“Dearest father, You asked me once recently why it is I maintain I am afraid of you,” Kafka wrote, suspending in the opening sentence of his “Letter to Father” the contradictory impulses of love and terror that so many modern writers have had trouble reconciling, often with dramatic consequences for their art. For when it comes to literature, it is as if the very concept of “father” acts as a mutating agent, pushing the human imagination past its regular representational strategies and into a strange world of flux and revolution — the world of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, maybe, or a Hollywood monster movie. In 20th-century writing alone, fathers have been turned into ghosts, fascist wing tips, and gigantic half-mechanical corpses rotting in the desert, to name only a few solutions. In one particularly memorable transformation, the great Polish writer Bruno Schulz ended his story “Father’s Last Escape” by turning his narrator’s father into a crab:
My father, quick and mobile as long as he was on his feet, shared with all crustaceans the characteristic that when turned on his back he became largely immobile. It was sad and pitiful to see him desperately moving all his limbs and rotating helplessly on his own axis. We could hardly force ourselves to look at the conspicuous, almost shameless mechanism of his anatomy, completely exposed under the bare articulated belly. At such moments, Uncle Charles could hardly restrain himself from stamping on Father. We ran to his rescue with some object at hand, which he caught tightly with his pincers, quickly regaining his normal position; then at once he started a lightning, zig-zag run at double speed, as if wanting to obliterate the memory of his unsightly fall.
The Chaplinesque scuttle of Schulz’s father swaps Kafka’s love and terror for the more low-key crux of pity and disgust, but the problem that his narrator experiences in the face of it is the same. It’s the problem of fathers, meaning the problem of trying to reconcile things that refuse to stay together — that fly off in separate directions or combine unexpectedly, perplexing us not just when they are strong and imperious, but when they are weak and vulnerable as well. If anything, as Schulz understood, the latter situation can be even more of a problem than the former, since it fractures the comparatively straightforward “Thou Shalt” into a centerless fog. It relieves the father of his authority, but in doing so it opens the Pandora’s box of pathos that holds another, equally unbearable kind of power over us. For at the end of the day, what we really want of the father is not praise, nor support, nor even love necessarily, but the stability that would allow us to move on from him and live our own lives, free from the relentless drag of interpretation and awareness that his capricious transformations demand of us, like a riddle that changes terms every time that we answer it.
Distant as he might at first appear from Schulz’s fantastic metamorphoses, the father in Adrian Nathan West’s new novel, My Father’s Diet, displays an instability that marks him as an incarnation of the same protean paternity that has been ruining literature’s good time since there was time to ruin. Here is the first glimpse we get of him, sprawled across the novel’s first page like a troll guarding a bridge:
My father — my real father, whom I rarely saw throughout my childhood, because my mother divorced him when I was two, and he’d moved to the Midwest to make something of himself — was tall, with a splayed, reclining stance that brought prominence to his round belly. His large, gold-framed glasses gave his eyes a tint of amber. They rested halfway down an unusually shaped nose like a seahorse’s snout, with an initial, broad bow rising up between the caruncles, then turning in briefly on itself before flourishing in a soft, almost square bump. His glasses seemed to be always falling off, to have gotten smudged; or one stem would be tucked cleanly behind his ear while the other had wandered up the side of his head; or else the plastic pads on the bridge piece would have bent, so that they sat at an angle on his face, giving him the aspect of a drunkard or the loser in a fight. They caused him a lot of trouble, and were as often in his hands as on his face. His long, flat fingers would polish the lens with a fold of shirttail, or slide a milky-colored nail into the screw; if it pulled away from the cuticle, my father would bellow and put it in his mouth, and the glasses would have to be sent off to the shop.
