By Landry Harlan
Jonas Hassen Khemiri does little in The Family Clause to put his own spin on the usual domestic showdown of repression versus dreams of liberation.
The Family Clause by Jonas Hassen Khemiri. Translated from the Swedish by Alice Menzies. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pages, $27.
The characters are nameless in The Family Clause, the disappointing new novel from award-winning Swedish author and playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri. Each of the titular kin are referred to only by their familial bonds. A grandfather who is a father. A sister who is a mother. A son who is a brother. This conceit begins to fray over the course of the narrative’s 10 days, as the family reunites in Stockholm and unravels decades of buried grievances. A grandfather becomes a forgotten father. A sister isn’t a mother. A son is transformed from a father into, well, a petrol thief. The specter of a dead sibling also haunts the family. It’s not a happy reunion.
The domestic troubles begin with the arrival of the grandfather. He’s a Scrooge-like patriarch who believes “love is a dictatorship,” and that people are like ants because “they don’t know what’s good for them.” He’s quick to find fault in everything and everyone, particularly his “disgrace” of a son, a dad on paternity leave in the midst of a midlife crisis — he’s considering becoming a stand-up comic — and obsessed with winning the approval of his one- and four-year-old children. The son is also preparing an act of rebellion: ending the father (not family) clause that lets his grandfather maintain Swedish residency by living in the son’s apartment twice a year.
The father has a much better relationship with the daughter, though he — and unfortunately Khemiri — pay her afflictions scant attention. She, like her brother, is trying to avoid becoming a neglectful parent like her father even though she lost custody of her son in a messy divorce. Still, she’s beloved by her father for her good job as a PR consultant and good relationship with her PE-teacher boyfriend, but the father only sees the surface. What he doesn’t know is that she’s pregnant and considering an abortion. She and her brother have potential, but the sins of the father weigh heavily on them as they struggle to figure out how they can break free of the family chains
From Shakespeare to Disney, strained parent/child relationships have been a cornerstone of drama, high and low. They’re also been revisited and revisited and revisited over the centuries — to the point of becoming clichés. Karl Ove Knausgård, through his use of expansive confession, has freshened up Nordic family drama. Khemiri does little here to put his own spin on the usual showdown of repression versus dreams of liberation. The father “came and went” during the son’s childhood. He now shows up unannounced. Over a 17-year period he has sporadically called and requested money. The son desperately wants to avoid the faults of his father, but he deeply longs for his approval. The pair repeatedly spar and point fingers at each other’s limitations — sometimes via the same scene through shifting perspectives — but both are too stubborn to see their own hypocrisies. It’s a relationship built on neglect and resentment, and just too familiar to be compelling.
Choosing to focus on the father/son relationship over father/daughter is the key to the novel’s shortcomings. The leading men lack nuanced personalities, and their constant bickering quickly grows tiring. Whatever foreboding their verbal tussles generate fizzles out once the anticlimactic confrontation over the father clause is reached. The daughter’s perspective is relegated to ringside status; surprisingly, she is never given a one-on-one confab with her father. Why not set up a scene in which she might break free of her father’s grip and shatter his pride? Unfortunately, Khemiri chooses distractions instead: extended experimental sections in which the point of view changes to that of a ghost and then a four-year-old child. Both are jarring detours from the novel’s realism and they contribute little to the story, neither insight nor pathos.
Still, while the novel suffers from staleness, Khemiri’s playful style (and no doubt his playwriting background) keeps the acrimonious, though wordy, confrontations moving along. He deftly crafts intimate scenes in which short, staccato-like sentences are used to describe details and movements. In particular, the book’s depictions of parenting are chaotic and hilarious, such as the son’s desperate search for hot dogs during a family outing to placate his demanding toddlers: “The four-year-old starts to cry. The one-year-old starts to cry because the four-year-old is crying. A blue bendy bus appears. The father has an urge to let go of the buggey, jump onto the bus, and disappear.” What parent hasn’t had that fantasy?
These amusing asides keep The Family Clause from becoming a slog. Khemiri is clearly a skilled writer. He avoids sentimentality and doesn’t shy away from excavating the deep flaws and nagging wounds of his bedeviled characters. But this family is fractured according to formula: a dull plot and stagnant ending only compound the feeling that we are dealing with the generic conflicts of a clan with no name.
Landry Harlan is a writer based in Cambridge. He has written no books, but will happily and honestly tell you what he thinks about yours.