JANUARY 29, 2020
FICTION ABOUT PARENTS is tricky. Vanished or present, their influence is so omnipresent, so necessary, that it’s like trying to write about the effects of air. Attending to it produces a vertiginous sense of one’s own susceptibility.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons novels have been so historically hospitable to orphans. As literary scholar John Mullan has suggested, “the orphan is above all a character out of place, forced to make his or her own home in the word.” Freed of parents, novels invite us to imagine that we are the heroes of our own lives. Novel about parents, though, remind us of all the ways our lives are never simply our own — a precept doubly true when the parents in question are ones we might very much want to leave behind.
Crissy Van Meter’s debut novel, Creatures, understands all this. Semi-orphaned by itinerancy and alcoholism, its protagonist Evie (Evangeline only to her absent mother) shares many of the trappings of the self-made heroes of fiction, roaming feral through the tourist towns and majestic wilds of Winter Island, a fictional addition to the Channel Islands off the Long Beach coast. At home equally among hard-drinking fishermen, druggie punks, wealthy vacationers, and scientists at a local marine research center, Evie’s youth exists on the knife-edge between adventure and danger — a reality that she seems to recognize more acutely than any of the adults that lurch in and out of her life. But instead of indulging in sui generis self-mythologizing, the novel asks instead what it means to accept your ties to parents who always let you down. Staged around life junctures — adolescence, leaving home, marriage — in which the inherent conflict of having or not having parents feels most acute, Evie must make peace not only with her mother and father, but also her own desire to love them despite their neglect.
Bookended by scenes of preparation around Evie’s wedding, the novel jumps back and forward in time, loosely charting Evie’s life from the dawn of teenhood into her 30s. Interspersed throughout, short second-person chapters framed as Q-and-As about whales zero in on specific vignettes from Evie’s past, magic-lantern shows that reveal the lights and shadows of her formative relationships. The writing in these sections glows with immediacy, though the Q-and-A conceit, like much of the novel’s marine motif, feels superfluous.
Still, by mimicking the arbitrary leaps and obsessions of memory, Creature’s nonlinear structure seizes on moments of joy and pain, merging the clinical scrutiny of hindsight with the emotional urgency of a past that still feels present, as in an account of when Evie’s father, inebriated but always charismatic, finagles a boat to take her entire sixth-grade class whale-watching, though the chances of seeing anything are slim. Against all odds, the trip is an exhilarating success for the class, but a misery for Evie, who pukes with seasickness while her father ignores her, caught up in the admiration of teachers and kids as he careens the boat through the Pacific. “And as the boat moves faster,” the narrator recalls, “the horizon will become tangled with the sun shining in your eyes, and because of your father’s charm and his ability to just often enough keep his promises, there will be dolphins and whales. […] You’ll want to cheer, but your stomach will be sick.” It’s a scene that could have been played for humor, but, in a voice that has the quality of an adult reliving a childhood trauma, there’s only anxiety and pathos.
In such scenes, the title of Van Meter’s novel feels like a callout to another badly parented semi-orphan of literature: the creature of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Here, as in that novel, “creature” suggests both vulnerability and strangeness. In tender moments, Evie’s father likes to call her “little creature,” a name that feels appropriate to their make-due island life, scrabbling for shelter and comfort and sustenance like any other fauna. But the epithet still carries with it a sense of something unfathomable.
In Shelley’s novel, “creature” proliferates. Children are often deemed such, “innocent and helpless creature[s],” gifted to the world by God’s grace. Yet the two protagonists at the novel’s center — Victor, a hubristic scientist, and the unnamed being he creates — are also “creatures,” albeit of a different sort: “unfashioned,” isolated, and wretched. Though Victor seeks to distance himself from his creation — the strange child he is both mother and father to — the ever-multiplying term accentuates his inseparability from and likeness to his unfortunate offspring. “Creature” becomes this being’s default appellation, a family title as appropriate as any other.