As incarnated in West’s prose, the father here is not one thing, but many: a lurching cornucopia, like a haunted house, or one of those Renaissance portraits that depict a face composed out of vegetables. He contains multitudes, but the fit is not perfect; on the contrary, it pitches and shudders, sloshing against itself like an aquarium on a flatbed truck. Given such precariousness, we can understand why his relationship to the smaller, more fragile satellites of the world would be a difficult one, as we can see here with the glasses, which he rages against like Hercules trying to pluck a piece of toilet paper off the back of his sandal — and yet it feels important that, by the time we get to the inevitable issue of his struggle (a cannibalistic “bellow” that echoes, albeit in a minor key, the defiant stare of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son) we are not in the least bit horrified. On the contrary, we are amused and even a little impressed, not by the father’s antics but by the language that his son has used to describe those antics, which refuses to be cowed no matter how much the old man rants and rages. If anything, his description actually grows more detached and meticulous as its subject flails, battening its hatches with the clinical precision of a scientist observing a laboratory experiment. It rises to the occasion by not looking away from it, providing its picture with a poise that feels light-years away from love and terror, let alone the guilty revulsion of Schulz’s stricken son. In this way, the first-person narration of the paragraph actually provides us with not one, but two portraits: the comic-ironic pie routine of the father and, surrounding this like the Plexiglas walls of a zoo enclosure, the accomplished silhouette of the narrator himself, who, despite the obvious instability of his model, appears to have everything under control.
Whether he really does — or whether, on the contrary, his linguistic grip may itself be a symptom of some deeper incapacity — is one of the questions that My Father’s Diet tries to answer, or at least pose, over the course of its trim 200 pages. In order to do this, it enlarges the non-confrontation of that first punchy paragraph, repeating and varying its father-son wrestling match with near-mathematical ruthlessness, like an elaborating fugue. Its two main characters are perfect for its purpose, a Tom and Jerry who perform their respective maladaptations with a rigor that is hilarious and even touching at points, like robots bumping into walls. On the one hand, there is the father himself, an oversharing shamble who, like so many middle-classed, middle-aged middle Americans in contemporary literature, seems to enter his story in a state of permanent emergency, like an ice sculpture straining not to collapse back into water. On the other hand, there is the son and narrator, a sensitive and hyperarticulate young man drifting through the assaultive crassness of his world in the kind of hypoallergenic chamber that snobbish literary characters, and authors, have been using from Petronius to Joyce to Naipaul. The two men appear to be opposites, oil and water in almost every respect; and yet, with the weird, merciless logic of a vaudeville routine, or maybe an ancient Greek tragedy, they are also drawn to each other. They stumble back into one another’s lives in a kind of slow-motion dance, like a pair of astronauts waltzing on the moon or (perhaps even more bizarrely) in the neighborhood Olive Garden:
I arrived first and was sitting in a booth, flicking through a series of laminated cardboard sheets hung on a plastic frame touting specialty drinks in otherworldly colors, the splendors of the salad bar, and mucky desserts served in frosted, oversized martini glasses, when he walked in. My father was dressed in four shades of brown — beige blazer, taupe turtleneck, khaki slacks, and boat shoes (without socks) the color of ferrous clay. He brought with him a new wife, whose existence he had failed to mention. She had dry black hair that framed her face in a succession of hooked billows descending from a pale blue, vermiform part. In her cheeks was the indelible, grainy blush of the experienced alcoholic.
With its glossy surfaces and precise, petal-on-petal coloring, the narration here doesn’t just describe the father: it nails him, placing him in its high-fructose hellscape like a hand setting a lobster in a restaurant tank. The effect is not unlike a medieval painting in which the afterlife’s torments are represented via a Where’s Waldo? of in-focus heretics, usurers, and sodomites: in both cases, the uniformly high finish of the scene serves an aesthetic role that is also a moral one, dazzling us with plenitude while at the same time communicating that the world being depicted is independent of any opinion we might have of it. Its trial is over and its sentences handed down; still, as happens so often in My Father’s Diet, the unruffled smugness of its judgment suggests a larger, more inclusive irony lurking beneath the sheen. It reminds us that, though the father’s writhing may be more obvious, neither man is really getting what he wants out of the meeting. Or, to put a Dantean spin on it, both men are getting what they want out of it: what they really want, as opposed to what they think they want. The father is “reconnecting” with his son, as his own cliché-ridden reevaluation of his life demands; meanwhile, the son is responding to his advances, although not in a way that will commit him to anything more than the usual aloofness. Everything is going according to plan, meaning, essentially, that everything is going superficially, allowing both participants to remain separate from one another: the father in his boisterous consumerist flail, the son in his hypercritical, ultimately passive drifting. The colliding trucks miss each other by inches, gliding past one another without even nicking the lonelinesses that drove them to crash toward each other in the first place — the lonelinesses that, it turns out, are the real things they cannot bear to live without.
