It is perhaps an unfortunate fact that dysfunction often makes for a great reading experience. Other peoples’ pain, when portrayed in literature, creates tragedy and compelling drama. Few books I’ve read come close to the portrayal of familial dysfunction found within the pages of The Man Who Loved Children. Christina Stead, who was born in Australia, based The Man Who Loved Children on her childhood. Her father was David Stead, a renowned Australian naturalist. If Stead’s childhood was even remotely like the one portrayed in this remarkable book then I’m amazed that she survived. But survive she did, until the age of 81, after having lived most of her life away from Australia in Europe and the USA.
Jonathan Franzen wrote the introduction in the most recent edition of The Man Who Loved Children. He both champions the novel and also laments its relative obscurity, pointing out that it is much easier to read than the likes of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). The novel is certainly easier to deal with than the highly allusive Ulysses, however it does offer its own particular version of the ‘difficult novel’ and challenges the readers’ endurance and patience.
The Man Who Loved Children centres on the Pollit family, husband and wife – Sam and Henrietta (Henny) and their six children, including the fourteen year old Louisa. Sam is a total egotist and thoroughly narcissistic and the family serves as a means to confirm his existence as what he refers to as the great I-am. Sam insinuates himself into every aspect of his children’s lives, giving them no sense of freedom or individuality. Louisa, being the eldest, is the most rebellious amongst the children. She often tries to put Sam in his place intellectually but Sam is such a narcissist that no other views can gain traction.
Whilst Sam is an egoistical force of nature Henny is a damaged figure, worn down by successive pregnancies and Sam’s dysfunctions, in particular his ceaseless opinionated chatter. They are so estranged that at the beginning of the novel they have barely spoken to each other directly for two years. The children are given the task of messengers between the two warring adults. Henny is frustrated and angry, which often culminates in bouts of vitriolic rage against Sam and the children, particularly the fat and clumsy Louisa. Henny at first elicits sympathy from the reader, but as the novel progresses her character becomes a grotesque and unlikable figure.
The Man Who Loved Children is not particularly plot driven; instead there is a slow inexorable journey to a terrible climax. During most of its 514 pages the novel focuses on the mad world of the Pollit family, with occasional diversions like when Sam travels to Asia for work purposes. There is very little interior monologue as most of the time the characters display their thoughts and feelings by what they say and do. The main character that Stead allows some interior life is Louisa, who increasingly tries to escape the influence of her crazy family. The other children remain peripheral figures, mainly defined by their relationship with their parents.
The prose is heavy with dialogue, perhaps too much so, although this allows the manic and desperate energy of the Pollit family to be fully conveyed. Sam overflows with words, producing dubious tales based on his own peculiar world-view. He has many pet names for his children, such as Womey, Megalops and Bluebeak (a name for Louisa at one stage, although he normally calls her Looloo). Sam is both cruel and manipulative toward his children but is at other times supportive and proud, creating moral ambiguity. It is Henny that sarcastically refers to him as the man who loves children, viewing it as a source of pain rather than something to celebrate.
Stead’s style is unique, at least in comparison to other literature I’ve read. To read it means that you are drawn so thoroughly into the Pollit’s world that at the end you wonder just where you have been. Somewhere particularly disturbing is perhaps the natural conclusion, although this is not necessarily a bad thing. The dysfunctions and ructions that seethe throughout the book make for an outrageous kind of voyeurism. Both Sam and Henny compete for the reader’s attention as the most compelling adult character. A Feminist perspective may call for the demonisation of Sam, however Henny’s character outdoes Sam in terms of sheer unhinged behavior and in some ways she seems to relish the role of victim hood. Franzen comments in his forward that he is amazed that The Man Who Loved Children is not included as a part of every women’s-studies curriculum in universities. Perhaps it is because the novel is more about human monstrousness rather than the flaws displayed by either sex.
Although set in 1930’s Washington in America, Stead’s tale of a dysfunctional family is a universal one. The pathos of Henny’s inescapable trap and the bittersweet triumph of Louisa’s escape connect with the reader in compelling ways. The final 100 pages or so are brilliantly written, involving Sam’s mad scheme to extract oil from a marlin by boiling it for hours overnight in the laundry tub. Sam expects that the oil will be a panacea for the family’s physical ills and as a means to fuel various machines around the poverty stricken house. Meanwhile a storm brews both literally and metaphorically as the narrative leads to climatic scenes that are both inevitable and shocking.
Considering that The Man Who Loved Children provides such an intense and challenging reading experience I pondered over the question of whether such a novel can be enjoyable or worthwhile. Does great literature need to be enjoyable? One would expect the answer to be yes, however I’m not so sure about that. An enjoyable reading experience is not a guarantee of a unique or worthwhile experience. As in everyday life it’s often the difficult experiences that reward us the most. The Man Who Loved Children is the literary equivalent of having a difficult year and coming out the other end with the benefit of experience and insight, but at the same time hoping that you will never have that experience again.