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 portended 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.