In “What Can You Do with a General,” your story in this week’s issue, a family gathers for Christmas. The story is essentially told from the perspective of John, the father, sometimes in bewilderment and sometimes in anger, as he tries to connect with his adult children. There’s a sense that John, though only in his sixties, is not the force he once was; as you write, “The kids just laughed now if he got angry.” Where has his anger gone, and what has it left behind?
In writing this story, I was thinking about the tremendous power that parents have over their children—a level of absolute control that can often be destructive. John is someone who was, essentially, an abusive father, the ultimate powerful and terrible figure in his children’s lives. I toyed with making the abuse more overt, but I think John has willfully forgotten the worst of it, slurred it over into a manageable story.
Now, as his children have grown into adults, John has little to no power at all. Partly it’s because his children are grown—he can’t physically control them in the way he once could. But partly, too, I think life has overwhelmed John; its totality, its relentlessness, his sense that the sweep of modernity is leaving him behind. What happened to his anger? He thinks it’s gone, but it’s not gone, not at all. In many ways, I think his anger, and the pain at the root of his anger, just gets sublimated into his distractions of choice—television, alcohol, nostalgia. What’s left behind is both that barely concealed anger but now, too, his melancholy, his lonely self-absorption, an inability to see or love the people around him for who they really are.
Sam, the eldest, is unable to choose a car without his mother’s advice; Sasha is sad, a mopey young woman with a boyfriend who’s divorced with a son; Chloe, the youngest, is a little shallow. What do you think these characters are like through their own eyes?
I think they are characters that haven’t fully individuated. The dysfunction in the family has crippled them, emotionally and developmentally—maybe Sasha has the most distance, the most interest in confronting the truth of the family’s history, but, even so, she’s back home for Christmas, hoping proximity will result in feeling. She hasn’t separated either, not really. They’re all, to varying degrees, still caught up in the idealization of the family, the illusion that they might be seen or loved. I own a space heater that looks like a fake fireplace—there’s a setting where the flames flicker but there’s no heat coming out. That’s how I thought of this family. These kids are gathered around this fire that looks like a fire, and everyone’s talking about how warm the fire is, how good the fire feels, but the fire emits no heat. For these children, I think they believe that, if they stand in front of the flames long enough, eventually they must feel something.
John has bought the kids DNA ancestry kits for Christmas. What do you think this says about his conception of family?
I’m interested in how popular these DNA kits are. Obviously, in some cases, the information they offer is pertinent or useful, but the majority of the information seems almost laughably vague—you have an eighty-two-per-cent chance of having detached earlobes, you have a higher than normal probability of getting sore after exercise. This information, at once so hyper-specific and so hyper-irrelevant, seems both emblematic of this moment in time, when technology tries to meet nonexistent needs, and also stands in stark contrast to the more important, more relevant information: the reality of what the emotional experience of being a child was, what it truly meant being a member of this family. I think John doesn’t want to know the truth of his own life, the truth of his own children’s experience. Buying DNA kits is a way to gesture at knowledge, at truth, without ever actually confronting the reality of his actions, without having to confront the deep pain and suffering that has forged both his and his children’s lives.
The title of the story comes from a song by Irving Berlin that appears in the movie “White Christmas.” It’s a movie that the family watches every year. Tell me more.
“White Christmas,” to me, is a movie representative of intense nostalgia. Nostalgia is almost like a narcotic, to John—this conviction that somehow things used to be better, that the world has changed into something worse, something unrecognizable. It’s easier to live in the sort of Technicolor universe of absolutes, of good characters and bad characters, rather than live in the actual world, with its gray areas, its sorrows and pain. Better to believe men used to be men, women used to be women, that children used to be polite and respect their fathers. That’s the compelling lie of those old movies. The home movies, in the story, operate as a rebuke to the “White Christmas”–type view of the world. Even though most of her family experiences the home movies as funny or touching, Sasha sees them almost as crime-scene evidence, fraught in some way we as readers don’t quite understand—rather than the soothing musical numbers of “White Christmas,” home movies are blunt information, a confrontation with the granular reality of having been a child, desperate for love, having been, once, so powerless.
This Week in Fiction
Haruki Murakami on Asking the Right Questions
Salvatore Scibona on the Difference Between Fiction and History
Taymour Soomro on the Sights, Sounds, and Social Dynamics of Karachi
Mary Gaitskill on the Relationship Between Love and Torture
Garth Greenwell on Vacations
Sam Lipsyte on the Double Meaning of “Character”
The title comes from a song about a general who, after being valorized and decorated in war, returns home and can’t get a job. He’s forgotten by his country, adrift without the context provided by war. I saw some parallels there with John—a man who got to play this hypermasculine role of father, at least in his perception, and is now at loose ends, the world moving along without him. I saw some resonance, too, in thinking about war, that version of masculinity and violence that still gets so idealized and even romanticized. It reminded me of the way violence in the family is often excused or minimized, erased by idealization or some larger historical logic—everyone used to do it, you have to teach your kids a lesson, my parents hit me and I turned out fine. I read some Alice Miller recently, and I like how she links the ills of the family and the ills of the world: “Individuals who do not want to know their own truth collude in denial with society as a whole, looking for a common enemy on whom to act out their repressed rage. But as the inhabitants of this shrinking planet near the end of the twentieth century, the danger inherent in self-deception is growing exponentially—and we can afford it less than ever.”