Neal Pollack (Alternadad) Responds to Lisa Carver!Neal Pollack
Like surprisingly many people, I have always held a vague abhorrence for Lisa Carver.
Actually, I haven’t. Lisa Carver hasn’t ever really occurred to me at all. But I thought it would be nice to start out my piece the same way she did. All’s fair in love and parenting.
In any case, one of Babble’s editors emailed me yesterday, saying that I should write something quickly to “keep the conversation going.” I told him that I’d do my best, but that I’m on a book tour and am therefore spending my days doing things like appearing on the show that airs after The Today Show in Philadelphia. It’s certainly not a bad way to spend my days, and I’m not complaining at all. Still, I don’t have much time to write at the moment.
That said, the real reason I found myself reluctant to respond to Carver is because I’m not exactly sure how to respond, or what, exactly, she was trying to say in the essay. But I went to college once, and took a class in The Rhetoric Of Poorly-Thought-Out Rants That Begin With A Nasty Personal Insult, so I shall do my best to interpret.
As far as I can tell, Carver’s problem with my book Alternadad, and with the current associated plague of “hip” writing about childrearing, reduces down to two main points. I’ll address both here, at minimum length, and then let you all fight it out in the comments.
1. I use irony and cynicism as literary crutches and therefore cannot tell the truth about what it means to be a parent.
This is rich coming, as it does, from an aging zinester whose nickname is “Suckdog.” Sure, sometimes irony is my failsafe position. But so is using a review to promote the “end of irony” argument. She may not like the way I use irony to describe my life as a dad, but I’ve always used irony (and poo-poo jokes, for that matter) to express myself. That has nothing to do with a generational preference. My grandfather drove a rusted-out lime-colored Cadillac with cigarette burns on its vinyl seats. He called it “The Jolly Green Giant” and told me that NASA sometimes borrowed its engine to power the Space Shuttle. My uncle, a commercial airline pilot, once had his own plane that he called “Valium Airlines.” I come by irony honestly.
And I think ironic humor is a perfectly acceptable mode of expression when it comes to describing parenthood. When the first thing you do in the morning is deal with the fact that your son has just pissed in his Barrel O’Monkeys, is there any other way to respond than with irony and humor? I’m sorry, but “unfixable sorrow over what we now understand for sure was done to us when we were their age” doesn’t apply here, and “thankfulness” is also, certainly, out of the question. I’ll give Carver a small dose of “rage,” but as for a “quiet sense of sacredness,” well, I’ve never been particularly quiet in any situation, and I don’t hold very much sacred.
Still, I wonder how deeply Carver read into my book. I address serious topics within, like my battles with this country’s health-care bureaucracy, neighborhood politics and class tension, the terrors of circumcision, and the emotional consequences of seeing your kid get expelled from preschool. All this stuff gets discussed at length in Alternadad, and with no irony whatsoever. So what if there are “shit-storms” in the book? Shit storms are funny. If you want a quiet sense of sacredness and a description of getting molested by daddy, re-read A Thousand Acres. You’ll have a frackin’ blast.
2. I refuse to peer into the darkness of parenting, and therefore my book is less than honest.
Upon deep thinking, this second point seems somewhat related to my previous point, but I’m really whacking out the words now, so I’ll keep going.
There’s a scene in my book where a person is stabbed through the heart with a coathanger until he dies. You never saw that on an episode of Home Improvement. I started a neighborhood association because guys were fighting over a prostitute under my son’s bedroom window. And I suffered an almost complete emotional collapse in the year-plus after my son was born. The darkness and I are quite familiar, but I’ve also seen The Darkness perform live. I prefer, and choose, the silly, ironic fake-hair-band version.
Carver breaks out the hoarily-used epigram from Anna Karenina about how “all happy families are alike.” That’s just not true, and I’ve always read that line, yes, ironically. Every successful family must chart its own waters to create its own kind of happiness. The best comic writing about families, like I’ve always viewed my life as a comedy., say, Moss Hart’s Act One, or the memoirs of Jean Shepherd, ends with that family finding peace, happiness, and fulfillment on its own terms.
Lost in all the literary melodrama over Anna’s death is the story of Kitty and Levin, Anna Karenina’s secondary couple, who, after years of struggle and misunderstanding, finally find joy in each other, and in their children. They are the book’s true heroes, willing to banish the darkness. I take my parenting seriously, but I’ve always viewed my life as a comedy with the assumption that it will be, and should be, a happy one. If that doesn’t please or agree with Lisa Carver, then somehow I must endure. Not every story ends with the heroine throwing herself in front of a train.
Finally, I want to address Carver’s weird statement that she, and other people who are fortunate enough to earn money writing, are covering the topic of parenting because their editors “make” them. That seems a bit disingenuous. No one’s forcing anyone else to write about being a dad, or a mom. I write about being a dad right now because I enjoy it and because I’ve found a voice that works, which is rare enough so that I don’t want to discard it right away. A writer as deeply wise and infinitely graceful as Carver should be able to write about anything she wants, as long as she gets a new grammar checker installed on her computer.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go contemplate “a quiet sense of sacredness.” Rage and humility, I’m sure, will emerge from that, followed quickly by guilt. And then I’ll go write about poo-poo on my blog.