Monday, September 04, 2006

Alison Lurie's The War Between the Tates

I've begun Alison Lurie's novel The War Between the Tates, and I'm finding it quite good. It's a family drama, and it's also an academic satire, although not a satire in the comic mode of Jane Smiley's Moo or Richard Russo's Straight Man. It has funny moments, but the predominating mood is serious. Brian Tate, the husband, is a political science professor who has dreamed of being an important political consultant, although he now knows he never will be. He begins an affair with a graduate student (we learn this early on -- no spoilers here) and the quality of his life plummets from there.

The novel begins with his wife Erica who has recently realized that she hates her two children, Jeffrey and Matilda. They have reached the sullen early-adolescent age, and have become unbearable. I like the way she is honest with herself about this feeling; while she's no child abandoner or neglecter, and while I'm left thinking that she must, deep down, feel loyal toward her children, the feeling of hatred penetrates fairly deeply. I felt conflicted as I read about this relationship because I was just such a sullen, unbearable, anger- and frustration-inducing adolescent myself. I understand completely why the children act as they do, and I understand completely why Erica hates them for it. If I ever have children, which is most definitely not in my future plans anywhere right now, I'm certain I'm going to have just such a sullen child myself, because I deserve it completely. So Erica is unhappy in many ways, and she is learning just how much of this is her husband's fault -- he's at fault for the affair, of course, but also for manipulating her and shutting off opportunities for her and generally being insufferable. This is a story of Erica beginning to take some control of her life.

I like Erica's character, and I also like the narrator's way of dealing with Brian, who is very much a jerk, but the narrator lets us see his thought processes and motivations in such a way that makes him understandable, if not likeable. And Brian's character offers some great opportunities for academic satire:

Teachers, especially university professors, often have an elective affinity with their subjects. Whether through original tropism, conscious effort, or merely long association, language instructors born in Missouri and Brooklyn look and act remarkably like Frenchmen and Italians; professors of economics resemble bankers; and musicologists are indistinguishable from musicians ...

These affinities also profoundly influence the functioning of the various Corinth University departments. They determine, for instance, which academic issues will take the longest to resolve and arouse the strongest feelings. Members of the Maths. Department tend to quarrel over the figures in their annual report, and members of the English department over its wording. In Psychology, analysis of the personality traits of candidates for promotion sometimes ends in ego-dystonic shouting; and the controversy over the new men's washroom in the Architecture Building (during which two professors who had not designed an actual building in twenty years came to blows) has already passed into University annals.

But the political science department is the worst:

Since every member of the Political Science department is in outward manner and inner fantasy an expert political strategist, every issue provokes public debate and private lobbying. Even when there is little at stake, eloquent speeches are made; wires are skillfully pulled and logs rolled out of simple enjoyment of the sport.
We get a wonderful description of a political science department meeting, which, as you can imagine, is excruciating.

I think this book is extremely well written; the novel is set during the Vietnam War, and the war, besides hovering in the background of the plot, becomes a metaphor for what is happening to the family:

Brian and Erica, like their friends, students, and colleagues, have spent considerable time trying to understand and halt the war in Vietnam. If he were to draw a parallel between it and the war now going on in his house, he would have unhesitatingly identified with the South Vietnamese. He would have said that the conflict, begun a year or so ago as a minor police action, intended only to preserve democratic government and maintain the status quo -- a preventive measure, really -- has escalated steadily and disastrously against his and Erica's wishes, and in spite of their earnest efforts to end it. For nearly two years, he would point out, the house on Jones Creek Road has been occupied territory. Jeffrey and Matilda have gradually taken it over, moving in troops and supplies, depleting natural resources, and destroying the local culture.

And Lurie goes on in this vein for another couple of pages. The cleverness of the writing doesn't distract from the family drama; rather, it provides some comic relief from a dark tale. I'm impressed with the way Lurie effortlessly places the story in the context of the war and of the feminist movement without any awkward exposition; it comes naturally through the characters' conversations and the narrator's descriptions of the family dynamics.

I've only read the first half of the book so far; I'll be sure to let you know how I like the second half.