Top 10 Books of 2010: #8

The Man Who Loved Children

#8: THE MAN WHO LOVED CHILDREN, Christina Stead

For the next few weeks, I’ll be thinking back through the books I read in 2010 and ranking my favorites in a top 10 list. Today, meet number 8: Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children.

OK, so I realize that the other two books I’ve ranked so far (Ada and One Hundred Years of Solitude) have also been about big, totally crazy families. What can I say? I have a niche.

I picked up The Man Who Loved Children because I’m reading through Francine Prose’s book list, Books to Be Read Immediately. The list appears in her fabulous book, Reading Like a Writer. I’ve been reading through this list for two years now and I think I’m maybe halfway through. I don’t always love the books Prose picks (see William Trevor’s The Children of Dynmouth and stuff by Philip Roth, for example), but this one really got to me.

The Man Who Loved Children is a large, complicated novel that eludes simple categorization. It was the first novel I’ve ever read by an Australian and one of the first I’ve read from 1940. I don’t think a great deal of quality literature was produced in the 1940s, for good reason, and so my knowledge of the period is quite slim. The Man Who Loved Children was also one of the first novels I’d read all year that was completely riveting and yet thoroughly baffling. Even now, looking back on the novel, I can’t say exactly what it is about Stead’s style that is so strange and yet so perfect. Something about the mood she creates in The Man Who Loved Children is eerily enchanting. Her characters are not fantastical, but they are mysterious, even when they appear to be revealing their deepest desires and ambitions.

The novel doesn’t tell the story of a pedophile—which you might unfortunately expect, given my great admiration for Nabokov. Rather, it’s the winding tale of a savagely dysfunctional family, the Pollits. Samuel Pollit is an idealistic, scheming bureaucrat in Washington, D.C. He lives in a squalid home in the Georgetown suburb with his wife and nemesis, Henny. They have six children. Sam and Henny hate each other with such fervor that they haven’t exchanged words in over two years, and instead use their children as messengers to deliver handwritten notes to the other parent. Sam and Henny are so deep in their own worries and domestic agendas that they are consistently unaware of the damage they inflict on their children. The undercurrent of emotional violence is deeply disturbing, made doubly so by the fact that this novel is often hilarious. Sam has crafted a family language through which he communicates with his children, using his own invented jargon to both awe and control them. The children are believably sweet and funny and yet seem precociously capable of seeing through their father’s ruses.

Louisa, or Louie, the eldest child in the Pollit household, is particularly able at calling her father’s bluff. She was Sam’s daughter from his first marriage and Henny despises her with the passion of the archetypal evil stepmother. Sam seems to favor Louie at first, but as Louie grows up and approaches adolescence, it becomes clear that she will not turn out pretty or graceful or sweetly domestic, as her father wishes. Heartbreakingly, Louie recognizes her father’s gradual dissipation of love. But it is Louie’s story that becomes the triumph of this comically ruthless novel.

Reflecting on the central conflict between Louie and her father, Jonathan Franzen writes in his wonderful review of the novel:

In a lesser work, this might all read like a grim, abstract feminist parable, but Stead has already devoted most of the book to making the Pollits specific and real and funny, and to establishing them as capable of saying and doing just about anything, and she has particularly established what a problem love is for Louie (how much, in spite of everything, she yearns for her father’s adoration), and so the abstraction becomes inescapably concrete, the warring archetypes are given sympathetic flesh: you can’t help being dragged along through Louisa’s bloody soul-struggle to become her own person, and you can’t help cheering for her triumph. As the narrator remarks, matter-of-factly, “That was family life.” And telling the story of this inner life is what novels, and only novels, are for.

Toward the end of his review, Franzen remarks on how Stead’s masterpiece is largely unknown in the Western canon. (I had never even heard of it until I saw the title in Prose’s list.) He relates a brief anecdote in which his wife found the book at the library and declared to him that it was the best book she had ever read. I don’t know if I would call it that, but it is definitely a book that will stick in my side for many years. Writing out of her own family sorrows—Stead apparently based Sam Pollit directly on her own father, and Louie on herself—the author has plumbed the darkest recesses of the nuclear family and yet emerged with a victory; a victory in the shape of a daughter’s escape and the tragicomedy that accompanies it.

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