Creatures shares this sense of inescapable and often problematic genealogy. Like Victor Frankenstein and his creature, the parents and children of Van Meter’s novel are tethered to one another in mutual incomprehension. During what Evie refers to as the many “little tragedies” of her life, she often imagines confronting her parents but always pulls back, knowing that such truth-telling is more likely to augment disappointment than yield apology. When Evie’s dad stands her up on an important night, she comes up with scenarios that would absolve his forgetfulness — injury, altruistic heroism — before going to the bar where she knows she’ll find him. Watching him through the window, she confronts not him, but her desire for him to be something more than he is:
I thought of marching in there, of scratching his face off, of really getting loud and telling him how terrible he was, but there was a worse problem: I wasn’t sure I felt that way. […] [T]here was nothing to do but forgive him. There was no other way to love him. It just had to be full of disappointment and love.
It’s a commonplace realization — the idea that you have to love someone the way they are rather than the way you want them to be — but Creatures makes the pain of it feel fresh.
At the same time, the novel never seems to know what to do with Evie’s parents as characters. Her mother especially remains half-realized, her reasons and desires always out of reach. Perhaps this is by design. Scenes with Evie’s parents often feel fuzzy with nostalgia, the narrator parsing past emotions with the softening influence of distance. When Evie watches her mother dance at an impromptu bachelorette party in an island bar, “she’s a wondrous creature,” partying with abandon, reliving her own past. The passage effectively highlights Evie’s ambivalence toward this woman who is so different from herself; she’s a good companion, though a shitty mother, and maybe this is enough.
Elsewhere, though, Evie’s mother seems like a bad-mom caricature — selfish, femme, sexual, invested only the drama she creates. It’s this version that appears when Evie recounts awkward visits to her mother and whatever boyfriend she happens to be living with, or when her mother (perpetually unnamed) swans back to the island ready to stake a short-term claim on Evie’s dad. The distance between Evie and her parents makes sense, but her narration’s inability or unwillingness to probe the interiority of these mysterious beings belies the sense of adult understanding and peacemaking that the novel elsewhere claims Evie has realized.
Creatures is best when it’s showing us how Evie’s relationships with her parents inform the bonds she makes with others. Her parents feel most real when they’re off the page, their neglect haunting her attempts to figure out how to be cared for. This care first comes in the form of best-friendship with Rook, a worldly rich girl, equally on her own but better at hiding the pain of it than Evie. Though Rook too steers Evie toward situations that are equal parts exhilaration and risk, she does so in the guise of a maternal mentor, capable of shepherding Evie through the Scylla and Charybdis of young adulthood. Even when she’s encouraging Evie to flash her breasts from the sunroof of a limo, she’s “strangely perfect” at making Evie “feel safe.”
But it’s in Evie’s relationship with Liam, the man she marries, that the novel offers its richest exploration of love’s difficulties. As if not knowing how to live without the feasts and famines of her childhood, Evie encourages Liam, a commercial fisherman, to come and go on whatever ship he can find work, often for months at a time. Given these conditions, the couple accepts extra-marital relationships as inevitable, though each admits heartbreak when they find out about the other’s affairs. “I want him to tell me he knows the difference between lonely and alone,” Evie says on the cusp of one of Liam’s departures. “I want to know which one he is with me right now. I need him to tell me that he’s sad about us, about everything that’s happened, and that somehow this will make the joy even brighter.” Moving rapidly yet vividly over years, the Liam chapters vibrate with frustration; for Evie, knowing what you want doesn’t mean you won’t sabotage your own attempts to get it. It’s the rare novel that understands and articulates how the patterns of childhood map our adult lives, and the insight Creatures offers into these dynamics makes the reading experience feel not unlike being privy to the notes of a superb therapist — compelling and excruciating in equal parts.
Creatures, however, is no “This Be the Verse.” Here, your mum and dad might fuck you up, but they are not your fate. As Shelley’s Frankenstein suggests, sometimes letting go of the sense that your life has a destiny also means dispensing with the illusion of its limitless possibility. Creatures too points toward the liberation of compromise: accepting you’ll never shake your parents’ influence is its own version of freedom.