Memories of My Father Watching T.V.
by Curtis White
168 pages, paperback
Published by Dalkey Archive Press
Publication date: June 21, 1998
Reviewed by Scott Rettberg in Authors Review of Books, 6/30/1998
Curtis White is not afraid to take risks. As publisher of FC2, he’s had to fend off attacks from right wing congressmen for his decisions to publish books that other publishers are afraid of, like Samuel Delaney’s Hogg, or the Chick Lit anthology. He’s a champion of high-risk literature, outside of the mainstream. In his writing, as well, he goes where others fear to tread. An intellectual commentator and scholar as well as a fiction writer, White’s books mix narrative, ideology and the stuff of contemporary culture in a postmodern manner. But for White, “postmodern” isn’t as much about abstract concepts as it is about a condition of being. He isn’t just performing a high-wire act of technical wizardy for the sake of showing off, but instead for the sake of trying to describe what it is like to live in his own skin, right now, and also back then, in the omnipresent terrain of memory. He has “grown up absurd,” and he’s seeking out a new epistomology, one that will enable a portraiture of that absurdity. Henry Miller, living in Paris, said that America in 1950s was an “air conditioned nightmare.” In his fiction, Curt White, a native of an archetypal surburban community, San Clemente, California, describes what it was/is like to live inside that nightmare.
In his new novel Memories of My Father Watching T.V., White takes as his central thesis the idea that much of his protagonist’s youth, and of his family life, was mediated by television. The T.V. serves as both an obstacle to, and as a gathering point for, young Chris’s relationship with his father:
The defining childhood memory of my father is of a man (but not just a man, of course; it is my father–young, handsome, capable!) reclined on a dingy couch watching T.V. Watching T.V. And ignoring the chaos around him, a chaos consisting almost entirely of me and my sisters fighting.
While young Chris tries desperately to get his father’s attention by demonstrating his prowess at flipping minature Kraft marshmallows into his mouth, his father mentally lives, almost exclusively, inside of the television set. Once we accept this as “our setting,” White’s next narrative move, putting Chris and his father inside the shows themselves in a variety of unconventional ways, makes a kind of weird organic sense. If all that we know of a person is what he watches on T.V. and how he watches it, it makes sense to describe him in terms of the television shows that he watches.
After the prologue, White’s short novel is divided into two sections “GLOOM” and “GLEE,” and each section is then divided into chapters by T.V. Show: “Combat,” “Highway Patrol,” “Bonanza,” and “T.V. Scandal” in “GLOOM” and “Sea Hunt,” “Have Gun-Will Travel,” “Manic Maverick” and “Saturday Night at the Movies” in “GLEE.”
“Combat,” the first section of the novel, demonstrates right off the bat that White’s not going to do a lot of hand-holding, or kowtowing to the reader’s conventional expectations. Its numbered paragraphs each describe a different aspect of the show as a metaphor for the relationship between the narrator and his father. The father here is neither the hero nor the villian of the episode, but the bridge:
. . . my father was a German pontoon bridge built over a narrow French river. The bridge/my father threatened to provide a means of access for Krauts in order to roll their Wehrmacht machines into an area tentatively held by Americans. Therefore, as a strategic priority of the Allied forces, he had to be “taken out.”
Like Sylvia Plath, White imagines the father as a part of the Nazi war machine. Unlike Plath, however, White examines the father as pure device, rather than an agent. He is a bridge, a static thing that just sits there, and in sitting there, has a non-combatant role. The father as couch potato becomes the bridge our heroes must blow. White manuevers in and out of different frames in his numbered paragraphs, from the “real world” dialogue between father and son:
27. “What are doing? I’m watching that program”
“But Dad, you were asleep.”
“Turn it back.”
to the absurd ongoings of the episode itself, to the philosophical and personal implications of the episode. White hops from frame to frame, both in terms of time frame and of ontological reality. His narrative voice changes from that of the literary critic to that of excited child to that of the clinical psychiatrist:
In later years, during his son’s time, there will be drugs for this disorder. Ativan, Valium. Drugs his son will take with gratitude. But for this moment, there is only this enormous DREAD.
It is as if we are shifting phenomonological layers with each successive paragraph. The shifts in focus and perspective White employs in the “Combat” section are synecdochal of the approach he takes in the novel as a whole — each chapter utilizes a different style, and serves as a different “approach pattern” to the material that the book is really about: the relationships between fathers and sons, and in particular, the ways that those relationship can break down, and cease to function. In each show, the father is implicated in a different way: in “TV Scandal” the father plays both a cheating contestant on an quiz show and a stand-in for Richard Nixon in the “Kitchen Debate.” The fact that White chooses to deal in mythic media events is not an accident: his concern is with particularly American version of “the father myth.” In the Nixon/Kruschev section, after the father objects to a translator who is retranslating what Kruschev just said in English, the translator responds:
Forgive me. I merely considered that American fathers and sons never communicate well. They always speak from mutually exclusive positions, one always wholly out of the view of the other.
The narrator has a lot of issues with his father, but the purpose of the novel does not seem to be to condemn the father for his inaccessiblity. Rather, it is more an account of a painful and frustrating struggle to reach him, in spite of the obstacles. The obstacles are well catalogued: from ideological differences over the war in Vietnam to a variety of Freudian complexes. The narrator reaches a point where he can understand his relationship with his father, if he can’t really explain it or change it. As White writes in “Saturday Night at the Movies”:
One way or another, that was it. We’d had our mythic evening. It was over with the startling and uncomfortable suddenness of emerging from the magic of a darkened theater in the afternoon sun or, worse yet, a suburban shopping mall. We’d shared. We’d talked. I’d discovered things about my father. But Anna’s words kept returning to me: “A person doesn’t change because you find out more.” Too bad.
The narrator’s pain is palpable, moving, and human. Though this book is more lament than joyride (some of the moments in the “GLEE” section of the novel are more painful but gleeful), it also at times verges on hilarity. Not since Don Bartheleme’s The Dead Father has a male writer been able to pull off such an exhaustive comic critique of the American mode of patriarchy and its discontents.
White has turned the memoir genre on its ear in this novel. While his material is deeply personal, he feeds it through his literary apparatus of postmodernism. What emerges is an admixture of psychology and philosophy, of memory and ideology. This book has incredible density, especially given its relatively brief length. In spite of all the language games White successfully plays, this is at heart a very readable and touching account of a boy (and the man he becomes) trying to understand what makes his father tick. If the attempt at understanding is a failure, it is not a failure of the novel, but of a culture which has become so saturated with the stuff of mass media that the signals between people who should care more for each other are too often lost in the static. Nietzsche might say that we are human, all too human, but, as Memories of My Father Watching T.V. might respond, we are also simultaneously no longer human enough.