Austen Saunders

A family of boozers and whoremongers

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Why, one wonders, would a first-time novelist having been born in London, and having spent most of his adult life living in South Wales, set his narrative in mid-century America? For so is J.P. Smythe (surely one of the finest Victorian names to grace any young writer today), billed on the flyleaf of his debut offering, Hereditation. A cockney Taffy then, but one who apparently feels the need to place his family saga on the other side of the Atlantic. One hopes this is not because proper stories only happen these days in the movies or (even worse), the twentieth century American lit module of creative writing courses. But then I suppose Shakespeare was but ill-acquainted with Illyria...

First things first, this is not the Great American Novel (but how delicious if a European were to be the one to write it). Hereditation looks very much towards the American tradition though. It’s a family saga in the mould of Faulkner which follows the eventful lives of two brothers (Erwin and Maynard Sloane), and which unfolds, through the contents of an inherited trunk of rather neatly edited episodic narratives, the unsavoury history of the Sloane family right back to their arrival in America (and here cliché turns itself inside out), on the Mayflower. As Erwin and Maynard’s lives become increasingly dysfunctional and the family and its home fall apart, a curse carried in their blood seems to be fulfilling itself (and it’s no coincidence that Erwin ends up HIV-positive – his blood was already cursed).

The episodic flashbacks to Sloane family history are, I’m afraid, very much the weak part of the novel. They are ostensibly reconstructed by Maynard from the letters and documents in the ancestral chest, but they appear in Hereditation narrated in a form and voice that bears little resemblance to any document a 17th century New-Englander (for example), might have produced. Just how Maynard is supposed to have constructed his family narrative is left unexplained.

These flashbacks are riddled with anachronism. It just does not ring true, for example, to read that a young man decided to leave Billericay to board the Mayflower because “he needed employment” and “there were places for staff on the boats”. You don’t need a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary to hand (first use of “staff” in the sense of a body of employees recorded in 1837), to know that this doesn’t sound right coming from the early 17th century (can you imagine Shakespeare writing it?).

Perhaps, to be charitable, the anachronism is deliberate, because this is the story as told by Maynard, in 20th century New York, after piecing the tale together from the evidence and imposing his own anachronisms on it. Fair enough. But that doesn’t explain how stories of racial and sexual exploitation emerge in the narrative with such an easy awareness of the hypocrisies they reveal. Either Maynard’s forebears are supposed to have happily recorded for posterity the fact that they were secretly raping their Native American servants, and murdering their wives for sleeping with black men, or Maynard is doing some pretty serious reading between the lines. Smythe offers no suggestion that this is the case. We are left with the inescapable feeling that our twentieth-century novelist has created a rather clichéd narrative of American colonial and frontier history and tried rather too hard to squeeze it into a clever narrative framework.

Here, also, failure is more obvious than success. Hereditation is a bit over 200 pages long, and feels just that length. Compare this to Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, another family saga of dark secrets, but one written in such a well compressed form that you feel like you’ve read the whole Bible on the back of a postcard. Faulkner’s narrative tricks, in other words, work hard. They create an awful lot of density and complexity and make the Compson family’s present life inseparable from the immanent nightmare of their past.

Smythe’s techniques don’t work half so well. We gradually learn more about the Sloane family’s past, but the resonances between past and present (basically, that the Sloanes have always been dysfunctional and too prone to liquor and women), are soon established and little expanded on. Thereafter, the historical episodes just feel like a succession of anecdotes Mark Twain might have told you on a particularly damp Tuesday. There’s no sense of any inescapable and essential link between past and present (unlike in another great Faulkner family saga, Absalom, Absalom!), just a healthy dose of symmetry and repetition.

Which rather sums up Hereditation. If you’ve seen The Shawshank Redemption, the prison scenes will seem familiar. If you’ve seen, well, just about any Hollywood film, you’ll recognise the New York family lawyer with his voice “gruff, the sound of thousands of cigars smoked to the quick, their ash and dust washed into his lungs with glasses brimming over with single malt”.  And if you like novels about family, love and loss you could certainly do worse than this (not that you aren’t spoiled for choice). But try and make time for Faulkner too.