Jami Attenberg Explores Patriarchal Fallout in 'All This Could Be Yours'
Through a familial lens, Jami Attenberg offers a thoughtful and often darkly funny exploration of Trumpian patriarchy in All This Could Be Yours.
All This Could Be Yours
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Jami Attenberg's sixth novel All This Could Be Yours has earned her some thematically consistent praise: "oddly sparkling master of warped family sagas" (NPR), "poet laureate of family secrets" (Kirkus Review) and "masterful psychoanalyst" of "familial dysfunction" (USA Today). Suitable, for a work that reckons with a "real bad man".
The novel opens with the 73-year-old patriarch Victor Tuchman angrily pacing the floors of his New Orleans condo—"grinding himself against the floor, the earth, this world"—as his bored wife flips idly through Architectural Digest. The aging pair moved to New Orleans from Connecticut the previous year under mysterious circumstances. While they pretend it is to be near their grandchildren, everyone knows that they have fled something awful, because they are not a close family, and, well, Victor is a monster.
More specifically, he is a ruthless "mercenary", a developer who deals in shady business practices and violent abuse. Although Victor's heart attack in the first few pages sets the plot in motion, he is not the center of this tale. Indeed, Attenberg has
stated in interviews that Victor originally was not going to appear in the book at all. In the final draft, she gives him the first few pages, and then she spends the rest of the book "investigat[ing] what this kind of toxic male behavior can do to a family."
The primary narrators are Victor's victims—the family members who alternately avoid, deny, prevaricate, and dissimulate him and each other in their efforts to survive the Tuchman traumas. First up is his wife Barbra, a "strangely ageless" woman obsessed with getting her "steps" in. She counts her steps by the thousands as she marches up and down the hospital hallway where her husband is dying, her mantra—"thin and pretty, pretty and thin"—running through her head.
Barbra's other obsession is for material things and the status they invoke. As a young woman, she dreamed of a man who would give her everything, and she made quite the dangerous patriarchal bargain to achieve this fantasy. "Objects," Barbra muses, are "both treasures and disposable," which is a fairly accurate description of how Victor seems to think of his wife, when he thinks of her at all. Over the years, this "stone-cold ice queen", the most frequent object of her husband's violence, remains the keeper of his secrets.
Victor's secrets are their daughter Alex's obsession. She is hungry for the truth, and she is angry. In the gym, Alex runs "while hating", thinking of her father's cruelty and the self-loathing it bred in her. This hate, and her quest for answers, fuels Alex, but Gary, her younger brother, takes the opposite approach, wanting nothing more than to expunge their past.
Gary tries to be everything his father was not: a family man, a provider, a doting father, and a good partner to his wife Twyla. But Twyla is secretly a wreck, as well, and she has the most memorable response to trauma in the novel when she has a nervous breakdown in a pharmacy. Each of these narrators is utterly isolated, alone with their pain. They are a dark, sad, secretive family, and even when they laugh, it is "in that doomed Tuchman way."
While readers take a detailed tour through the Tuchmans' post-traumatic stress responses, some of the most intimate moments feature fleeting strangers: an elderly man in a wheelchair in the hospital hallway, a streetcar driver, a pharmacy cashier, a bartender, a ferry conductor. These peaks into the thoughts of strangers mostly serve to underscore the theme of the family's isolation, as others attempts at communication with them fail time and again. A few of these glimpses into their lives don't quite work, and they are uneven in length and depth.
But while the other characters present some of the best parts of the novel, there's an overall thematic ambivalence to this "kaleidoscopic" approach. Loneliness, isolation, the failure to connect or even communicate—these are certainly the familial consequences of the brutal paternal reign of Victor Tuchman. But these are also the problems of most of the narrating strangers. This adds a broader bleakness to All This Could Be Yours.
In interviews, Attenberg addresses this context. "I was wrestling with America when I wrote this book," she explains in one interview. In others, she specifies her interest in Trump's white female voters and argues that the novel is really an "interrogation" of Barbra. Barbra's patriarchal bargain—her "tacit deal" to accept decades of abuse in exachange for the power and privileges of her marriage—is one way to explore this political demographic.
The generational and cultural consequences of pervasive misogyny are, of course, timely themes, and it has been noted that Victor, the "bad capitalist" developer who mistreats women, bears a clear resemblance to the current president. But Alex is no Ivanka, and Gary is no Donald, Jr. For all their avoidant behavior and dysfunctional emotions, they yearn to get past their past. Through this familial lens, Attenberg offers a thoughtful and often darkly funny exploration of Trumpian patriarchy.
If there is a way forward in the story of All This Could Be Yours, it is through human connection. The least isolated narrator in this novel is Sharon, the New Orleans coroner. Sharon lives alone, and she thinks quite a bit about loneliness, but she is connected, communicative, and content. She gardens meticulously, sharing everything she grows with her cousins and neighbors, and she hands out cash to homeless people on the way to work, where, as the coroner, she gives "her best thoughts" to Victor's body.
Sharon knows Victor is a "real bad man", but she sees this knowledge as an opportunity for her male coworkers to learn how to be better toward women. If these men can learn from Victor's terrible example, so too, can women learn from Barbra.
At her death, Victor's granddaughters go through Barbra's things, but neither of them wants her massive jewels. The reader is left hoping that the third generation of Tuchmans has escaped the traumas of toxic patriarchy within their family. By extension, if our society decides to reckon with the power of "bad men", perhaps we can escape the cycle, as well.