Family of Origin

What do you want?

For some of us, that can be a terrifying question to answer. For Nolan and Elsa Grey, it’s almost impossible. But these two siblings have to grapple with that very question in CJ Hauser’s Family of Origin when their father mysteriously dies.

Ian Grey was a natural biologist who prescribed to the theory of ‘reversalism,’ the seemingly absurd idea that evolution is moving backwards, predicated on the study of a rare bird called the ‘undowny bufflehead.’ So, the siblings embark to a remote island to delve further into their father’s research and discover if he was delusional or maybe right all along.

I have to say it: this is a weird book. If the plot summary didn’t give you that sense already, the absence of any quotation marks throughout the book solidifies it. But there’s skilled purpose and beauty in that strangeness. Hauser immediately establishes that the two siblings are living both in the present and in the past. The Greys are “fondlers of old grudges,” “rescripters of ancient fights,” “relitigators of the past,” “dead-horse-beaters and wallowers of the first order.” Narrations switches back and forth between flashbacks and present events with enough frequency that the timeline becomes blurred, so the reader has no choice but to live in the same past/present confusion as the characters.

The haunting mistakes of the past are a persistent thread and might be the driving force behind why Elsa hopes to move to Mars…no, that’s not a joke. A clean slate, no worrying about politics or climate change or dying bees, just a new planet on which to make new mistakes. It’s a strange solution to an understandable and familiar feeling: the urge to flee your problems.

Nolan doesn’t even know how to articulate what he wants. Desires and needs have blurred into something unspeakable, something too terrifying to explore. The absence of quotation marks in the book makes thoughts and spoken words blur into indistinguishable masses, which makes for an unsettling tension; the feeling that deep dark thoughts are so close to being spoken aloud.

ORIGINAL ILLUSTRATION © DANIEL GRAY-BARNETT

I didn’t pick up this book because I was interested in sordid family dramas or outlandish scientific theories. I actually sought it out after reading CJ Hauser’s essay in The Paris Review, called “The Crane Wife.” The essay explores how Hauser immersed herself in ecological studies while researching this book and she embarked on this writing adventure after the messy and life-altering event of breaking off her engagement to her long-time fiancé. This, by the way, is not at all related to the plot of Family of Origin, and you can read the book without the context of the essay. But for the sake of this post, I’ll draw your attention to a line from that essay:

There is nothing more humiliating to me than my own desires. Nothing that makes me hate myself more than being burdensome and less than self-sufficient.

I think giving voice to wants and needs can make people feel deeply vulnerable and some take drastic steps to avoid vulnerability, whether it’s distancing themselves from other people or, in Elsa’s case, trying to leave the planet. Family of Origin is an impressive novel, but I wouldn’t exactly call it enjoyable. Witnessing the Grey children stumble through communicating their desires made me feel uncomfortable, and sometimes exposed. Maybe that was the point.