When Jeffrey Eugenides or Jonathan Franzen tackle relationships the literary establishment goes a big rubbery one, while thrillers from Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins rake in all the dough. Yes, writers can write whatever the hell they want, but let’s face it – authors writing against their gender bring an edge to their work. When tackling family life, guys tend to hit the gas harder and have more plot-driven narratives. When offering a thriller, ladies usually hang more fleshed-out characters on their plots. No one one would argue that believable, fully-formed characters are a detriment to any book, but perhaps folks who like domestic fiction aren’t looking for drive.
Let’s consider Ben Greenman’s The Slippage and Dan Pope’s Housebreaking, a pair of domestic-dude novels written two years apart (The Slippage came out two years ago and Housebreaking comes out today) and united by the fact that I happened to read them back-to-back. Fair warning if you don’t like spoilers, but there’s nothing ahead you wouldn’t find out if you read dust jackets.
1) No One Has Sex with Who They’re Supposed To
Even though Greenman’s William Day has been married for more than a decade, and Pope’s Benjamin Mandelbaum is recently separated, adultery is afoot for both of them. No surprise there. If suburban characters slept exclusively with their spouses in these Cheever-Perotta type novels, that would be a surprise. William’s business trip indiscretion moves across the street, all but forcing him into an affair. Ironically, Benjamin is blameless of the accusations which force him to move back in with his father – it’s his history of adultery that gets him the boot. He takes up with a married women – his high school crush – to ease his pain. Neither man comes across as blameless, but both books posit that adultery is the symptom of a problem marriage rather than the problem itself.
Bonus points for Housebreaking, where really, not one person has sex with who they should.
2) The Neighborhood is Plagued by Petty Crime
I’ve read this is a metaphor for suburban unease but I’ve never found that myself. The arsons in The Slippage make William suspect everyone in his life, and it’s more about how his mind is his own worse enemy. The string of robberies in Benjamin’s neighborhood serves to introduce important minor characters and offers him an opportunity to reflect on how his old home has changed.
3) Both are Midlife Crisis Novels
Neither comes right out with it, but the growing pains of William and Benjamin’s marriages are really the growing pains of their lives. Louisa Day and Judy Mandelbaum are going through their own issues which have nothing to do with their less-than-perfect marriages and everything to do with feeling empty in their lives. William and Louisa, Benjamin and Judy; do they end up embracing the lives they live, or letting go? You’ll need to read them to find out.
This my second Greenman, besides the excellent collection A Circle is a Balloon and a Compass Both. I like Greenman’s prose better than Pope’s. Check this out, something profound immediately undercut by the narrator’s self-deprecation:
“Sometimes people place the future between themselves and the present,” he said. “I’m trying to find out how to make things work now. If I do that, then the future’s just the sound of that same note sustaining.”
“That’s beautiful, “Karla said. The idea was something William had acquired from a magazine, which didn’t make it less beautiful.
At the same time, I found Pope more relatable. When he wrote about Benjamin’s Thanksgiving football game, it was like he crawled behind my eyes, looked around, and put it on the page:
It had been an annual tradition, he and a group of high school buddies, getting together for a game of two-hand touch, rain or shine. Once it had been a crowded, heated, well-played affair. Over the years, the Thanksgiving-morning game had dwindled to a handful of diehards, some of whom brought along their teenage kids toward the end, along with theri tender hamstrings, delicate ankles, and bad backs. A couple of years ago, when one of the diehards ripped his Achilles tendon on the opening kickoff, they’d finally come to their senses and called off the game.
Housebreaking is split into two parts, “The Mandelbaums” and “The Martin-Murrays.” The Martin-Murrays section is divided into subcategories featuring each family member. While this is intended to devote equal time to two different families, the overall effect is that Benjamin Mandelbaum gets more meat on his bones as a character, while the Martin-Murrays get short shrift by comparison. Since the same ground is sometimes covered from different points of view, there was probably fear that the reader would grow bored. But I would have liked to hear more from Audrey Martin, Andrew Murray, and their daughter Emily (never a bad thing, I suppose). I’m certainly going to check out Pope’s first book, In the Cherry Tree, so he must have done something right.
Anyway, if you want to know what the boys think of domestic life, these two books are a great way to start. For my part, I’m going to make it a threesome.