Jesus' Son and Housekeeping's Daughters

Ian Stansel

Oct 20, 2010

I've been thinking about influence lately. And perhaps partly because of a couple recent posts on this blog, I've been thinking about influence in the context of gender. Not too long ago I was in workshop and we were discussing a published book by a female author. Our workshop leader (female--does that make a difference?) noted that the book seemed to be an example of the Housekeeping problem. As in, this author has read Housekeeping too many times. She said that this is a particular issue with young female MFA writers. The conversation turned to something else, but I can extrapolate here.

The author of this book attempted to write about a complicated mother-daughter dynamic, the small ins-and-outs of daily home life, estrangements and outsiderness--many of the themes of the beautiful book by Robinson. But the book lacked the rush of current happening beneath the dreamy surface: the darkness, the philosophical depth, the uncompromising development of an original protagonist. Not that this newer book is bad (no, I'm not going to say which book it was). Nor is influence bad. It is almost unavoidable and often it bears interesting fruit. What is the clipped dialogue of Aaron Sorkin but a child of the clipped dialogue of David Mamet (speaking of gender issues)? But there are times when a good and original thing spawns very bad followers. Look at Eddie Vedder. Sure, we'll still rock out to "Evenflow," but just think about all those growly singers that clogged "alternative" radio through the nineties and early-aughts. Yikes.

So who are the other great influencers of today's MFA (and PhD--I'm not excusing my kind from this discussion) crowd? Because of my teacher's focus on female MFA students, I couldn't help but think of it in terms of gender, and three names immediately came to mind: Denis Johnson, Cormac McCarthy, and Raymond Carver. These three (and in particular Jesus' Son, Blood Meridian, and Cathedral) seem to be the go-to floaties for young men jumping in the writing pool. What is it about these particular books? Well, leaving off the fact that they deal almost exclusively with the male mind (certainly Johnson's narrator is in touch with a feminine side, but come on, he's still pretty dude), all three emerge from their own distinct and strong version of the male voice. This is one of the primary joys of these books. We are immersed in nightmare cowboy poetics of McCarthy, the quiet desperation of Carver's suburban minimalism, the addled man-child thoughts of Johnson's narrator.

This is really no different from what we get reading Housekeeping, is it? Sure, the subject matter is often worlds away, but it is that quicksand effect of the voice that we are so often attracted to, what makes us admire books and authors. I want to do that, we say. And there are certainly worse things to aspire to be than the new Robinson or McCarthy. Or Johnson. Or Carver. Or Bender or Saunders or Proulx or Diaz or . . .