Some Families Are Even Happy

by

When was the last time you read a novel and encountered a character who said, “I’m happy. Very, very happy”?  Never?  Fiction’s not expected to be about people who are content.  If they’re happy, how can there be any conflict?  And even if they’re happy, we certainly don’t expect them to be that way for very long. What a surprise, then, when a character says this at the conclusion of a novel, though it could just as easily have been said at the beginning. Deirdre Madden’s Time Present and Time Past shocks because of the complacency of its characters, their contentment, and especially their compassion and their delight in one another. In short, the book is pure joy and every bit as engaging as the most angst-ridden narrative we’ve read most of our lives. Madden has pulled off a major coup. Maybe she should be encouraged to go into politics and see if she can shape the political field as significantly as she has shaped the fictive one. Of course, there are some minor worries. Fintan Buckley (“a strong contender for the title of ‘The Most Unimaginative Man in Ireland’”) believes that he’s suffering from some, odd obsession with past memories. His sister, Mirtina, fled London some years ago after a bitter encounter with a brutal lover. Brother and sister (both in their forties) don’t have much feeling for their widowed mother, Joan, but what they lack in affection for their mother, they feel for everyone else—especially Fintan’s wife, Colette, and three children and their Aunt Beth (Joan’s sister). And when they are all together, as a family, what could be better? Early in the story, after an evening meal, Madden remarks of that supposedly insignificant, common event: “Fintan had been brooding when he arrived back at the house, not quite glum, but in an odd frame of mind.  Even at the end of the meal, it had to be said, asking them to sit for a moment, what was all that about?  But he’d certainly been in a better mood at timepresentthe end of the dinner than he had been at the start, and there was nothing new in that. Colette knows that sitting around the table with his family is what Fintan likes best in life. He is contented and relaxed then as he is at no other time.” We’ve been conditioned—by American novelists and, especially, by our playwrights—to regard the family dinner as a free-for-all, a slugfest, a setting for bloody warfare, but this cannot be said of Time Present and the Past. Food is served any number of times in Madden’s story—in households and in restaurants—and the event is always presented in a positive moment.  So what is the glue that holds this entire novel together? Look no further than the title: time present and time past.  Lucy, who is five or six and is Fintan and Colette’s youngest child, asks innocently, “Where does the past go?” It’s a philosophical question for which we’d all like to like to know the answer. It’s a question Martina muses about one night when she can’t sleep, thinking “about her own life: all the things she has done, all the things that have happened to her. Things that had been important at the time: possessions she had wanted, the attention of certain men; why, she can almost laugh at it now, so trivial and foolish do her past desires seem to her.  Everything will be forgotten, everything.” True, all will be forgotten, but Madden’s characters do not dwell on that reality any more than they do on the future. They live in the present and think well of one another. Even Fintan’s thoughts of his sons—who are both in their early twenties and should have moved out long ago—remind him that they have stayed in the house because they are clearly happy there.  Fintan realizes that he had “longed to see the back of his sons [yet] he will find that he misses them terribly, once they are gone. He will particularly miss Rob, whom, as is the case with all his children, he loves dearly, even though he had frequently found him to be a smart-alecky little know-all…a view not incompatible with love.” That’s about as generous a remark as possible—of course you can love someone in spite of their foibles and little annoyances. That’s what love is. And it is also a love which permeates virtually every scene in Deirdre Madden’s glowing narrative. So sit down and read this happy story of human generosity, of family love. It will provoke a smile on your face and, who knows, perhaps you’ll question your own relationships and begin to think more positively of those you have been wont to criticize.  (I’m talking about myself here, too.)

Deirdre Madden: Time Present and Time Past Europa, 161 pp., $16

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.      

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
Weekend Edition
July 31-33, 2015
Jeffrey St. Clair
Bernie and the Sandernistas: Into the Void
John Pilger
Julian Assange: the Untold Story of an Epic Struggle for Justice
Roberto J. González – David Price
Remaking the Human Terrain: The US Military’s Continuing Quest to Commandeer Culture
Lawrence Ware
Bernie Sanders’ Race Problem
Andrew Levine
The Logic of Illlogic: Narrow Self-Interest Keeps Israel’s “Existential Threats” Alive
ANDRE VLTCHEK
Kos, Bodrum, Desperate Refugees and a Dying Child
Paul Street
“That’s Politics”: the Sandernistas on the Master’s Schedule
Ted Rall
How the LAPD Conspired to Get Me Fired from the LA Times
Mike Whitney
Power-Mad Erdogan Launches War in Attempt to Become Turkey’s Supreme Leader
Ellen Brown
The Greek Coup: Liquidity as a Weapon of Coercion
Stephen Lendman
Russia Challenges America’s Orwellian NED
Will Parrish
The Politics of California’s Water System
John Wight
The Murder of Ali Saad Dawabsha, a Palestinian Infant Burned Alive by Israeli Terrorists
Jeffrey Blankfort
Leading Bibi’s Army in the War for Washington
Geoffrey McDonald
Obama’s Overtime Tweak: What is the Fair Price of a Missed Life?
Brian Cloughley
Hypocrisy, Obama-Style
Robert Fantina
Israeli Missteps Take a Toll
Pete Dolack
Speculators Circling Puerto Rico Latest Mode of Colonialism
Ron Jacobs
Spying on Black Writers: the FB Eye Blues
Paul Buhle
The Leftwing Seventies?
Binoy Kampmark
The TPP Trade Deal: of Sovereignty and Secrecy
David Swanson
Vietnam, Fifty Years After Defeating the US
Robert Hunziker
Human-Made Evolution
Shamus Cooke
Why Obama’s “Safe Zone” in Syria Will Inflame the War Zone
David Rosen
Hillary Clinton: Learn From Your Sisters
Sam Husseini
How #AllLivesMatter and #BlackLivesMatter Can Devalue Life
Shepherd Bliss
Why I Support Bernie Sanders for President
Louis Proyect
Manufacturing Denial
Howard Lisnoff
The Wrong Argument
Tracey Harris
Living Tiny: a Richer and More Sustainable Future
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
A Day of Tears: Report from the “sHell No!” Action in Portland
Tom Clifford
Guns of August: the Gulf War Revisited
Renee Lovelace
I Dream of Ghana
Colin Todhunter
GMOs: Where Does Science Begin and Lobbying End?
Ben Debney
Modern Newspeak Dictionary, pt. II
Christopher Brauchli
Guns Don’t Kill People, Immigrants Do and Other Congressional Words of Wisdom
S. Mubashir Noor
India’s UNSC Endgame
Ellen Taylor
The Voyage of the Golden Rule
Norman Ball
Ten Questions for Lee Drutman: Author of “The Business of America is Lobbying”
Franklin Lamb
Return to Ma’loula, Syria
Masturah Alatas
Six Critics in Search of an Author
Mark Hand
Cinéma Engagé: Filmmaker Chronicles Texas Fracking Wars
Mary Lou Singleton
Gender, Patriarchy, and All That Jazz
Patrick Hiller
The Icebreaker and #ShellNo: How Activists Determine the Course
Charles Larson
Tango Bends Its Gender: Carolina De Robertis’s “The Gods of Tango”