[3 June 2008]
If the nature of parenthood seems like an ambitious topic for any novel, it’s certainly a surprise to find it as the central theme of an otherwise unambitious book. The questions driving Joan London’s The Good Parents—what is “good” parenting and are its results also “good”—seem poor fits for a book that’s stylistically simple and rather conventional.
The Good Parents is London’s second novel, following Gilgamesh, which won an impressive array of prizes back in 2001. It opens with a young girl, Maya De Jong, newly arrived in the city from a rural Western Australian town. Maya works for a mysterious small company and has fallen under the sway of her equally shady and enigmatic boss, Maynard. It’s giving away little of the plot to say that she soon enough disappears with her employer.
Maya’s parents arrive for a visit, only to find an empty room and few clues to Maya’s whereabouts. They mostly spend the rest of the novel waiting for her to come back, while the reader is treated to flashbacks from their own lives. When you think about it, this makes the flashbacks rather like the half-time entertainment in a football match.
It also places the focus squarely on the characters of the parents. In the same way that Laura Palmer became largely irrelevant to the story of Twin Peaks, so the missing Maya is somewhat tangential from the moment she skips town. Maya’s life and decisions are mostly devices to force Toni and Jacob to re-evaluate their own choices and pasts.
Toni and Jacob are presented to the reader as the classic Baby Boomers: born in the early ‘50s, awakened by the sexual and herbal options of the late ‘60s, and settled into a quiet life of vague non-conformity by the ‘90s. Their path through life is a familiar one and sadly, not a very interesting one.
Rebellion for Jacob consists of a little bit of pot, a dash of voyeurism and a heady dose of Tolstoy—Timothy Leary he is not. Toni goes further by marrying a mobster, but even then she seems to be able to do it in a surprisingly mundane way. The two of them eventually meet, fall into a kind of love and settle into child-rearing in a small wheat-belt town. This would be a diminution of pace where it not for the fact that they didn’t seem to be going anywhere beforehand.
London’s style is mostly the issue. She is heavy on description—even to the point of overload in the early chapters—yet sparing with metaphor or poetry. As a result what might otherwise have been a languid, dreamy narrative, reminiscent of the pace of rural life, ends up as merely dull. There is simply not enough flair in the writing to make up for the sluggishness of the plot.
Unfortunately, the undistinguished prose detracts from the interesting themes London touches on: the generation gap and the challenge of parenthood. The Boomer narrative has been told over and over, but The Good Parents sets out to explore its echoes in the next generation. Every generation has its distinctives and its repetitions of previous groups. By contrasting Maya’s story with those of her parents, London draws out these similarities and differences.
The Boomers are widely regarded (mostly by themselves) as a rebellious generation—overthrowing a repressive conservatism to usher in a new age of self-discovery, peace and love. The fact that this new age was little more than a mirage and that the Boomers went on to embrace the capitalism-gone-wild of recent decades has done little to dent this self-perception.
The new generation, Generation Y to the marketers, seems to be less revolution-minded. Certainly we live in more permissive times and it may be that there is less to rebel against for the young. Yet the children of the Baby Boomers have still gone through the process of bucking parental authority.
For Boomers like Toni and Jacob, this is confusing. In their own optimistic youth, they swore to be different to their parents—less uptight, more compassionate. “Good”, in a word. They felt that by rejecting the aloofness and reserve of their own parents, that they could help their kids bypass the awkward nest-leaving of their own generation.
While Toni and Jacob’s style was different to that of their own parents, the outcomes seem to be unfortunately similar. Maya’s attachment to her selfish, dysfunctional boss is little different to her mother’s own inappropriate teenage relationship. And son Magnus’ immersion in the world of music is reminiscent of his Jacob’s introverted Tolstoy fixation.
This echoes the larger theme of Boomer decline and the failure of the social revolution. For all the promise of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the cries for peace have failed to prevent further tragic wars, the pleas for equality have not eliminated discrimination and consciousness-raising has proven less popular than crass materialism.
In the post-hippie world, the best many could hope for was to instigate change in their own homes and communities through small splashes of counter-culture. For Toni and Jacob, this is through their approach to parenting. Odd as it may seem, the goal of these old rebels seems to have been removing the need for revolution in the next generation.
With Maya’s disappearance and their own “goodness” shown to be ineffective, our protagonists are cut adrift and spend the novel aimlessly trying to regain their purpose. They never find it and it’s a shame that we care so little whether they do.
As with so many sociologically-inclined novels, there are interesting ideas hidden in uninspiring text. And if there are better novels written on the subject (and in this case there are), that leaves very little reason to take it off the shelf.