They can’t live with them either, however, which is maybe why the narrator’s increasing involvement with his father after their initial meeting (the two men become confidants and even roommates at a certain point) makes sense to us — for despite their many differences there is a way that their separate narcissisms work together. They fit each other, serving a purpose that feels mysterious and functional at the same time, especially as their trajectories begin to converge on a common low point. The father’s investments in his new house, new wife (of the vermiform part), and new business all go bust in predictably humiliating ways, sending him into a spiral of aimlessness and dejection that the narrator recognizes with the ears-pricked perspicacity of a fellow sufferer. Despite his sense that things are going badly, he does not really do anything different. On the contrary, he continues to watch, locked, like so many sons before him, in a paralyzed ambivalence which has felt smart enough up to this point, but which now rings more than just a little hollow, especially in moments — for example, when the vengeful second wife crashes her car drunkenly into his garden shed — where circumstances push his father into what appears to be an actual cry for help:
Everything about him seemed suffused with grief: the purple burst of capillaries in his porous nose, the waxy peak of his skull poking out from a whorl of disheveled hair. He pressed his face between his hands and hugged it with his eight fingers, each wisped with fine white hairs between the knuckles, and his pale, convex fingernails crossed his forehead in an arc, like ivory inlays in a diadem. I patted his shoulders and walked behind him to rub his back, with an embarrassed feeling, as though there were something false in my solemnity; but this did nothing to console him.
This is a touching picture, although not in the cathartic, Lifetime movie way that we expect. If anything, its poignancy arises from an underlying futility: the way that, even in a moment of need, the two men seem constitutionally unable to help each other. They’re like comedians who, after a lifetime performing pratfalls, are suddenly asked to do a death scene. Removed from their comfortable context, the old routines feel like just that — routines — with no more connection to the life around them than a fart joke in a Shakespearean monologue. Their strengths become weaknesses, flipping in an instant into a net of premade connections. The narrator sees through his father with his usual hyperacuity, although also not, importantly, through himself and into the deeper substrata of ridiculousness and futility that the two men have in common. As a result, his vision does not lead into some shared understanding, but toward a confused and deluded embarrassment — not a feeling that there is something legitimately insincere in the son’s pose, but that something might appear that way, “as though there were something false in my solemnity.”
His blind spot is glaring, especially coming from someone whom we have watched make connection after uncomfortable connection with other people over the course of the book. But the funniest (and, yes, saddest) thing about this is how canny the narrator’s reticence turns out to be, for less than a page after playing the deposed king the father has indeed popped back up like a clown-shaped punching bag, intoxicated with his latest scheme! The metamorphosis he’s chosen this time — an esoteric weightlifting/dieting regimen centered around the perfectly named “Body You Choose” competition (there is of course an accompanying reality television series) — appears to come out of nowhere, which is part of the point, since, really, it is not the exercise nor healthy eating that appeal to the narrator’s father so much as its vaguer hopefulness: the way it whispers, like Rilke’s original sculpted torso, “You must change your life.” Couched in the glitter-bomb pageantry of ’90s-era weightlifting culture, its demands sound promising, especially to someone as gelatinous as the father, but they are of course founded on an optimistic, and perhaps not very realistic assumption. “You must change your life,” meaning, by extension, “You can change your life”: you can become something different, moving (at last!) beyond the issueless shapeshifting that has haunted you up to this point. You can wake up, like a doll transforming into a real boy, at which point your real life can begin: not here, but there, in that other, more perfect place, as that other, more perfect person.
