Unhappy in Its Own Way

On the flight back to Minneapolis I finally sprinted to the finish of the library copy of Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children that, over the course of several returns and renewals, I’d trudged through for much of 2014, trekking from fascination to frustration and back again. The novel’s as remarkable as its high profile devotees claim, its understanding of the private language that families speak keen. But though its virtuosity isn’t difficult in the high modernist sense, the ingenuity of its prose is can be cloying and exasperating as it is exhilarating, and that’s more than thematically appropriate.

Through the titular prudish civil-servant and baby-talkin’ child-lover (no, not in that way) Sam Pollit, Stead illustrates what a torment it must be to share a home (a life, a destiny) with one of those colorfully flawed minor characters that charm so immediately when tucked into the background of a Dickens novel. Sam’s verbal exuberance delights his many, many kids and tortures his wife, Henny, who recognizes it as a form of delusion, evasion, even oppression. At the novel’s core is a sharp distrust of the plasticity of language, though that skepticism doesn’t interfere with Stead’s determination to bask in the pleasures of wordplay – in fact, Stead includes its seductive harms among those pleasures.

Another way to think of it is that the novel respects the power of words to shape our experience of a material world that those same words are ultimately powerless to alter. Slowly Sam’s eldest daughter, Louie, emerges as both an artist and as Henny’s unlikely emancipator. But though she rebels by crafting a language apart from her father, her poetic sensibility suggests an anxious influence, as though she’s of his party without knowing it.

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