fuss over them. She makes better choices, jogs instead of dashing, and prepares for earthquakes and political fallout. She is likely based (because I don’t remember this specifically) on a character in a Geico insurance commercial. You know, the one with the woman who sits by a pool, calling her action star son at the wrong time (‘You’re a mom, it’s what you do’), and casually mocking his father for chasing squirrels, which appear swarm-like in the background. My character isn’t quite as blasé as that, and her husband, her third, isn’t actually obsessed with squirrels. But the point is that something is lurking in society and nature. Despite a comfortable, as in financially settled and peaceful suburban existence, Tillie feels a stirring unease. She needs to do something.
Family and career are twin poles of struggle and unfinished business, but it’s a new endeavor that’s catalytic for Tillie, and therefore the plot of Blended. An involved church-goer, she volunteers at a refugee support program, is assigned to a young Pakistani family that has recently moved to her town, a fictional Eugene-like community named Bishop Grove. Back in her teens, she’d once hosted an Iranian student for a semester. Bad antecedent. Tillie’s long-widowed mother, a stoic conservative of the American Gothic variety, was barely tolerant of that adolescent fancy, so the world citizen spirit was blunted. This latter-day charity is a do-over of sorts. It’s a resurrection of old aptitudes, promising satisfaction, not to mention distraction from autocratic bosses and drudgery. It’s a vacation from dense family drama, a chance to feel useful and recognized as a caring figure. It’s also one woman’s thumb-on-the-nose prep for Trump’s America.
I recently heard Salman Rushdie lament that there are too many books in print today; that the world’s writers could just stop writing and there would be plenty of titles for everyone to read for many years to come. That’s probably true. Over 300,000 books are published, traditionally and not, every year, in the U.S alone. Rushdie therefore opines that today’s writers should ask themselves an important question: not, is my book good, or entertaining? But rather, is it necessary? Is it a worthwhile addition to that already huge mountain of print?
Is Blended a worthwhile addition?