October 19, 2016
I imagine that many things will be said about D. Foy’s highly anticipated novel, Patricide, over the next few months. There will be much hushed and head-shaking praise levied, not only at the arresting way in which it’s told but also about the subject matter—surviving an unsurvivable childhood.
And yet while this is very much the story of one man’s colossal, cyclonic attempt to remake himself from the shards of an annihilating boyhood, I think that it is much more than that. It seems to me that the true subject of this narrative, is the collision of dreams. The lengths to which parents and children break and remake each other and themselves on this contested terrain, this no man’s land of lovesick, homesick, heartsick dreams.
Pat Rice is the nominal subject, and as the trickster title indicates, this novel is part bid to salvage the identity that arises, like Frankenstein’s monster, from the ash heap of his upbringing—and part bid to destroy it. Told in ten different personas, from the child to the alienated adolescent, to the self-obliterating man, to self-recovering man and veering from past to present tense, and from first to third person, form in Patricide shadow function, which is to affirm, as Emily Dickinson suggests, that “ ‘Nothing’ — is the force that renovates the world.”
Among the nonrestorative nothings in Patricide are that there are/no Good/Bad fathers/sons; insanity/addiction is/is not an excuse; love is the potion/poison; help will/never come/s; words do/not work; it is/not my/his fault. A pivotal moment in the story of Rice’s journey from a broken little shit of a boy to an afflicted man-addict in search of truths from abbey to alley and back again—is his seventeenth Christmas, when instead of finding the blue ’68 Fender Mustang guitar craved by the son, there lies beneath Father’s Christmas tree, a damned camera. Rice’s disappointment is epic. After a violent confrontation with his father, this event marks the arbitrary end of his already long-expired childhood, and the beginning of a search for what Rice describes as a “spotless mind,” sections ironically so dark and unpunctuated by redemption that they alternately pass in a turn of the page or a sentence two pages long.
He knew his father. He knew that hope in his father was next to hope in a lie. The years had transformed his father’s body but left his father’s core. His father was the passive-aggressive wizard he’d always been, able as only his father was to craft the hypnotic charm, the hypnotic kindness needed to transfix him. After all those years, once again he’d been blinded by his father’s spell, as he’d always feared to be, as surely as was his father himself still blinded by the father that had got him, too. And neither could he know as he laid on the floor beneath his raging wife that this long ride would mark the beginning of a journey that epitomized forever, from Y, to Y, to Y, to Y, to Y, to Y, and on…
The world is divided between those for whom the wrong Christmas present from their parents yields disappointment—devastation even—and those for whom it serves as confirmation that despite the years of denial, misplaced hopes and clash of wills, the wrong present is final proof of the parents’ utter contempt, as the narrator puts it for the dreams of the son.
“My dream got in the way of my mother and my father. My dream took them from themselves. My mother and father, therefore, I was certain, had to crush me, at which point neither I nor any dream of mine could plague them ever again.”
Like Pat Rice, a close friend of mine was raised by a mentally ill mother—suffering from a similar kind of PTSD, possibly—and a charismatically fallen father. For years I didn’t understand the bitterness with which my friend spoke of his mother, or the estrangement he proclaimed from his father, alternating with bids of infantile weeping or dismissive rage. And then I visited the family itself. On the outside it seemed a loving, “normal” middle class home—a fairy-tale alternative to the bohemian Mouse Trap of my own upbringing—until I spent enough time with them, and saw for myself, the mother’s dead-eyed fits of temper, and the hollowed out father’s imprisonment in her condition. But even without the latter, what struck me was the way in which they seemed so relentlessly crouched beneath a plague of dreams not their own. As if there was, in their refusal to look up from the day-to-day schematics of self-preservation, a direct relationship between the estrangement of their dreams and the validation of others. Patricide inhabits this no-man’s land between dreams and their dreamers, a realm of drooling ghosts who refuse to speak their (father’s) name.
The question that Patricide asks is why? What about a father’s code precludes championing the child when championing the child is the right thing to do? What is wrong when the mother’s unhealed wounds precludes healing the wounds of the child in order to heal her own?
It doesn’t matter. As Rice says, “understanding better doesn’t change the situation.” And yet understand he must. Speaking the words won’t change the facts, yet speak the words he must, and if as the boy “you don’t have words to name the things you know,” as a man the least you can know is that “[n]obody else was going to speak his words. Nobody else could speak his words because nobody else knew the words to speak.”
Is Patricide unforgiving? Is it judgmental of the father? Of the mother? Or crucially of the son: Himself? Not ever. Patricide refuses forgiveness because there is nothing to forgive. It refuses judgement in the best documentary tradition that contends that any moral high ground is a travesty. Yet if good and bad are maybe for the birds, right and wrong are real, and Patricide seems to be grasping—gasping— at the possibility that what is right, cannot be wrong, whatever that is. And ‘right’ is Something, perhaps even the Nothing, that renovates the wor(l)d.
Is this a bleak novel? Hardly. It is glorious. Not only because of its lyricisms that are a cauldron of Ginsberg, Whitman, Bukowski, Dickinson, Duras and Beckett and… but also because of its Penrose Stair-like structure that is Escher-like in its possible impossibility— a metaphor for the father itself.
“My father is a man of such limitless contradictions that it doesn’t seem possible he walks this earth. And how is it possible I’ve survived this long, having been raised in this world by such a man as my father… And how can I live each day in the midst of such terrible ambivalence, how can I hold at once such awesome love and despicable burning hatred?”
Or, as my mother used to say, go ask your father.
Patricide is a glorious refusal of the impossible son to be refused, and to refuse the impossible father who, “made to break,” refuses to refuse the son – and of that unspoken, unspeakable exchange.
JS BREUKELAAR is the author of the novels American Monster (Lazy Fascist Press) Aletheia (forthcoming from Crystal Lake Publishing), and the collection War Wounds (forthcoming from Omnium Gatherum). She is columnist and instructor and LitReactor and Gotham Writers Workshop and elsewhere. Her short fiction has appeared, or will, in publications including Gamut, Lightspeed, Lamplight, Nightmare, Dark Fuse, Juked, Prick of the Spindle, Opium, Go(b)et Magazine, and others. An ex-pat New Yorker, she lives in Sydney with her family, and online at www.thelivingsuitcase.com.