But then what about that other boy, the son? Here the manual is less specific, although we get the picture pretty quickly as the father’s regimen progresses, hardening him into the kind of cartilage that even the narrator cannot help but feel repulsed by. His way of dealing with his mixed emotions is the same one it has always been — and then it is perhaps because of the narrator’s continued, relentless deployment of his perfectly denuded language that the final third of My Father’s Diet begins to feel less like the working out of some preordained plot and more like a systematic accumulation of emptinesses, as if the book were creating not a sculpture, but a mold. The severe discipline of the narrative, which up to this point has served as a lens to focus our attention, begins to feel more like a lid, a plate against which we press our ears in scene after scene, waiting for the disaster that we suspect must be lurking in such a tightly wound system. But the intriguing thing about My Father’s Diet is that, no matter how ratcheted its tension gets, the disaster never comes. The comic apocalypse that we would expect in, say, a book by Flannery O’Connor or Nathanael West (to name two clear antecedents of this West’s wry, super-effective prose) doesn’t arrive, meaning that when the narrator’s father finally makes it to the end of the contest, the result is not a peacock’s tail revelation, but just your average lat flex. It’s an anticlimax, which is kind of the point, for if the whole goal of classic athletic competition is to coax divine spirits of grace or power to inhabit our otherwise uninspired bodies, the purpose of “Body You Choose” is to avoid such ecstatic destabilization, encasing the ego in a more hypertrophied version of itself. It is to transform the body into a kind of vehicle, and the mind therefore a kind of passenger, like a driver piloting a gigantic robot. Or, like the narrator himself, hovering untouched behind in the cockpit of his perfectly sculpted prose. Not a touched life, but an untouchable one.
Such a comparison may seem like a leap, but it is one of the achievements of My Father’s Body that, by the time we reach its subtle final pages, we are ready for it — for after watching the narrator struggle for so long, we have come to see that what we are really being given here is a true judgment: a contrapasso as sympathetic and yet, ultimately, as damning as any Infernal metamorphosis. As is the case with Dante (who would no doubt have taken to the amateur bodybuilding circuit like a fish to water), the Gothic particulars of the punishment are less important than the central fact of it, which is that the sinner is stuck forever, beyond not just literally altering circumstances but the more difficult self-understanding that redemption would require. For as West realizes, the worst part about living in hell (whether that hell is religious, or psychological, or the result of late-stage industrial capitalism) is the way that it reduces human beings, calcifying them into mechanical repetition. It’s that way that it encourages them to continue in those relationships that prioritize their own survival in a way that may have been adaptive at one point, but has become parasitic, eating away at their hosts until the world itself appears to be empty and meaningless, a sentence repeated to babble.
Is there a way out of all this? My Father’s Body doesn’t explicitly answer this question, which may be why, for all its anticlimax, the ending of the book feels so fresh. In many ways, it is exactly the kind of kiss-off that readers have come to expect from literary sons, whether the disaster they are limping away from is a shipwreck, or a car crash, or just their ordinary, father-haunted childhoods. But whereas the closure suggested by so many of these endings seems to itself open out and away from the contemplated disaster, the ending of My Father’s Diet feels, again, like a closing in, as if we were watching someone seal themselves into a sinking ship. Its definitive condemnation is like a dolly-zoom in a horror movie, a vertiginous widening of frame that is somehow also an increase in depth. It suspends the narrator in space so dramatically that we cannot help but assume that something bad is about to happen to him. What is about to happen? West doesn’t say, but he doesn’t have to. By this point, we know the worst — the disaster that has hung over the entire book, and which will most likely continue to hang over it unbearably, or rather just bearably enough that its sufferers will continue to bear it. Things will not change, or rather they will continue to change in exactly the same way they always have, a way that we can see now (although the narrator himself refuses to) is not limited to fathers at all, but open to all of us, all the time. It is not a comforting thought.
Josh Billings is a writer, translator, and nurse who lives in Farmington, Maine.