Jami Attenberg’s novel is about what we wrap up. The cover of The Middlesteins appears to be a fast-food burger wrapper: quintessentially flavourful but fleeting.
Edie’s mother watches Edie’s father’s heart beat beneath the skin of his chest.
Edie notices the bones at the top of her chest, poking out like shells beneath sand.
Her husband remarks upon the way that her hips moved beneath a silk dress when she was standing in front of a fountain in Rome.
And Richard observes his daughter Robin’s sinewy arms, a thin vein protruding from beneath the skin.
These are just details, of course, but heart and bone, hips and veins: they make us move, keep us alive. They are vitally important under-layers, though the novel is preoccupied with what lies beneath in broader terms as well.
For readers to invest in this story, however, to want to peer below, there must be solid characterization.
Jami Attenberg achieves this in short order; her voice is sharp and clear, and in only a few pages, Edie Herzen takes shape and commands the attention of readers.
“Little Edie Herzen, lioness in training, already knew how to roar.
Her mother dropped the bags to the floor. She grabbed her daughter, she held her against her, she squeezed her (wondering again why Edie was already so solid, so hard), she shushed her baby girl, the guilt boiling in her stomach like an egg in hot water, a lurching sensation between wanting her daughter to stop crying already – she was going to be fine in five minutes, five years, fifty years, she would not even remember this pain – and wanting to cry herself, because she knew she would never forget the time she dropped two cans of beans on her daughter’s fingers.”
When readers meet Edie, she is five years old and she weighs 62 pounds; each of the chapters devoted to her in the novel appears with a note about her weight, and even when the perspective shifts to other characters, Edie’s weight is often discussed or alluded to.
Readers know that Edie’s mother had guilt boiling in her stomach, but much of The Middlesteins is preoccupied with what is boiling in Edie’s belly, what makes her continue to consume so extravagantly even after she has been hospitalized more than once.
Towards the end of the novel, a general observation is made which seems to hold something-like-an-answer: “When she was engaged, she could make anything happen. When she was sad, and she had been so much lately, she could do nothing but eat.”
By this point in the story, however, readers are unequivocally sure of Edie’s sadness, but a broader question has emerged: if sadness is the root of Edie’s problem, then why doesn’t every character’s chapter heading include their weight in pounds.
Most of the Middlesteins are sad.
When Robin goes home to her parents’ house (Edie and Richard’s house), she sees a “swirling mass of strip- and mini- and mall-malls that defined the burbs – there was more to the suburbs, she knew that, but that was all she could ever see anymore, her view obscured by a combination of prejudice and neurosis – a deep depression began to constrict her”.
Some (most?) of them are lonely.
“Seeing the familiar, seeing her eyes, it had touched him; it had been sixty-plus-days since he had seen anyone he was related to.”
Some (most?) of them are angry.
Rachelle, Edie’s daughter-in-law remarks: “…she pecked at Richard constantly, as if she were a sparrow and he was some crumb just out of reach; it made Rachelle like her less.”
Some (most?) of them are worried, like Benny, Robin’s sister, son of Richard and Edie.
“He was worried about his mother, two surgeries down, maybe another on the way, and he was worried about his daughter and his wife, who had both forgotten how to smile, and he was, on a smaller scale, worried about his father, who seemed adrift and sad now that he had left Benny’s mother and was playing the field, the sixty-year-old suburbanite field, which he couldn’t imagine was a particularly fun field, and, for the first time in his life, he was least worried about his sister, who, he was pretty sure, even as closed off as she was, as unrelentingly cranky, might actually have met someone and fallen in love.”
Some of them are frustrated, like Richard and Edie’s granddaughter (Benny and Rachelle’s daughter):
“She swore if her mother could adjust the color of the sky to match her own eyes, she would, just so it could be just right.”
Some of them are hopeful.
But only sometimes.
And not enduringly.
“Richard Middlestein, Jew, independent business owner, father, grandfather, a man – he believed – among men, walked into a dirty, crowded bar, where he had no business being on a Friday night, on a path to retrieve and secure the woman of his dreams.”
So, the Middlesteins: why spend time with a bunch of sad people?
Primarily because Jami Attenberg creates voices for them that are simultaneously specific and universal, drawing readers closer to the guts of the story. Her style changes to reflect the focus in a given chapter (note the succinct voice of the granddaughter, for instance, compared to the frantic loose strains of her father).
She manages a diverse set of voices consistently and skillfully, with a strong enough authorial voice to carry the work as a whole behind these scenic contributions.
The variety of perspectives can be pieced together for a broader understanding of the family dynamics, but even though Edie’s presence remains strong throughout the novel, by the time readers reach the end, they understand why it is named for the family rather than any individual member of it.
There are certainly comic elements, too, and there is a great event for readers to anticipate (the contemporary corollary to the wedding that might have graced this story’s resolution, were it told two hundred years ago), which provides a satisfying arc of a story.
But, fittingly, the story wraps up with guileless chaos. Jami Attenberg opts for candor rather than comfort, and the novel pulses with credibility even as elements of the story are bound to disappoint readers who refuse super-sized servings of sadness.
The Middlesteins: the story of a single family which will resonate powerfully with members of other imperfect families in and out of Chicago, on and off the page, superficially and lastingly.
She will participate in the “Shape Shifters” Round Table on Sunday October 27 at 12pm, tomorrow.
This post is part of the 2013 IFOA Celebration.