'Family' seeks the meaning of lives

November 28, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Staff Writer

In this intriguing book, Ian Frazier considers the history of his own family, but it's really a meditation on families and their place in our lives. It's at once an intensely personal work, as Mr. Frazier tells us about 200 years of family history, yet it also shows how people come to be who they are.

Like it or not, we are shaped by our families. They provide the collective memory and shared experiences that give us a frame of reference in a chaotic world. The notion of "family values" notwithstanding, this isn't always a good thing, as Philip Larkin observed in his famous and quite vulgar line about the potential for parents to ruin their children's lives.

Mr. Frazier, a staff writer for the New Yorker, obviously sees his family as a strong, stabilizing force. On the surface, it's nothing extraordinary: a collection of middle-class individuals who settled in Ohio and Indiana and did little except, in the company of many millions of others, helped build this nation.

A few of the men fought in wars; his great-great-grandfather fought with the 55th Ohio Volunteer Infantry and had a fearsome encounter with Stonewall Jackson's men in Virginia. But mostly the people on both sides of Mr. Frazier's family went about tending to the day-to-day details that consume us all.

Yet, as Mr. Frazier discovered a trunk of family papers and correspondence after his parents' death in the late 1980s, he sensed these scraps, these letters represented more -- or at least he wanted them to be so. He writes:

"I wanted my parents' lives to have meant something. I hunted all over for meanings of any kind -- not, I think, simply out of grief or anger at their deaths, but also because the stuff they saved implied that there must have been a reason for saving it. . . . I believed bigger means hid behind little ones, that maybe I could follow them to a source back tens or hundreds of years ago."

As a man in his late 30s, terribly conscious of middle age and all it implies, Mr. Frazier saw something else: "I hoped maybe I could find a meaning that would defeat death."

It's an understandable goal for someone facing mortality head-on, but in "Family," Mr. Frazier doesn't achieve it. I never got the sense that he got a greater understanding of life. He notes:

"And I would overpay for a co-op apartment and carry a mortgage and fret about money just like my dad, he and my mother would accompany me through a life that would be much like theirs, and at every step I would compare myself especially to him, would judge if I was doing better or worse than he had done at being middle-class and putting kids through school and not terrorizing my family and staying between the lines while trying not to forget what it is I actually want to do."

But if Mr. Frazier didn't attain great cosmic consciousness, he appears to have come away with a profound understanding of the dynamics of families -- the grand hopes and dreams, the disappointments, the tragedies and misfortunes that have occurred for thousands of years.

That's especially noteworthy considering this is a curiously constructed book. The author --es from one tone to another -- deeply personal to dispassionate to wry to ironic, all within a chapter. He'll jump from an evocation of an 18th-century ancestor to a recollection of something that happened to him a few weeks ago.

And since the cast of characters reaches several dozen, it's hard to connect with the people he writes about. One of the great strengths of such memoirs as Russell Baker's "Growing Up" is that they can develop fully a few characters. Mr. Frazier's parents come closest to getting this kind of treatment, but ancestors from a hundred years before them keep elbowing their way in for attention.

Still, you want to read on -- to see how this branch of the family came over from Germany and settled into Ohio, how this generation fought in the Civil War or became good middle-class burghers. Out of the widely disparate elements that Mr. Frazier deals with -- letters, diaries, personal recollections -- he somehow manages a narrative that, though unorthodox, is compelling.

One feels, finally, just how strong and how fragile families can be -- and often they can be both at the same time. If at times "Family" seems chaotic and raw, confusing and unfinished, then perhaps that's because families are that way.

Mr. Warren's reviews appear Mondays in The Sun.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Family"

Author: Ian Frazier

Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Length, price: 386 pages, $23

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