:: Article

On Taylor Larsen’s Stranger, Father, Beloved

By Drew Broussard.

Taylor Larsen, Stranger, Father, Beloved (Gallery Books, 2017)

What happens when a reader expects a novel to be one thing and it ends up being something else altogether? This is not an infrequent occurrence in my reading life. Perhaps I pay too much attention to jacket copy and blurbs. Or perhaps the fault lies with the capitalistic machinery that strives to recreate the last hit instead of organically producing a new one. Whatever the cause, it’s really not the author’s fault that the book she wrote isn’t the book you thought you were reading.

But then, what are we to do with a book that seems not to know itself? How should a reader grapple with a book whose execution is at odds with what appear to be the author’s intentions?

Taylor Larsen’s novel Stranger, Father, Beloved had its paperback release in April, and it starts from an enticing premise: a man sees his wife talking to another man at a party, decides that she should have married that man, and sets out trying to replace himself with that man. It’s an instantly fascinating idea, one that evokes Tom McCarthy and Charlie Kaufman. What strange, humorous, philosophically potent hijinks could result from such a curious and yet completely understandable idea? But Larsen makes it clear almost immediately that this is not the book we are reading, which means that right from the start, the gap between expectation and reality begins to open up.

Something is wrong with Michael, the husband, and Larsen doesn’t want us to miss it. In the first chapter, after an oddly touching scene where Michael spies on his wife happily chatting with the other man, his thoughts are described as “an evil growth,” a “malignancy,” “a dark mass.” His motives, which might have appeared benign or quirky, are quickly made suspect.

Michael’s daughter, Ryan, is soon introduced and only reinforces this suspicion. She’s a typical rebellious teenager, scoffing at her parents, pushing them away. The love she felt for her father has mostly dried up, to the point that she now spends most of her time at a friend’s house—hanging out not with her friend, but her friend’s mother.

This relationship happily brought to mind the novels of Megan Abbott, but once again this would be a promise the novel would not deliver on. Perhaps this is down to Ryan’s semi-unreliability as narrator. There’s a moment where we’re told about a string of events from Ryan’s point of view. Her friend’s mother then presents a slightly (but crucially) different version of those same events. There is no resolution about whom we are to believe, so we can no longer quite trust Ryan, any more than we can trust her father, Michael, who in the meantime has put his plan in motion, but as more of a watchmaker god than an interventionist one. He’s hired John, the man his wife was talking with, to landscape their backyard, and begins to invite him regularly to stay for dinner or have a beer. His twisted hope here, it turns out, is that he’ll become an indispensable part of the family, at which point Michael can remove himself, leaving his wife in John’s hands.

It’s here that the novel tries on its third guise, what John Warner has termed the “White Male Fuck-Up Novel,” a self-explanatory genre that arguably encompasses everything from the modern-day masters (Franzen, Lethem, Walter) to earlier ones whose work could be re-described this way without much difficulty (Hemingway, Dickens, Shakespeare). Michael’s behavior falls into the almost-laughable, almost-tragic category of so many who came before him: a smart, well-off white man who can’t quite get his shit together.

I have found easy pleasures in this genre, perhaps because I am a white male who has and undoubtedly will continue to fuck up. But its charms have faded of late. A white-male-fuck-up novel is simply less appealing at this moment, as we’ve all spent the last eight months watching white men not just fuck up their own lives, but the lives of everyone else, and in a way we cannot possibly ignore any longer.

I find it nearly impossible to talk about books in general these days without acknowledging that the very act of reading has fundamentally changed since the U.S. presidential election. Literature has always served as a kind of imaginative escape, for me and many others, but such escape is, it seems, far harder to achieve under a Trump presidency. Politics has crept into all my thoughts; the latest catastrophe is only a push notification away, lending every phone vibration an added intensity. I suspect I’m not alone in this feeling. These days, I might read something as silly as a Terry Pratchett novel, featuring wizards and a flat world floating through space on the back of four elephants who in turn sit on the back of a giant turtle, and I’ll still find a way to connect something in the book to our tortured present.

Reading Stranger Father Beloved under these circumstances has the unfortunate effect of magnifying its most serious flaw, which is bigotry and its representation. Larsen scatters curiously misogynistic and patriarchal turns of phrase throughout the novel, to no effective purpose: a C-section is described as being “so rudely slit apart in places that were not meant to be opened”; a bar scene suddenly and inexplicably devolves into a homophobic shoving match; and the wife of Michael’s best friend from college is described as “[stealing] a bit of his preciousness and [pulling] it into her feverish vagina for her own purposes.” Larsen wants the reader to connect these descriptions to Michael’s instability, but I find it difficult to stomach the argument that “it’s just the narrator’s state of mind” when coupled with the late-novel revelation that Michael is in fact a closeted homosexual, still in love with that friend from college.

It is of course not unheard of for American men to repress their sexuality and, as a result, develop some distinct psychological issues, but Larsen pushes the point further—too far, in fact. With so much genuine misogyny and homophobia coloring our current political discourse, I couldn’t help but find these phrases and thoughts to be toxic to my enjoyment. The most beautiful and finely crafted part of the novel, Ryan’s sexual awakening and her discovery of a life outside of her family, concludes with Michael accidentally barging in on her and her girlfriend, then frantically running out of the house and believing “that his insanity had infected his daughter, no doubt, and out of desperation she too had turned perverted and sick…. Or perhaps he passed along a faulty gene?”

We never hear from Ryan or almost anyone else again after this passage, as it comes just eight pages from the end. Instead, we see Michael return to live with his ailing mother in a short sequence that was too reminiscent of Psycho to be effective. To drive home Michael’s instability and unreliability as a narrator, Larsen also packs into these pages a failed suicide attempt, and the novel concludes with a moment of ostensible rebirth—a moment that, in its own way, recalls its initial McCarthyesque promise. But by that point, I was no longer thinking about the novel’s structure or its characters and their development: I was too busy lamenting the book’s reductive and regressive thoughts on the nature of homosexuality and mental illness.

Drew Broussard is a New York-based writer, musician, and performer. He co-hosts the podcast So Many Damn Books, runs the blog Raging Biblioholism, and produces events with The Bellwether and The Public Theater. He is working on his first novel.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 27th, 2017.