Saturday, February 21, 2009

Granta 104: Fathers Edited by Alex Clark

"A father," says Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, "is a necessary evil." It seems to be the fate of most dads to be remembered with a mixture of affection and contempt. The male contributors to Granta 104 are generally less forgiving than the women. "I don't accuse myself of being a shit to my father because I think perhaps all men are shits to their fathers," writes Michael Bywater, while Adam Mars-Jones recalls how he mocked his father's egotism. "He's always been my antihero," says David Heatley of his father, so the artist turned this "sad, broken little man" into a limited edition wooden toy. On the other hand, Jonathan Lethem idolised his father, with his "Midwestern kindness" and "prairie-gazer's soul", and Benjamin Markovits pays tribute to a father who watched him sit on the bench for two hours every week at his high-school basketball game.

One of the most memorable pieces is David Goldblatt's account of his father, who ran a spanking club called the Red Stripe, and the squalid details of his murder. Goldblatt cried when he opened the boxes containing items from his father's flat ("I mean raging, head banging, animal noise crying"), even though they included some leather paddles and a box of butt plugs.
Good fathers are expected to create special memories for their children. The bad father in Kirsty Gunn's "The Father", for instance, fails to keep a promise to take his children swimming. But generally, in fiction, if a father does make the effort to drag his sulking brood outside, it almost always results in an "incident". So it is in two of the best stories here, Justin Torres's exuberant "Lessons" and James Lasdun's tense and menacing "Caterpillars".

It is left to Siri Hustvedt to inject some intellectual rigour into proceedings, though her elegant memoir is marred by a reliance on external authorities (Montaigne, Kafka, Woolf, Harold Bloom) to bolster some overworked aphorisms. Still, it is worth reading.

One of the best features of the magazine is a series of photographs of fathers described by their offspring, including Ali Smith, the cartoonist Alison Bechdel and Sid James's daughter, Reina. "Portrait of My Father" works very well - certainly better than the photo essay of wrestlers, which, given Granta's middle-class readership, comes across as an exhibition of working-class curiosities, however well-intentioned.

So what have we learned? Fathers are distant and rubbish at maintaining friendships, but they can also be kind and effortlessly cool, injecting a little excitement into the domestic routine. As the writer and film-maker Ruchir Joshi observes, we are all probably incapable of being the fathers we want to be. When his Puppa died, Joshi felt "sharp relief that I myself, at least, would never have to face the challenge of being a father". It is satisfying to read in the contributor's note that he now has two sons.

This is the first issue of Granta under its new editor, Alex Clark, and she is serious about discovering new talent. "At a time when the latitude granted to emerging voices to locate and connect with their readership seems increasingly under threat," she says in her introduction, "and when new writing must make itself, more than ever before, easier to define, to package and to market, we hope to say as simply as possible - here is the space." As the recession bites, risk-averse publishers could leave the field open for Granta to discover the literary talent of tomorrow. Who knows, it might just be able to seize the initiative.

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