Is it just me or are most books now about family in a way that would've been impossible in the 2000s?
I had a theory in the early 2000s about Haruki Murakami’s popularity. I’d noticed that in none of his novels did the main protagonist ever indicate the existence of proximate family. Perhaps in passing, the protagonist would say something about where he grew up, but there were never siblings or parental obligations or children. That had to be why he was so popular, I surmised. Readers, and especially 20-something Americans, wanted to believe that a realistic, individualized adult life could be spawned without a family ecosystem. It made being alone kind of awesome.
Today, I thought about the new 2021 books I read. Postcolonial Love Song by Nathalie Diaz. Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner. Rememberings by Sinéad O’Connor. Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters. Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So. Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg. Pop Songs by Larissa Pham. Stone Fruit by Lee Lai. No One Else by R. Kikuo Johnson. Twilight Man by Elizabeth V.C. Brown. The Betweens by Cynthia Arrieu King. This week, The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us From the Void by Jackie Wang and Fire is Not a Country by Cynthia Dewi Oka. Some slightly less new books—Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. DMZ Colony by Don Mee Choi. Be Water, My Friend by Shannon Lee.
Mostly fiction or personal essay, all of these books (with a couple notable exceptions) have one thing in common: family. Family as creation, family as supporting cast, family as villain, family as reality, family as fantasy, family as saga. And I thought today, day 3XX of the pandemic, with my mother staying with us indefinitely, with facetime calls to my sister every day when previously we might’ve done that a total of three times (?)—I could not imagine a narrative world without family all over it anymore. I cannot imagine reading a book that doesn’t include butt loads of family members.
Is it just me or was everything I was reading in the 2000s so much about the non-existence of family? Circa Murakami Fever, there were all the Jonathans and all the Philips. Not just dudes. Cintra Wilson, Tama Janowitz. Seinfeld, Sex and the City. All these things cast a yarn rather than to extend the febrile courtesy of a textural collective. Threads, not rugs. And the femmy ripostes. Everything Candace Bushnell (does what’s her face have parents? Why was having children the conclusion of the story?). Gonzo feminists like Virginie Despentes, Elfreide Jelinek (swoon) didn’t talk about family until they did, and then woooooof. But was that family or a psychosis? They were only popular because of European movies that made everyone vomit.
Remember when we were all reading the Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante? Was that the end of the Spawned Individual 2000s era? I wonder which is the “truer” realism—the urban matrix of individualistic anti-heroism (Carrie! That’s her name), or the trauma of interdependency, Italian-style?
Oh wait, The Sopranos were extremely about family eh? I understand my theory has holes but that’s why it’s just a theory and this is just a blog. I also know there’s a universe of literature I am not aware of. I’m not here to talk about that. I’m not talking about the dark side of the moon. I’m talking about popular mainstream fiction of the 2000s. How books have been marketed to me. For so long, the literary fiction of even the local bookseller’s recommendation seemed to prioritize people with no preponderant obligations, no legal claims, no attachments of the soul that weren’t set up just to be thrown into hell (I’m thinking of all the infanticide that’s been so popular in television and film now).
I’m so grateful to have so many amazing writer friends without whom I’d never know a world of families was possible. Possible without feeling let down by my own heritage, my inability to emancipate without help. Dependence conflicts are sexy.