Meg Tuite’s novel, Domestic Apparition, challenges the strictures of the novelistic form. One could qualify it as a “novel in stories” or even call it a collection of stories, but by the end of reading it, its cohesiveness and narrative pull firmly place it in the land of the novel, albeit a unique one, both in structure and content—one that perhaps only a small press would publish (and by saying that, I’m applauding small presses everywhere).
Domestic Apparition follows the life and family turmoil of Michelle—a classic narrator in that she, a great observer, surrenders the stage to her other family members. In the first chapter, Michele is six and entering grade school. We are quickly introduced not only to Michelle, but to Tuite’s fearless, flamboyant use of language, her dramatic humor and pathos: “When I turned six I became victim to one of the many human abuses of dumping a child out of the back of a station wagon into the snot-filled clutches of a pack of anonymous kids.” The abuses of Catholic school in the 60’s are rendered throughout and in general, Tuite masterfully chronicles the helplessness of childhood, how all children are victims until they are not.
The important players in Michelle’s life are Stephanie, her wild sister, whom she worships, her delicate mother, her domineering father, and her brilliant brother, Nathan. We soon meet aunts and uncles and cousins too, and later, adolescent friendships that aren’t really friendships. In the chapter, “Family Conference” where Michelle’s father hopelessly tries to convey order and authority on his brood, Tuite shifts the narrative back and forth between the hopeless family conference and Michelle’s thoughts about insects, which serve to distract Michelle from the painful meeting, but also perfectly reflect our human behavior:
“Dad spreads his arms out in a slow, sweeping arc. ‘Why? Why do you do this to me?’ His arms drop to his sides and he searches our vacant faces again.
Passive migration occurs when insects are swept up and carried away, high into the atmosphere, sometimes thousands of feet into the air, and are transported by air currents to new areas.”
The chapter continues like this, back and forth, showing us Michelle’s need to distance herself, her desire for escape, how family can feel like a prison. At one point she simply thinks, “There is no escape.” And there is none for children until, of course, we enter the perilous land of adulthood.
But before Michelle can enter adulthood, she witnesses and participates, sometimes unwillingly, in a myriad array of chaotic tragedies and absurdities. In the title chapter “Domestic Apparition”, we are introduced to Michelle’s mother’s sister, Aunt Helen. Michelle says of her:
“A phantom in life can become a ghost. I had my own paint by number vision of Aunt Helen. She was a thick slab of beige that looked like my mom, except not outlined. She came to visit without our cousins once…Her hands were shuddering bodies clutching each other and she never smiled. I wanted to hug her hell away.”
Here as throughout the novel, Tuite’s language displays a blend of the strange and the straightforward. Describing a person as “a thick slab of beige” uniquely describes the vagueness, the emptiness, of Aunt Helen, but it’s a description more often suited to a coat, not a person. Later Michelle says, “Mom…Don’t let her go.” Nothing could be more straightforward than that, and it’s the author’s combination of ambitious metaphor and raw, honest observation that propel the narrative. But go Aunt Helen does, and to terrible consequences. This isn’t the only time where our trusted child observer’s (the opposite of the unreliable narrator) prescience is born out.
Other chapters, while still dark and brutally honest, can be quite funny. In the chapter “Brenda Stantonopolis”, we are introduced to Brenda, the friend that really isn’t a friend, a favorite theme of mine in literature, so well explored in “Good Neighbors” by Jonathan Franzen or ”Revolutionary Road” by Richard Yates. Brenda is selfish, manipulative and half nuts. “Brenda not only saw farts, but had imprinted in her brain almost every penis in the group scattered around us and we learned that each one had it’s own particular slant.” The debauchery of small town, bored teenagers is hilariously explored, but the pathos remains. Casual sex, lots of weed smoking, massive alcohol abuse all take place in abandoned parking lots, scruffy empty spaces devoid of charm. Eventually, Brenda gets caught shitting in someone’s yard by the police. How someone of Brenda’s nature handles this entails the rest of the chapter. Tuite ties it all up believably, never missing a beat of the outrageous nature of her subject matter.
But eventually her childhood—and her adolescence—falls behind her and Michelle enters adulthood. The ride to it, as dangerous, shocking, and funny as it was, is not without tremendous compassion and love. The rocky start to independence with its attendant disappointments closes out Tuite’s novel, satisfyingly rounding out the narrative. Any novel that wants to portray the truth of our short time on this planet has to be about failure and tragedy first and foremost, even if interlaced with moments of grace, hilarity and beauty. This Tuite does handily, and Michelle is the perfect narrator for such a novel: she’s sensitive but not a pushover. Her family forms her, but she’s on her way off the sinking ship.
At the end of the book, trying desperately to get a job, that necessary step toward financial independence that is the beginning of freedom for us all, Michelle thinks during the interview, “Then I got questions about my weaknesses. I thought it best to leave out my panic attacks and hatred of humanity for the time being and come up with some placid responses that might get me the job.” Michelle does the right thing here, but thank God Tuite does no such thing in Domestic Apparition. Tuite doesn’t shy away from the rage, the brutality, the fear that Michelle stumbles through as she makes herself out of her family, and into that equally perilous, larger world.