Michael Cunningham, testament to a monster

March 26, 1995|By Michael Boylan | Michael Boylan,Special to The Sun

"Flesh and Blood," by Michael Cunningham. 455 pages. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $22

In Michael Cunningham's second novel, "Flesh and Blood," the author takes on a difficult artistic genre: the family saga. What makes the genre difficult is the fact that it uses one family's story to be emblematic of an entire period of history. Consider for a moment some of the more successful family sagas: Thomas Mann's, "Buddenbrooks" and William Faulkner's Snopes trilogy. In these works we have: 1. at least three generations depicted (hence qualifying as a family saga); 2. a good imitation of the time period; and 3. a casual account of how and why historical events happened as they did both from the point of view of the characters in the story, as well as from the perspective of the entire historical epoch. This last category is what marks out the superb family sagas.

In "Flesh and Blood" we have three generations and an accurate depiction of the weltanschauung that characterized the late 1960s and early 1970s. The story revolves around Constantine, Mary and the family they build together. Its a typical rags to riches account in which good luck and hard work compensate for inadequate education and a lack of social skills.

Behind the apparent financial success of Constantine's Long Island construction company is a pathological psyche that often displays an uncontrollable, trigger-temper. This personality seriously affects the sanity of the family. From the boy, Will (who vows to kill his father) to Susan (who is sexually abused by her father), to Zoe (who lives a self-destructive life- style that results in her contracting AIDS) to first wife, Mary (who becomes a kleptomaniac), the entire family bears the effects of Constantine's boorish, stubborn perversity.

The resultant story is a testament to a monster. Constantine is not a sympathetic character in any fashion. Such a cardboard villain makes it hard to maintain the empathy that the author intends. None of the characters has enough development to justify an emotional attachment. The closest Mr. Cunningham comes to this is when he depicts Zoe in her ruminations about AIDS and the child she will not live to see into adulthood. However, even here, the feeling is generic. It is a treatment we have seen over and over again. Therefore, the book fails in its task of creating full-bodied, believable characters we can care about.

This might not be fatal to the book if the types presented as characters were used in allegorical fashion in order to present an intellectual account of the historical why (mentioned above). Many good books have succeeded in just this way (e.g., John Dos Passos "USA"). But Mr. Cunningham fails here, too. Because the author chooses a narrative technique that displays actions without comment, there is no vehicle to reflect on the reasons why the characters do what they do or why the historical age, in general, is the way it is. Even an insightful character could fulfill this role. But there is none. This is a serious flaw. And though the book meets the formal requirements of its genre, "Flesh and Blood" never rises beyond the ordinary.

Michael Boylan has published eight books, two of them novels, two collections of poetry, a children's book and the rest volumes of philosophy. He is a professor of philosophy at Marymount University, Arlington, Va. His latest book, "Ethical Issues in Business," was published in February by Harcourt Brace.

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