Wednesday, November 15, 2023

DAY: A Novel, growing up is hard, growing old isn't

DAY: A Novel

Random House
$28.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

One of Literary Hub's Best Reads od 2023!

One of Harpers Bazaar's 45 Unputdownable Books of 2023!

The Publisher Says: As the world changes around them, a family weathers the storms of growing up, growing older, falling in and out of love, losing the things that are most precious—and learning to go on—from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Hours

April 5, 2019 : In a cozy brownstone in Brooklyn, the veneer of domestic bliss is beginning to crack. Dan and Isabel, troubled husband and wife, are both a little bit in love with Isabel’s younger brother, Robbie. Robbie, wayward soul of the family, who still lives in the attic loft; Robbie, who, trying to get over his most recent boyfriend, has created a glamorous avatar online; Robbie, who now has to move out of the house—and whose departure threatens to break the family apart. Meanwhile Nathan, age ten, is taking his first uncertain steps toward independence, while Violet, five, does her best not to notice the growing rift between her parents.

April 5, 2020: As the world goes into lockdown, the brownstone is feeling more like a prison. Violet is terrified of leaving the windows open, obsessed with keeping her family safe, while Nathan attempts to skirt her rules. Isabel and Dan communicate mostly in veiled jabs and frustrated sighs. And beloved Robbie is stranded in Iceland, alone in a mountain cabin with nothing but his thoughts—and his secret Instagram life—for company.

April 5, 2021: Emerging from the worst of the crisis, the family reckons with a new, very different reality—with what they’ve learned, what they’ve lost, and how they might go on.

From the brilliant mind of Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cunningham, Day is a searing, exquisitely crafted meditation on love and loss and the struggles and limitations of family life—how to live together and apart.


My Review
: A novel about liminal spaces, a story about transitions, endings, startings-out, and ultimately survival. So, status quo ante for Author Cunningham. As one expects from him, the prose is just beautiful, the characters appealing, the story, while slow paced, one that compels the reader's attention.

The fact of the matter is that novels about the COVID pandemic...a distinct class from pandemic novels, which can be set at any time...are going to need a certain timelessness to be anything other than nonce books. Cunningham's track record suggests that he's well-aware of his task (The Hours was an epidemic novel on several levels and has survived the epidemics it was set during). How better to address this than to focus on the family?

The great, consuming monster that is family, made or found, genetic or simply relational.

The Big Lie of postwar culture was that falling in love with someone meant that one should feel fulfilled, completed, and Happy with them as a partner. The divorce rates of the 1960s and 1970s gave that a thorough debunking. What happens in the made family that, in US culture, goes by the apt name "Nuclear" is often, inevitably more akin to fission than fusion. Dan, the husband, is an almost-was musician turned househusband. Isabel, the mother, is frustrated that she never got the life she expected with the husband she wanted. Robbie, the gay uncle, is their relief valve. They rely on him way too much to jell their emotional experiences of life together. He's living in their attic...which metaphor I'll leave unexplored... while he sorts out his own tangled love-life and career. There's also Dan's brother, his brother's platonic babymama, and their child. Dan and Isabel have two kids, and the kids are unaware of how much this life they've all lived together can change.

For a novel that takes place on three days albeit ones separated by one year from each other, this felt from the get-go to me like an overabundance of points of view. Nothing that happened changed my mind. The brother/babymama drama left me wondering how the lummox didn't see this coming, nor were his family members innocent in not discouraging him from being a sperm donor. He wasn't emotionally prepared for fatherhood so shouldn't have consented. There lies my first bleat of irritation. Isabel, during the pandemic, decides to write Violet, her traumatized daughter, a letter detailing her emotional unraveling and the end of her marriage to Dan to the fifteen-years-older Violet. Since Robbie is at that point in Iceland living his online masquerade life as Wolfe (it actually makes sense in the book) she had to express her disillusionment with her life choices to someone. May I just say that, as someone who was waaay overshared with by his parents (to put it mildly), I say without hesitation that this is a truly terrible idea. There is no point at which a child needs to know what led Mom to not wanting to be mom anymore. If they ask, parents are well advised to deflect.

Robbie, the fulcrum of the levers shoving these people ever-farther apart, is a case-study all by himself in how not to be in relationships. He's crafted...with Isabel, his Instagram persona that is an extrapolation of himself into omnicompetence, an unattainable goal for flesh-and-blood people, and is seducing others into accepting it as real not just the extra-curated version of himself. There's an element of catfishing in this; it's dishonest at the minimum. The fact that Isabel is both a co-conspirator in and, bizarrely, a victim of, this weird catfishing says a lot about the fundamental performative nature of family life. Aren't we all constructing and curating personas within a family, in fact a relationship of any sort? There's an entire sociological concept devoted to this idea.

If this is to be a lasting artwork explaining the COVID pandemic to us and our heirs, it has to get something otherwise unavailable from the pandemic setting. Here's where I falter in my appreciation for Author Cunningham's dramaturgical eye. I got my expected frisson of lovely-language-gasm. I got my soap-opera needs met with the dynamics of the family decohering and then showing signs of coalescing into other forms. But did any of this illuminate the pandemic's unique social upheaval?

On balance, yes but in a curious way no. This family was always going to undergo fission...people who can't, or don't, or won't communicate clearly and honestly with each other will always fail as a system...and that is just accelerated by the pandemic. That the family is made up of generationally appropriately queer-friendly people is just recognizing realities that are the source of the screeching angst of the change-intolerant religious nuts. The parts of the story that I felt illuminated the pandemic were the grace notes of style, using the forms and format of social media, to make the point that life moved on even while reality stopped. I think some people saw this as a bug, but I believe it's a feature. Insta will, goddesses willing, be long dead by the time pandemic babies are old enough to read this novel, but they'll see how deep and unquenchable life's demand for love and conncection really was back in the quaint pre-wearable-quantum devices days of Mom and Dad's youth. They'll see that the familys they live in were new, slightly scary, ideas yet to develop into what they accept as normal. They can get from this read a sense of the liminality of forced change and its many many echoes.

I think this novel will, like The Hours, stand up to the passage of time. Of course, I'll be dead by the time the verdict is rendered. But I feel good about my chances of being right.

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