'Schroder' by Amity Gaige was quite a hard read for me; stories that mention custody fights and family courts still have the effect of giving me a sick feeling of anxiety even though the memory is nearly ten years old. In this story a father recounts the disintegration of his marriage and a last ditch attempt to reinforce his relationship with his daughter. Having been on the receiving end of a hatchet job I could not help but find myself sympathising with Schroder but you also got a strong sense of his unreliability since his whole existence was based on a false identity. In the end, whatever the rights and wrongs of what he does, in truth his daughter becomes a pawn in the power struggle between her parents, a situation in which he is as culpable as the mother.
Having escaped East Germany as a child with his father, leaving behind his mother, Schroder then forges a new, more american, 'persona' for himself in the form of 'Eric Kennedy', under which identity he gets first a scholarship to a summer camp and then a place at college where he meets his future wife. He seems to have lived his whole life trying very hard to be what other people expect, and his marriage follows the same route. In fact part of why I did sympathise with him was because the bond he forms with his young daughter seems to be the only authentic one in his life. Following an economic crisis his wife becomes the breadwinner and Schroder takes on the role of caring for his child, and from being relatively indifferent to her he abruptly finds himself entranced by being with her and watching and nurturing her growth. His recounting of the times they spent and what they did entranced me, and I really felt he shared her child's curiosity about the world (particularly excellent was his description of them observing the decay of a dead fox).
The book takes the form of a long statement of explanation to his ex-wife for his escape with Meadow. To a certain extent it is one long blustering excuse for some very selfish and irrational behaviour, mixed in with the truth about his background and a slightly peculiar life philosophy.
Interesting quote time.
"In North Albany in February, the flora and fauna are dead, the traffic turns the snow to the colour of tobacco juice, the children are shuttered away in their schools, and the long days are silent. The cats grow wet and skinny, and the rain grows hard and bitter, as if it is not rain but the liquid redistribution of collective conflict; it's a frigid rain, a rain that pricks the skin of any upturned face, a damning rain that makes men eke corks from bottles. O February, you turn our hearts to stone." (p.30-1)
Schroder is "writing a book" about Silence, something he brings up from time to time in footnotes and elsewhere, which I found quite interesting; this quote is quite long but it is peculiarly observant about relationships:
"For all his brilliant writing, playwright and unofficial pausologist Harold Pinter loved moments in which the characters did not speak, leaving us now with plays chock-full of excruciating or 'pregnant' pauses. Although Pinter later came to repudiate his famous pauses, he happily wrote 140 of them into Betrayal and 224 into The Homecoming, which, if faithfully acted, led to some satirically long theatre-clearing performances that will fuel bad undergraduate repertoires for generations to come. I'd like to draw a connection here between dramatic and marital pauses. Both dramatic and marital pauses vary in duration; the shortest, or most minor, and easily ignorable ('...') but do signal some form of inner struggle; other beats are longer and more loaded with effortful suppression of confusion (pause), but the longest pauses (silence) are the ones no one should have to bear, and speaking personally I would have rather been flayed alive than to stand there with my wife having nothing to say, as in nothing left to say." (p.151-2)
A few pages later he is equally observant about his daughter:
"The only place in which I knew we were invisible was right where we were, but we couldn't stay here. I could see that Meadow had lost the fragile enthusiasm she's first had for our trip. Hell, she'd been doing me a favour the whole time. I could see that.
But what did I want? Just a little more time. But what for? What spectacular thing was I going to do with it? I didn't want to be exposed - how much I was about to lose - but I knew I was going to lose it, now or later. I grabbed a nearby chair back, squeezing until it hurt. There was something more to do. I wasn't done." (p.158)
I kind of hoped that he would come to his senses, but it seems the course, once set upon, had to be followed to its bitter end.
Just like 'Dirty Work' the other week there is only one person in this book; Meadow doesn't get much of a look in, she gets to eat junk food and skip school but really he's not that interested in what she wants by this stage. It is only Schroder's thoughts, feelings and reactions we know about, only his view of the world and their very specific situation. I was so caught up with him however that I did not find myself giving much thought to the woman back home, terrified that he would do something desperate. So, not quite the touching portrait of a father/daughter relationship that was expected, or even really about parental love, it was much more about how fragile our sense of identity is, how easily breached and how hard people will fight to save it.