years ago, my father sent me a novel manuscript to read. I didn’t open it until
recently. Wouldn’t a good daughter be happy to read her dad’s book? Of course a good
daughter would. Trouble is, my father is both my only living blood relative and
a narcissist. He’s domineering and emotionally abusive to the people around him
but reacts with great hurt and anger if he receives any criticism in return.
boxed novel on my doorstep had the weight of a trap, the tick of a bomb: I knew
I was expected to read it and offer praise even if it was terrible. I knew he
would expect me to hail its brilliance and to offer to send it to my agent. I
don’t like being forced to lie. But even if I simply told him I read it, he was
certain to quiz me about scenes and characters. So I told him something entirely true: I really didn’t have time at the moment -- So much work! So sorry! -- and left it on my shelf.
relationship with my father was always strained; I learned early on that if I confided in him about anything sensitive he’d use it against me later, so
talking to him was always difficult because I was constantly second-guessing
the prudence of giving him any bit of detail about my life. I got a little
better with small talk after my mother died in 2004, and things went along
reasonably well for a couple of years. I was making an effort, because I loved my mother and knew it
was important to her that I try to have a good relationship with him. She never
had a father, and suffered tremendously because of it; she firmly believed that
even a man who was frequently a bully and forever unemployed after 1984 was
better than no father at all. She stuck to that idea as if she were a Christian
fundamentalist and it an 11th Commandment whispered straight to her
predictably, things with my father became worse after he sent the novel
and I failed to behave as expected; I had disappointed him just as surely as if
I’d spent days marking it up in an effort to help him make it better.
relationship crumbled completely after I enrolled in the MFA in creative
writing program at Goddard College. I wrote him about my acceptance into the program
and included a copy of one of Goddard’s magazines. Instead of the usual things
a parent might write back -- “Congratulations!” or “Who will you be studying
with?” or maybe even “That’s a very pretty campus!” -- he used the school’s
religious affiliation as a launch pad for Islamophobic doom-and-gloom: “I have
but a slender notion of what Universalism is ... But should Our Nation ever
turn to Shariya Law, what I happily interpret as the Universalists' tolerant
humanity will not protect them from other's bigotry. Goddard's legacy would be
dad! Always finding a way to kick sand over others’ happiness and diminish their accomplishments. The great thing about having a narcissist for a father is that he's always holding you to a high standard, expecting you to be a success he can brag about and take credit for, but you can't ever be too successful. That won't do. I already had one master's degree, you see, and that isn't as prestigious as his MD, obviously, but if I were to have an MFA on top of it, a terminal arts degree ... well. My father has been an avid painter and photographer his whole life but never pursued a degree in the arts, most likely because he could never deal with having his work criticized. So his being dismissive and condescending about my new degree pursuit was not surprising.
Despite the predictability of his response, it was the last straw of disrespect in a week filled to the brim with encounters with jerks and I completely lost my temper. I phoned him and
told him off. 40 years’ worth of telling off. I was so angry I have very little
memory of what I actually said.
A week later, after not being able to sleep because
of anxiety nightmares, I called to apologize, and he seemed to accept the
apology, but nothing was ever the same.
called him this past Christmas. After I identified myself, he refused to speak.
Ah, the silent treatment, which my mother reported he’d given her on
many occasions in the first years they were married. Was he angry about my story "Mostly Monsters", which while clearly labelled as fiction is based on actual events and my subsequent PTSD diagnosis? No way to know; he wasn't saying. I wished him a Merry
Christmas, said goodbye and hung up.
Days of soul-crushing anxiety ensued:
clearly, if my own father won’t talk to me on Christmas, I am the worst
daughter who ever lived. Then I spotted the box containing his manuscript gathering dust on my shelf and
thought, well, maybe I was wrong to prejudge the book as being terrible simply
because of what my instincts were telling me. Maybe it truly was some magnum
opus that I’d cruelly neglected.
I opened the box, extracted the stack of pages and began to read. It is a historical spy novel entitled The Feeble
Stroke of Destiny and most of it is precisely as terrible as I feared it would be.
I kept reading until I encountered a couple of pages that are far worse than I anticipated.
I've wrestled with how much to say publicly about the scenes that kicked me out of the novel. I say this as somebody who reads and writes a lot of horror stories: holy shit those scenes are vile. They left me feeling nauseated, psychologically poisoned, and furious. I wondered if he’d written them to deliberately antagonize me -- if so, it worked, because I wanted to punch him repeatedly in the face -- or if he really
and truly thought the scenes were tasteful and literary and something I'd appreciate. Either way, I was done. I
dropped his manuscript back in the box and there it remains.
I puzzled over the awfulness of the rest of the pages I’d read. There's the
narrator’s contempt for the characters, the episodic plotlessness, the academic digressions, the oddly formed prose style, and the seemingly random inclusion
of foreign phrases. Where was all that coming from? Why did he think any of
that was a good idea?
then I read Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov.
hadn’t read any Nabokov before, but about five pages in, I realized that my
father was crudely attempting to mimic his style without having any grasp of why Nabokov's prose is brilliant. Of course, I thought. He’s been a Russian culture enthusiast most
of his adult life. Of course he would
think copying Nabokov would be a splendid idea. (Though based on the content,
he was surely trying to copy Lolita
rather than Pnin.)
particular epiphany doesn’t materially improve my life, but it’s one less
unsolved puzzle rolling around in my brain. On a practical note, if I ever lead
a literary writing class, I’m confident that if I encounter this type of clumsy pastiche again I’ll be able to recognize it. And, hopefully, offer cheerful
remedies that won’t result in the student refusing to speak to me ever again.