Family Ties

FOR AUTHORS—indeed, for all of us—the family is an institution that both nurtures and, in the words of Philip Larkin, fucks you up. Given the reach and influence of family life, it’s tempting to conclude that our families will always determine who we are, no matter how we try to imagine things otherwise. But a new group of books presents family in a different light, not just as a code word for conservative values, and not just as a train wreck. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic novel, My Struggle, immerses us in the banal minutiae of fatherhood with blow-by-blow descriptions of children’s birthday parties, elevating his mundane and awkward experiences as a father (and a son) to the realm of art. Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation captures the strains of motherhood with a formal complexity that makes it one of the most innovative novels of the decade. Ben Lerner, in 10:04, wonders if we might find ways to harness the nuclear family’s power dynamics and regressive energies and channel them outward, into more promising forms of collectivity. And in Maggie Nelson’s new memoir, The Argonauts, she uses her experience of “genderqueer family making” to pry open the whole sphere of reproduction and domesticity. These books still convey the ambivalence of many other modern-family stories, and show how families inspire resentment and discord as well as love and harmony. But where the idea of family once closed off narrative possibilities—the marriage plot progressing inevitably toward a wedding, stories of suburban malaise making readers feel as trapped as the characters themselves, and memoirs fixating on the unforgivable sins of the parents—these new books suggest that family is a subject with potential: something that one is shaped by but also something that one can shape.

Doug Dubois, Spencer on the floor, Ithaca, New York (detail), 2005, ink-jet print, 24 × 30".
Doug Dubois, Spencer on the floor, Ithaca, New York (detail), 2005, ink-jet print, 24 × 30". © Doug Dubois, courtesy the artist and Aperture Foundation

For this special section, Bookforum asked writers to contemplate new and old books about family. The contributors explore how contemporary authors are honing new narrative forms to address the experience of parenthood; why we still give credence to the Moynihan report’s influential (and mostly unsound) assumptions about the “tangle of pathology” nested within black single-parent families; and what the less heralded benefits of unmarried life are. Throughout the section are reflections on how classic books have portrayed families—the ones you’re born into, the ones you choose, and the ones that spring up in unexpected places, such as the office. These books serve as powerful reminders of how deeply family life inheres within us. But if the new books are any indication, family bonds are undergoing subtle but significant shifts—and in the process, so are the ways we write.