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Family of Origin

August 13, 2019

I heard about Family of Origin from my friend Readers Guide one day last week and I went right out to the library, where I found a copy and started reading it that same day. It didn’t take long to finish. Reading it was kind of like spending a weekend with family; it makes you remember how twisted things can get and how looking out at the world with others can make you see it differently.

From the first page, the way this novel is written is interesting, and it implicitly offers itself as a bit of escapism from the current state of things: “this was the summer people came to the Landing to forget their jobs, forget climate change, forget police brutality, forget opioids, forget refugees, forget their inboxes, forget white supremacists, forget tsunamis out of season.” But the characters who have come to this place, the siblings Elsa and Nolan Grey, “remembered everything….They were fondlers of old grudges and conjurers of childhood Band-Aid smells. They were rescripters of ancient fights and relitigators of the past. They were scab-pickers and dead-horse-beaters and wallowers of the first order.”

Elsa and Nolan are on an island trying to figure out what led to their father’s, Ian’s, death there. He was working with a group of scientists who are studying a particular kind of duck called an undowny bufflehead in an attempt to prove that survival of the fittest has turned the other way, calling themselves “Reversalists.” At first his children suspect that this means he had no hope for the future because he has found them and everyone else in their generation wanting. Elsa thinks, when she first arrives on the island,
“here she was in this ragged shack, clinging to the coast of nowhere, surrounding by jars of feathers, revealing that what Ian had given up everything in his life for was just a squalid heap of nothing. The island confirmed that, with each choice, each fall, since Ian had left Elsa, he’d chosen things that were worse and worse. And every time it felt like he was saying: Even this I choose instead of you.”

Most of the people on the island are old hippies, and one of the conflicts in the novel is between the attitude of their generation and Elsa and Nolan’s, the “millennials.”
“Most of the Reversalists’ research had started not with the ducks, but with their abiding sense that something had gone unstoppably wrong with the world, and that the generation of young people rising up were the cause of it. At best, the millennials were stupid, lazy, entitled narcissists who could not be trusted. At worst…the whole of their generation were an evolutionary step backward for humanity. An insurrection of idiots who would trample everything the Greatest Generation and the Boomers had achieved and doom the species permanently.”

The old people tell stories about how the world is changing. As she got older, Esther says that her elementary-grade students were not as interested in biology, even though
“Esther was famous for making her students run to their various study sites to maximize class time. She shouted: Be light, be quick, keep up or you will be culled from the herd! Previously, people had found this charming.
But this winter, when she made the students run out to the field of their second-rate football team and take off their mittens and press their hands into the snow to imitate the tracks made by different types of animals, the students complained. They showed her their hands, wet and red. It hurts, they said.”

The millennials get the last word, though, in a passage that made me want to stand up and cheer:
“They called it the Hippie Reeducation Program. They taught the generation who had gone to Woodstock and believed in the hypothetical recycling of materials and the practical smoking of weed how to compost with earthworms. How to indoor-irrigate. How to grow tomatoes upside down in hanging baskets that saved space. They turned the Lobby into a greenhouse full of plants grown from colonial-era seeds.
None of this is particularly revolutionary, the older Reversalists said.
That’s exactly what’s wrong with all of you, the brothers said. You only ever wanted to fix problems in ways that felt exciting. You thought you could make the world a better place by talking about it. Fucking about it. Marching about it. You need to learn how to do shit, they said. Then you need to work your asses off. Then you need to get a dozen other people to do the same. That’s the only shot we’ve got.
We don’t have any shot, the Reversalists said. The Earth is kaput.
That’s easy for you to say, the brothers said. You’ll be dead soon.”

There’s a wonderful subplot about an old hippie fiction writer and the kind of dystopian science fiction he doesn’t want to write, tied in with Elsa’s longing to be one of the first people to colonize Mars.

The millennials in this novel are right about some things, but they’re human too. Like everyone, Elsa doesn’t want to have to worry about “elections, or the prison-industrial complex, or the dye in pink birthday cupcakes, or pornography that made women want to whimper instead of moan, or the disappearing bees, or celebrities whose names wormed their way into Elsa’s brain, she did not know how.” Elsa “wanted back the illusion of her childhood, that era of certainty, and if she couldn’t have that, she would take nothing,” which is kind of like the defeatist Boomer thinking. But during the week she and Nolan spend on the island, Elsa figures out that there’s no winning the games she’s been playing and “the sooner [she] stopped trying to hunt down some class of people who had all the answers—adults, scientists, Mars missions, Ian—the sooner she could stop the cycle of trying to win. Could look around and decide what kind of game might actually be worth playing.”

If you’ve been short on hope this summer, this novel will provide some, along with the reminder that we can’t always fix problems in ways that feel exciting, but have to begin to “learn how to do shit” that’s essential to the future of our life on this planet.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. lemming permalink
    August 13, 2019 1:14 pm

    “Fondlers of old grudges” is a great description of many people who have been related to each other for a lifetime.

    I meet a lot of people 10 – 15 years older than I who disparage the Millennials as unable to do anything useful. It’s a great point that useful is incredibly contextual. Upside down tomatoes are doing something; I never understood the claim that Lennon/ Ono’s public bedspring would change the world.

    Oh, and for the record, I’m no Millennial, but I’ve always hated getting my hands cold and wet in the snow.

  2. August 13, 2019 6:00 pm

    We’ve been short on hope for a while. I’ll have to look for this.

  3. August 13, 2019 10:20 pm

    We’re Boomers, retired. Our three children (we had them late) are Millennials (the youngest is still in college) and they are not the problem.

    I hope they all vote.

  4. August 15, 2019 4:13 pm

    I (Gen X) can’t imagine anyone saying Millennials are the problem! For instance, they’re the generation most likely to have visited a public library recently. 🙂

    Sounds like a good book.

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