May 21, 2011

Dysfunctional Families

I've been watching HBO's Game of Thrones. They're doing a great job and staying true to the novel, but a couple of the actors don't fit in with the medieval/primitive setting. Jon Snow is a soldier-in-training, but the actor who plays his role looks more like a sultry poet, like if Johnny Depp and Shia LaBeouf had a child. Not how I pictured Jon Snow. And Daenerys is supposed to be a 16-year-old concubine with white-blond hair. The actress in her role looks like a tired 28-year-old with bleached hair, a deep tan, and collagen-injected lips. I doubt the Dothraki horde carries hair bleach and botox with them, so the L.A. look seems a tad silly.

Still, I love these books (you can read my review from 2002). I'm not above bragging that George R.R. Martin read and critiqued the first chapter of my novel, "City of Slaves," while I was at the Odyssey Writing Workshop. This was the chapter that introduced my character of Thomas--and G.R.R. Martin said mind readers are hard to write, and he thought I did a good job. He went on at length about it, and I glowed the whole time. I wish I'd brought a voice recorder to that session.

I've been reading a lot of great fiction lately that involves dysfunctional families. Since I'm kicking around a future novel idea with a horrid family as its centerpiece, I'm comparing these fictional families, and I can't help but study A Game of Thrones. "A Lannister always pays his debts." Heh heh heh ...

Many dysfunctional family stories involve incest. Jamie Lannister feels sorry for the way his sister Cersei is treated. He loves her out of a misguided combination of worship, empathy, and stories of the Targaryens, a fictional royal family who often wed brother to sister--similar to Egyptian pharaohs. Cersei Lannister was unable to choose her husband, and she resents being married to a drunk whom she considers her intellectual inferior. So she chooses her lover--her brother--because she has so much family pride, she can't see anyone else as being good enough for her.

Another popular theme in fictional families is a child struggling to gain the approval/praise of an unworthy parent. Jamie, Cersei, and Tyrion Lannister all try to please their father in various ways. They're willing to kill, lie, commit adultery, and start wars in order to hide an ugly truth from daddy dearest. Yet when the reader finally meets Tywin Lannister, he's as cold as an alligator. He's all about verbal abuse. People admire Tywin because he's clever; he makes money and commands battles with success. But does he truly deserve respect? This is a man who uses people like pawns, including his own children, yet they continue to vye for his love.

Finally, there's the issue of sibling rivalry. A Game of Thrones explores all shades of sibling rivalry. Sansa Stark, the elder daughter, is going through the pressure of what-is-expected-from-a-lady, and terrified that Arya will make her look bad and ruin her future. Arya, the younger daughter, is terrified of losing the freedom that boys have, and being forced to act as fake and demure as Sansa. Every woman in the world has gone through these stages. Every woman with a sister probably remembers the worries and fights caused by seeing an older or younger sister grow to face teenage pressures.

There's Jon Snow and Robb Stark. I find this rivalry especially tantalizing, even though it doesn't turn ugly in the book series. I've always been fascinated by class systems and the disparity between rich and poor. Jon and Robb are the same age and share the same father (so they believe), and they grew up together, with the same servants and everything. But one is a bastard without any rights to a land or a title, and one is the heir to Winterfell and the largest of the seven kingdoms. This sort of treatment would turn any normal stepbrothers into bitter enemies even at a young age, but Jon and Robb both have nice dispositions, so they try REALLY HARD to be friends. Robb never mentions Jon's bastard status, and Jon tells himself over and over that he is devoted to his brother and will never begrudge him. But then stuff happens. Jon endures hardships--the best fate a bastard son can hope for--while he hears distant news that Robb has become a king ... Robb is getting married ... Robb is wallowing in wealth and power. Jon begins to choke on bitterness and has to acknowledge it.

I just read a book called Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn, which was partially inspired by the Jonestown cult. It's also a beautiful examination of a horrifically dysfunctional family taken to extremes. SPOILER ALERT: If you plan to read Geek Love, skip this paragraph. Anyhow ... the sibling rivalry is particularly poignant in this book. Jealousy is what turns the eldest son into a monster. Artie is constantly worried that he's not as good as his siblings. The admirable thing about the little monster is that he is the only character who is fully cognizant of the truth. The twins are more beautiful and talented than he is, his dwarf sister is more normal and compassionate than he is, and the Chick is more powerful and more loved than he is. Artie uses every trick of psychology to prevent them from realizing these facts. He is a sideshow freak, and he repeats the party line his parents fed him (and their many redheaded employees): Freakishness is a wonderful gift. They delight in deformities. But Artie knows that his parents purposely handicapped him in order to use him as a tourist attraction. Artie can't walk or feed himelf; he can't turn the page of a book without help. He is fully reliant on other people, and the only value his parents truly see in him is his ability to draw a crowd. Anyone who can do it better becomes a threat to him. So Artie focuses on manipulating and controlling crowds. When the conjoined twins draw larger crowds with their piano routine, Artie starts his own religious cult to upstage them. When his baby brother shows signs of being a bigger "miracle" than Artie, he tries to smother the baby with a pillow. He cons his siblings, step by step, into doing his bidding, and uses distraction techniques in order to ensure that they won't have enough time or energy to figure out what's really going on. When the conjoined twins start hiring themselves out as expensive prostitutes, Artie feels threatened by their new independent source of revenue, and he has them impregnated and one of them lobotomized. When Artie thinks he's losing his sister to a new boyfriend, he gets the supposed boyfriend murdered. His acts become more desperate and more monstrous, but at every step, it's clear that his fear of his siblings lies at the root of everything he does. And it's pathetically clear that Artie is unaware of his own talent: He is a genius. He's among the most well written evangelist-dictators I've ever seen. He could have used his brains for better things than destroying his siblings and parents. Ah, the tragedy.

Siblings who murder each other. Siblings who marry each other. Siblings who hire thugs to rape or torture each other. It all seems far removed from normal life, but human history is peppered with these sort of rivalries. Byzantine politics was full of murderous, back-stabbing rulers who tortured their own parents or siblings to death. Ancient Egyptian pharaohs and Hapsburg monarchs were all about incest on a grand scale. I imagine that high stakes brew the most atrocious families.

It's good fodder for stories. Everyone recognizes elements of their own family in a fictional one, so there's instant affinity. Dysfunctional families can be exaggerated, pulled apart, and examined through the lens of fiction, which gives us new and fresh ways of looking at families we know in real life.

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